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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  4/1/2006

A Day at the Races

"Where are they now?"

On Tuesday February 21 I was hanging around Connie and Eric Jorgensen's front lawn, about half a mile up Sierra Road in east San Jose. "They" were the racers who'd started that morning in Martinez on Stage 2 of the Amgen Tour of California.

According to the race organizers, the riders would probably turn left from Piedmont Road onto Sierra between 1:00 and 1:30 pm. So Connie and Eric had put out the Togo's sandwiches, chips and dip and chocolate chip cookies about noon, just as their guests from Almaden Cycle Touring Club began arriving for the roadside party.

We'd started on a club ride in south San Jose. Ride leader John Mazzella had planned to head over the east side of the Santa Clara Valley that day anyway, so why not ride to the race? We circled around to the east and south before heading north onto Piedmont. But before we could eat and stake out a good viewing spot, we had to tackle that first steep pitch on Sierra, a road I haven't climbed for at least 10 years. If memory serves, that pitch could easily be the steepest of the entire ascent. I made it to the Jorgensens' but I came close to pitching over in my 28/32 granny gear.

This was the very same wall the racers would soon be tackling, most of them without any prior knowledge of the infamous grade. South Bay racers and recreational riders are all too familiar with Sierra's rigors. ACTC rates it a "5" (out of 6) in its Billy Goat list. (If Sierra is an International Cycling Union Category 1 climb, then an ACTC "6" must be hors categorie!)

The first person I saw at the Jorgensens' was Steve Sloan, ACTC's newsletter "publisher" who'd rather publish blogs and podcasts than cold, hard print. He proceeded to interview me for one of his new ACTC podcasts.

About 12:45 Bill Reisinger received a cell phone call from a friend volunteering at the feed zone on Calaveras Road. "The racers are about 20 miles from here," Bill told us. If that was true, I figured, they'd be on Sierra right on time, about 1:45. Well, 1:30 came and went. Two o'clock came and went. The rumors began to fly: They're still on Calaveras. Nah, they haven't reached Calaveras yet; they just did Palomares and are starting up Niles Canyon.

Meanwhile, spectators and riders were still making their way up the hill seeking good viewing spots. Plenty of local racing club and team jerseys streamed past -- Webcor, San Jose Cycling Club, Alto Velo, Garden City. I called out to a bunch of my Western Wheelers buddies on their way to the top: Jerry Woods and Janet Pierce, Pete Letchworth, Ricki McGlashan, Michael Khaw, Adrienne Harber, and more. Some folks were pushing mountain bikes or baby joggers. Finally the one-car pre-race caravan rolled by tossing out mini Clif bars. Wow! Am I in France? No, there were still a few things missing. Like the copious amounts of wine and beer and the resulting mooning and in-your-face hassling of the racers. And no Monsieur le Diable chasing everyone up the hill.

At last, about 2:20, here came the breakaway group containing Ben Jacques-Maynes of the Kodakgallery.com/Sierra Nevada team. Not only is Ben a home-town San Jose boy, he actually lives on Sierra Road! That lead dissolved mere yards beyond our viewing spot as the chase group containing Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie, Floyd Landis, et al. swallowed Ben and his two compadres. But it was Ben who knew just what Sierra Road was going to do to all of them. Later stage winner Hincapie told the San Jose Mercury News that not being familiar with the hill was a disadvantage.

". . .that climb was really hard," he said. "Floyd and Levi are obviously very strong right now and I think they've done a lot of recon on the courses, they live here, so they probably knew what to expect. I think they're climbing a lot better than I was today."

Later than same day. . .

Hincapie's stage win in downtown San Jose surprised me. He was buried in the pack at the bottom of Sierra, so I didn't even see him. It had to be Team Discovery business as usual, sticking with George and protecting him until his race-winning breakaway to the finish. "I knew that once we got together it would be tough for anybody to beat me" he told the local press. "It can [go] down to a sprint and I was pretty confident that I could win it."

That evening I watched ESPN2's TV coverage. That's when I realized they only had one or two camera-mounted motos following the action. Still, the shots of Calaveras Road passing the reservoir were great. And wasn't it terrific that everything was so green?

Meanwhile fellow club members Patrice Carney and Joe Farinha were at a party for the teams and volunteers. Patrice got her picture took with the stars. The "I-don't-believe-this" look on her face in this shot with Floyd Landis says it all.

Photo by Franz Kelsch

I watched Stage 3 on the tube the next evening as well, looking for familiar territory along the time trial course. The route started at IBM's Santa Teresa labs on Bailey Road, went out lower Almaden Valley past Calero and Chesbro reservoirs toward Morgan Hill, then turned over Willow Springs Road and back to a middle school just off Santa Teresa Blvd. All familiar territory to nearly every South Bay cyclist.

Only one camera managed to record Discovery rider Tom Danielson's climb over Willow Springs and subsequent squirrelly descent. The video showed well how tough it is to descend those corkscrew-type switchbacks on a tricked-out time trial bike! But the rest of the televised stage was a lot less exciting as it tracked the remaining racers along flat, boring, windswept Santa Teresa Blvd.

Wow! They pulled it off!

I have to admit that I was originally skeptical about the timing of this race. It was so early in season, and we all know how fickle February weather in California can be. They were just asking for problems, I thought. Well, they lucked out. The TV coverage showed off the beauty of California's winter green. According to commentators Paul Sherwen and Bob Roll, the temperature on the afternoon of the 21st rose to 62 degrees.

"The crowds were amazing," Hincapie told the guys at RoadBikeRider.com. "At the finish [in San Jose] with so many (people) it just says so much for cycling here in the U.S. Everybody is asking what's going to happen to cycling now that Lance has stopped. . . there's still so much more that we can do and we have so many talented American cyclists. Just look at the GC here at this race. It's all Americans."

If you want to see some terrific photos of all seven stages (eight counting the San Francisco prologue), check out The Grassy Knoll Project. And look for the Amgen Tour of California to return next year. "There's a lot of beautiful places, a lot of challenging places we didn't make it to this year, but we will,'' said Shawn Hunter, president of race organizer AEG Sports.

And I'll be out there at the best South Bay viewing spot I can find. Especially if there's a ride to whatever party's goin' on.

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net

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