California hosted the Tour of California during the last week of February. And like a small town kid when the carny comes to town, I had to play hooky to go see the elephant. I caught up with the riders on Stage 3, a 95 mile ride from Stockton to San Jose. Fortunately for me, the toughest Category 1 climb of the tour was just a few miles away on Sierra Road in San Jose.
Using the live web coverage to estimate their arrival time, I left work and drove to the tour route. In spite of the crowds, it was easy to park right next to Piedmont Road, and to hike a half mile up Sierra Road to the first tough climb. I could tell I was at a good spot when I noticed a bunch of costumed characters waiting for the riders. And that’s not just the local bike teams. One guy in an afro wig, superhero suit and cape has shown up on the toughest climb of each stage.
We all waited impatiently for the tour to show up. People were speculating about who would be leading the pack. Local boy Levi Leipheimer was the favorite, but people were also routing for Jens Voight from CSC.
Finally, an army of tour cars and motorcycles announced the arrival of the cyclists. A small lead group made a determined bid to stay ahead of the peloton, but the main group, including race leader Leipheimer, was only a few seconds behind.
It really was amazing to see some of the world’s best cyclists up close like this. Where else could you stand a few feet away from elite athletes struggling through such a challenging event?
The tour is a strange mix of the sophisticated and the ordinary. There’s hundreds (thousands?) of people working for the tour, but most of the course is manned by volunteers. Millions of spectators came out to watch and cheer, but nobody charged admission. The team cars carry millions of dollars of high-tech bicycles and equipment, the squads are well funded, well drilled, and well equipped, but ultimately, the race comes down to a couple of men, on a fairly standard bikes, fighting the course, the weather, and each other.
I had time to walk back down the hill and catch the riders as they looped back along Piedmont Road. Eventually, the five strongest riders beat the peloton up the mountain and formed a break-away group: Levi Leipheimer, Jens Voight, Chris Horner, Robert Gesink and Paolo Bettini. Leipheimer, Voight and Horner fought their way to the finish line next to San Jose’s city hall.
A friend of mine waited for them at the finish and took some great photos. Voight won the stage, but Leipheimer retained the yellow jersey as race leader. After a brief awards ceremony, the riders posed for photos and interviews. Off the bike, they all seemed quiet, unassuming, and except for Big Jens, rather short.
But the riders weren’t the only stars. Floyd Landis was in downtown San Jose, smiling and signing autographs. He has been following the tour, and giving speeches in each of the stage towns. Apparently he needs to raise more money for his defence against charges of doping in the 2006 Tour de France. (It’s incredible that they still haven’t officially declared a winner of the 2006 Tour).
Whatever the outcome of that trial, I hope that professional cycling can clean up its act, and eliminate drug use among elite riders. The years of charges and controversy have almost ruined the sport, just as it is becoming popular in the U.S.