It's not often that the biggest bike race in the country traces a portion of one's commute to work. Consequently, it's not often that one can watch the best professionals in the world make the hardest part of your daily ride look like, well...an easy neutral zone warm-up. Thousands of Bay Area cyclists are probably thinking similar thoughts of inferiority as I write this.
While it's been a number of years since I last spun down Bridgeway in Sausalito and made the jump up to and across the Golden Gate Bridge on a cold and drizzly Monday morning, it all seemed pretty familiar as the peloton took the scenic route into San Francisco to begin Stage 2. At $6 toll fee per rider and car (uhh, probably not) it must have been a pretty hefty tab so I hope the pictures were worth it. Although come to think of it, I would easily pay $6 in order to not have to yell at all the tourists standing in the middle of the bike paths on the bridge. It's usually so loud and windy that they can't hear you and you narrowly avoid drilling them anyway so I hope the NorCal guys in the group tried to express how much of a priviledge it was to take the road. Good job Caltrans.
After a nice little scamper through Sea Cliff (one of the nicest neighborhoods ever) and up past the 17th hole of Lincoln Park (one of the most scenic par 3's ever) to the Legion of Honor (one of the coolest art museums ever), the group dropped down into the Ocean Beach area of The City. The course then passed the Zoo and Olympic Club (one of the best golf clubs ever), up through the outskirts of Daly City and down into Pacifica where the field then traveled by the BEST TACO BELL IN THE WORLD. No parentheses needed for that one.
I can't tell you what the food tastes like but for those who are not familiar with this place, it sits right on Pacifica State Beach and has this great view of the shoreline, surf and surrounding cliffs. I've passed this Taco Bell a thousand times and have only stopped on a few occasions but take my word for it...if you're ever in the mood for a Chalupa and want a nice view...this is your place. We always joked that the drive-thru was regular price but it was probably like $30 per entree in the Taco Bell dining room because of the view.
Anyway, a good sized break containing local-boy-done-good Ben Jacques-Mayniac got a few minutes up the road and took the lead all the way to the final climb of Bonny Doon. It was at this point that Levi Leipheimer began levitating up the climb and turned a 3 minute lead into a cruel joke. Carlos Barredo thought he was good for a minute or two but was then caught by Tom Peterson and Jason McCartney near the top of the climb.
The two Americans began pulling away from the Spaniard when a 5'7" yellow and teal clad motorcycle came charging up from behind at what seemed to be about 20mph. Peterson managed to hang on to the Levi Express into Santa Cruz and easily came around for a good, albeit somewhat "conditional" win. The young Garmin rider is certainly worthy of the publicity though, as he is among the best of the upcoming American stage racers and clearly a name to watch in the future.
Another small-ish group came in a bit later, carrying most of the contenders except an obviously tired Francisco Mancebo, who relinquished the leader's jersey to the hyper-motivated Leipheimer. All politics and yada, yada aside, I feel a bit bad for the Rock guys who busted themselves all day long in the rain and wind, only to have Paco get dumped immediately on the last climb of the day. I saw Baldwin on the front for what seemed like hours on end as the field slogged down Highway 1. The team did everything they needed to do but it was a lot to ask for Mancebo to come back with a good day after his effort on Stage 1.
So now Levi Leipheimer and Astana have the lead and about half of the Top 10 in the general classification. It's going to be uber-hard for anyone to beat LL and his posse but there is a long way to go before we get to Escondido. Hopefully the sunshine at the finish in Santa Cruz is an indication that things will be clearing up. If not, it will be a rough wake-up call as the field hits Sierra Road almost immediately after the start of Stage 3 in San Jose on Tuesday.
Look for the first field sprint finish in Modesto (still the worst host city ever) with Cavendish getting the better of Boonen and perhaps Haedo or Hushovd. It would be great to see an American sprinter get in the mix so hopefully Huff, Farrar, O'Bee or even good old local boy Fast Freddie Rodriguez rubs some elbows and represents on home turf. But if Caviar-dish is within sniffing distance of the front, chances are he will get the redemption from the relegation in 2008 and coast to a 3 bike-length victory. I just hope it's dry and everyone stays upright. Send good thoughts to AJM.