Monday, May 21, 2012

A one-week stage race is a bunch of work!

Start of Stage 4 in Sonora
If you have waited for another update after I abruptly finished my last post (because I simply had to get some sleep) and hadn't seen one so far, well, it's because I honestly could not find the time to write for an hour or so. Right now I am sitting in the Admirals Club in the LAX airport, and I have about two hours before my flight to Dallas.
Jens Voigt about to do the sign-in in Palmdale
Yesterday's eighth stage, which finished with six fast circuits in downtown LA, concluded this year's Amgen Tour of California, the premier stage race in North America. It was quite an experience for me, as it was the longest stage race I have ever been involved in and one that was as professional as it comes. The sheer logistics behind an event like this are simply mind-boggling. Take 16 teams, each with eight riders, plus all the team soigneurs, mechanics, and other staff, and you already have about 300 people running around. Add to that neutral support, the folks in charge of VIP services, catering, course and finish set-up and tear-down (every day!), the media guys, officials, doping control folks (yep, that's me), motorcycle drivers, medical personnel plus all those other untold positions, and you probably end up with 600 people who are traveling the entire time. In addition to that there are all those local volunteers (too many to count), the police contingent, and I don't know who else who are involved every day, but all on a changing basis. Man, to coordinate all of that is not an easy task. The race is run by Medalist Sports, and I have a new-found respect for this biggest name in race promotion in the USA. And then to think that the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia are a magnitude or two bigger! Wow!
GPS, orchards, and the Central Valley
Heading east across one of the bay bridges

Yoshua trees, not redwoods :)
For me, it was truly an amazing experience. Obviously, I had been to California before, but traveling the way we did, from the Wine Country all the way to LA, brought with it a much better understanding of the topography (and a few other aspects of this big state) than I had before. I drove about 1,000 miles in the process—that was part of the big time drain. For most stages we had to transfer either to the start or from the finish to a hotel, with distances that were sometimes Texas-sized. Generally, I tried to be at the start (which was not always possible because I had to be at the finish in time to set up the Doping Control Station and train the local doctor and volunteers before the racers arrived) to pick up the day's start lists and communiqué as well as exchange my race radio battery. I needed to know who might have dropped out, and I needed to have a lot of the same information that the commissaires had. In the car, I listened to the official radio channel, Radio Tour, which informs everyone in the race caravan on what is happening. Incidentally, I had very little contact with the officials as they would be done with their work when I started the testing, after the finish, and they always stayed in a different hotel than I did. Nevertheless, there was some contact with the PCP, Martijn Swinkles from Holland, as well as the occasional quick chat with our own Bonnie Walker from Austin, who is hoping to become an international commissaire before long.
The spoils of racing
The route for the tour was beautiful, with the only exception being the time trial in Bakersfield. I have to say, that ugly town (a mix between Clovis, NM, and Las Vegas, NV) was definitely the low point in otherwise spectacular scenery. The start of Stage 4 in Sonora, the finish of Stage 6 at Big Bear Lake, and of course the spectacular last five miles of the penultimate Stage 7 that climbed up all the way to Mt. Baldy will stay with me for a while. Unfortunately I didn't see any of the course between San Francisco and Santa Cruz (Stage 2), which led all along the Pacific coast. I saw the redwoods as well as the dry, rolling, yellow grass-covered hills of the East Bay area, the interminable orchards of the Central Valley, the Joshua trees from Palmdale until the climb up to Big Bear Lake, the LA metropolis and its smog—what a kaleidoscopic view of the state. The crowds were bigger than I had expected, but the race didn't faze all those homeless folks that I saw all week, with their shopping carts and meager possessions in plastic bags. The economic impact of such a race will surely not trickle down to all levels.
Fans photograph the riders' bikes in Sonora
At the start I had a chance to be up close to some of the biggest names in cycling. (Of course, I also did so when testing, but that information is verboten.) Tom Boonen (who had a stellar spring season by winning three spring classics), George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, and the affable Jens Voigt were all there. The two announcers (who had also worked Worlds in Louisville) did a fabulous job interviewing these racers during the mandatory sign-in before each stage, and the crowds loved it. For me the most memorable start was in Sonora, a quiet town in the hills east of the Central Valley that has a distinctly European flair and that made for the most scenic start that I witnessed.
Tom Boonen coming off the stage after sign-in
I didn't see much of the race on the road itself. For most of the finishes, however, I was there, right on the line (and I mean right on the finish line—my credentials got me anywhere I wanted to go) to see who the winner would be. It's pretty cool to see a world class sprinter like Peter Sagan take five sprint finishes at speeds topping 40 mph. On the Mt. Baldy stage I drove my car for the first part of the route in the caravan before turning off for the mountain top, and it was pretty cool to see riders who were struggling in the early stages of the climb hold on to a bottle that their team manager would hold out of the window in an effort to help them stay in contact with the tail end of the field. The crowds were amazing, and everybody was waiving and shouting. I really had a great time.

George Hincapie's left leg

Levi Leipheimer (l) and George Hincapie, all relaxed before a stage start

Yes, they really have a broom wagon

The caravan heads for Mt. Baldy
As you know, I had taken my bike along, and I did manage to squeeze in about 150 miles of riding in 10- to 30-mile segments, sometimes late in the afternoon, sometimes really early. I rode around Big Bear Lake, cursed the crappy roads in Bakersfield, and enjoyed the redwoods around Santa Cruz. I'm glad I went through the trouble of taking the Ritchey.

Boulder Bay at Big Bear Lake

Covered bridge close to Santa Cruz
I finished the Tour in a befitting way: After finishing my testing and paperwork yesterday afternoon I rode my bike from Culver City down to the ocean at Santa Monica and rode along the beach for a good 15 miles (for a total of about 30). Joggers, skaters, tons of tough-looking guys on fixed gear bikes (they call them fixies and try to look like old track racers, I think), and walkers were out, and I had to think: Wow, I'm truly a lucky dog to be able to do and see all of this!
Fixie rider in Santa Monica
And now I better close this chapter because my flight to Dallas is about to board. The next update will be from Europe, once again.


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