Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Another AMGEN Tour of California, 2014 A.D.

The Ritchey posing at the entry of the AMGEN campus in Thousand Oaks
Isn't it ironic that a company that makes EPO would sponsor the US' most important bicycle stage race? See, Judy did receive EPO after her chemo treatments, to boost her red blood cells. And then there were (and are) those who misuse this drug that helps so many to gain an athletic advantage. Welcome to the 2014 edition of the AMGEN Tour of California.

The race start in downtown Sacramento
For the second time, after working the race in 2012, I was out in California for 10 days to be part of the official crew of the 2014 edition. This is not a post about what I did at the race in my official function but rather a short (or maybe longish—don't know yet) synopsis of my time on the West Coast.
Before the start of Stage 1: Brad Wiggins, left, former Tour de France Winner,
and former World Champion Mark Cavendish
Two other good-looking chaps: My friend Lee was here
with the women's team that he manages
The 2014 ATOC started in Sacramento, where I had spent time twice. I still look happily back on my relationship with Jenny, from Reno, and our Z-4 trip through this area on the way to the Vineman 70.3 and then back to Lake Tahoe. My, how time flies. This time around, Sacramento was my home base for three nights. I had to be here for the Team Managers' Meeting, and the first two stages took place in and around California's capital city. What a pretty setting that send-off in front of the capitol was!
Sacramento has some amazing architecture ...
... beaches ...
... and rail stuff (don't forget the American Rail Museum!)
When you read the industry publications you learn about the California bicycle market and how it is booming. Well, let me tell you something: I've been in a few places and seen a lot, but CA bike infrastructure and participation is not matched by anything I've seen anywhere else (OK, maybe Central Park in New York). Sacramento has an extensive bike trail system along the American and Sacramento rivers, all the way up to Folsom (where one of the stages finished). I rode all of those 40+ miles along the river, and of course, there are connectors, detours, etc. that add more miles to the system. Before the official start of the race on Sunday (or was it Saturday? Hell, I don't know—it is just one large mess of dates, days, nights, days, racers, and team doctors) I got a chance to take the Ritchey for some very nice rides in that area. I could not believe the hundreds of cyclists who are using the trail system along the rivers, plus the joggers, walkers, and occasional homeless folks. If you want to talk about quality of life, add a bike trail of this type and see whether you can't attract people. Lubbock, do you hear?
Wild turkeys just off the American River bike trail in Sacramento
Riding along the American River
For this assignment I had a sidekick, Hélène, from Montreal, Québec, whom I have known for a number of years. We shared the car, the hotels (but not the rooms), and lots of responsibilities. We bitched at each other exactly 0% of the time, had dinner together 90% of all evenings, shared 100% of our breakfasts, and sat in a car for more than 1,000 miles (or about 29 hours at an average speed of 38 mph), listening to my eclectic mix of iPod selections, all of which she loved. They may call Hélène the Bulldog (yes, that's really one of her nicknames), but she is as sweet as a puppy. Just don't piss her off.
Hélène and I share a well-deserved post-race bottle of Zin
This year's ATOC started in  Sacramento, had stage finishes in places such as Folsom, Mt. Diablo, and Santa Barbara (and several more, of course), and finally ended up just a few miles from AMGEN's headquarters in Thousand Oaks. This race is an extraordinary production, and it is eclipsed only by some of the granddaddies of stage races such as the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia, the Vuelta a Espana, and a handful of other classics such as the Tour de Suisse and maybe the Dauphiné. I didn't check the UCI's race categorizations, so long-time readers of Velo or Cycling News will know so much more...
The ascent to Mt. Diablo
Phil and Paul do the TV commentary, but Dave and Brad whip the crowd into a
frenzy in those few minutes before a stage finish
In its decade-or-so of existence, ATOC has developed into an event that is no longer a national event—no sirree Bob, this is now a bona fide international Battle of the Best. Look at the roster, and you'll see that the very best cyclists are atracted to this race.

And I was assigned to it.

What you need to keep in mind is that a bike race is simply that: It's just a bike race! But then, a Broadway production is nothing but that, and neither is the Superbowl. There's a lot of glitz on the front, and a lot less glitter on the backside of the production. The only difference may be that the backside of the curtain is accessible to almost everyone. What other entertainment venues do you know of where you have the fans come within literal inches of the performers? It's a wonderful sport, and I am thankful to be a (meaningful) part of it.
Yes, they paid me to drive along the Big Sur highway, ahead of the race caravan
Hélène decided that she will come back with her husband to vacation here
I won't bore you with a blow-by-blow account of what Hélène and I did all week long. I couldn't do so anyway, lest you and I and everybody else who had heard had to be killed, like in the movies. Just let me tell you, that we put in more hours than you would believe. One of the challenges of ATOC is that California is a huge state, and if you really want to make it a state-wide race, there will have to be transfers between stages. I drove about 1,075 miles, at an average speed of 37 miles, of almost 30 actual hours behind the wheel. Mind you, that's not the work we did. We had one day when we were for 17 hours on the clock (not that we have to punch it), and the day before it had been 16 hours. At the end of the race we both were worn out and ready to go home.
The elephant seals at Piedras Blancas beach, near Santa Barbara
I love the zoom on this little Olympus SH-50!
One of two adjacent beaches, with a total of 15,000 elephant seals

What are the rewards, you ask? Well, we get a whopping 105 euro a day, and our travel and accommodations are paid for. But if you do the math, that's way below minimum wage, so the questions is still on the table. Speaking for both  Hélène and myself, there is definitely the love for the sport and the desire to give back to it. For some of us there's the undeniable rush of rubbing shoulders with the world's best cyclists, the dudes you read about in Velo and the guys you see on TV. And then there's the travel.
The view from our hotel at Pismo Beach
California living, Pismo Beach

To drive down the Big Sur coastal highway between Monterey and Cambria and not have to spend one red cent of your own, now, that's what I call a beni. Or to be at the top of Mt. Diablo or in Santa Barbara and stand right there, yes, on the line, when the world's best climber or the best sprinter in the business comes by, and you have that unbelievable 360-degree view, well, I think I know some folks who'd sign up for free to do just that. And let's not forget those 105 euro a day....
Driving toward the stage finish at Mountain High ski resort

My old friends, the Joshua trees, whom I once mixed up with redwoods
As so often, I had taken the Ritchey along. It was our last trip with manual shifting. In the next few days, I'm going to convert my trusty steed to electronic Di2. Hell, it's just money. I would have liked to have ridden more than the measly 131 miles that I somehow squeezed in over the past 10 days, but that's all I got. You can't ride when the stage finishes at 4:15 p.m, your job is done at 5:55 p.m., and you still have a 90-minute transfer to the hotel. Or maybe you force yourself to ride 10 miles, during which you never get into the groove but you marvel at the McMansions and take in the beautiful smell of honeysuckle and you think, shit, I'm a lucky dude. 
Sunday afternoon molasses on the 101 coming from Ventura and trying to go to LA
And here the Ritchey balked: No way we were going to go down only to come back up!

California is an amazing state, and we got to see so much of it. There are so many beautiful areas, and one thinks, wow, if only I could live here. And then you check into real estate prices, and you look at the ever-present insane traffic, and the realization sets in that visiting is maybe not such a bad thing, after all. I hope that in future years I will again get the opportunity to come out here for this premier bike race on the Americas, because I had a ball. But I won't move there, I don't think.
He took the first and the last stage: Mark Cavendish is the sprinter to beat at the moment
And now I am back in Lubbock, where the temperature hit 98 degrees today, similar to what it was like during four or five stages out in California. I'm back in my $100,000 house which in California would go for a million. As long as I get gigs like this, I won't complain.

Nice to receive the upgraded seat a day ahead of boarding ...
 Signing off until the next trip,


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