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Bill Oetinger  On the Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  3/1/2009

Spot That Pro!

We did Cavedale Road on a club ride on January 31. If you know your North Bay roads, you know Cavedale. It's a big climb out of the Valley of the Moon, gaining around 2000' over five miles to a summit at an elevation of around 2100'. Typical for Sonoma County climbs, the grade is not at all constant. It stairsteps from one pitch to another, from easy grades to hard ones, from level and even occasionally slightly downhill to three or four short pitches that are on the high side of 15%. Most of the time, it's between 4% and 8%, with the average around 8%. Any way you crunch the numbers, it's a challenging climb and, as such, it's popular with cyclists from all over. It's also quite scenic. Sometimes the little road is buried in shrubbery that almost resembles chaparral, with no wider vistas, but often the views open up to dramatic, distant panoramas down the valley, including at least one section where you can see far to the south, all the way to San Francisco Bay and the big city glittering on the far, foggy shore.

One other thing about the road that's typical of the county: funky pavement. It's even below the average for our below-average standards. Not only is the pavement bad, but the road is narrow and twisting in ways that set up many blind corners. All that adds up to a terrible, bone-jarring, perilous descent. It's the only significant road in the county that I've never descended, and I have no interest in ever doing so.

Scenic or not, good paving or bad, it's a hard climb. And for me, not being the greatest climber in the world, it's usually a slog. I do my best, but my best isn't all that frisky. On this day, I am hacking away at it, clomping on the pedals, getting the job done in a workmanlike way. I'm by myself midway up the hill, and having no one to chat with, I'm thinking about the road as I plod along. I'm weaving around, trying to find the easiest gradient by dinking back and forth from the left to the right, and I'm thinking: "it's okay for me to be taking my half out of the middle here. There is almost no traffic, and I'd hear a car if one were coming down the hill, and cyclists never, ever descend it..." But then a little guardian angel on my shoulder reminds me that once, years ago, I did see one cyclist descending here: it was a pro doing intervals on the steepest pitches. Up and down, up and down...

With that cautionary little advisory from my angel, I dink it back over to my side of the road, out of any potential harm's way. And not five seconds later, here comes Levi Leipheimer, whizzing down the hill in all his aqua, white, and yellow Astana glory, tucked up in a little round ball of tightly packed energy...looking like a very fast, pastel-colored easter egg on two wheels. Close on his heels come two more racer boys in team kit...zip, whoosh, whiz! Wow!

I take a deep breath and offer a profound thank you to the guardian angel who had reminded me to move over. I mean, what an awful gaffe it would be to have a head-on collision with Levi that injures him as he's ramping up for a big race and for his whole season, especially when it would have been my fault because I was swanning about on the wrong side of the road in a blind corner. Oh lord, how could any rider bear the guilt and humiliation? You'd never be able to hold your head up in any cycling crowd again. You certainly wouldn't be allowed to write a biking column! Your name would become an infamous footnote in the annals of modern culture, like Donald Turnipseed (the other guy in the crash that killed James Dean).

That near miss was just at the bottom of the really steep section, which tips up into the mid-teens. The hard part isn't too long, thank goodness, because it really is wicked steep. A few minutes later, I am in the midst of the steepest pitch. I'm out of the saddle, rocking the bike, pedaling the most pathetic sorts of squares...whatever it takes to get the job done, never mind the style points...and here comes Levi again, this time whizzing UP the hill. Sitting down, looking poised and relaxed and seemingly unruffled, as he does his repeats on this steep wall. Close behind are the two boys in his posse, one of whom I now recognize as Scott Nydam of BMC, who lives in my town of Sebastopol.

They go by me so fast--the old line about "chained to a stump" comes to mind--and moreover making it look so easy. I'm thinking, well that just bites! The contrast between my clunky progress and their effortless levitation is just so glaring...so galling. However, I am happy to report that about 50 feet past me, as the steep pitch continued, all three of them rose up out of their saddles together to finish off the pitch. They did at least have to make that little bit of extra effort.

Our club gang regrouped at the summit, and after his last interval, Levi stopped for a second to say hi before haring off to his next big hill. I might say it was like the king acknowledging the homage of his subjects, except I am almost certain Levi would not think of it in these terms. We might, but he wouldn't. He is so very much the modest, humble boy next door...the all-around nice guy (except when he's got the bit in his teeth on a big climb or a hairball descent). I believe he's actually kind of bashful about meeting "his public."

This whole long anecdote is just the lead-in to my topic for this month. Much has been made of the fact that Sonoma County is a great place to ride, and in this context, is a place where pro teams come to train in the pre-season, and further, where some pros live year-round, for instance Levi and Scott. Spotting pros out on our rides around the county is such a commonplace experience we sometimes almost shrug it off. It's cool, for sure, but we've cultivated a bit of a blasé attitude about it.

It's not a new experience either. The teams have been coming here for a long time. We used to see Motorola and 7-Eleven and Coors Lite out on the back roads. I can recall being introduced to Greg Lemond and teammae Johan Lammerts in one bike shop (in 1989) and to Davis Phinney in another.

This past February though, things got really crazy. Levi brought the entire Astana team to town for a ten-day camp ahead of the Tour of California. I mean the whole team: even Alberto Contador, who wasn't slated to be doing ToC, was here. And of course Lance was here, with all of the media hoopla that follows him around these days. BMC is based in Santa Rosa, so of course they were here in force. Bissell was here, and other teams too. you pretty much couldn't stick your arm out to signal a left turn without clocking some skinny racer dude in the nose. They were as thick as fleas on an old dog. For a fan of bike racing, it was hog heaven.

Now, being a fan of bike racing can take different forms, and not all are equally worthy or appropriate, in my humble opinion. Personally, I don't hold with the full-on groupie approach: hanging out around the team's hotel and waiting to see the boys emerge; getting in their faces and asking for autographs. To me, that's not cool. It's intrusive and bothersome for the riders, and it implies a neediness on the part of the fans that is a bit unseemly and demeaning. So no, don't go there. For me, the best encounters with pros are the ones that are fortuitous and happenstance, like my meetings with Levi on Cavedale. If the chance encounters happen to include a few words exchanged, a cheery salutation perhaps, then so much the better. But no obsequious groveling or hero worship. Too embarrassing!

SusanDuring this most recent pre-season flurry of training camps, the fortuitous, happenstance pro sightings were frequent around here. Our club's chat list had daily postings from one member or another, recounting some neat meeting with the top brass. They weren't all just random sightings on the road either. Take the case of our riding pal Susan. She's some sort of medical tech at a local hospital, and she got the assignment of coordinating a blood draw for Team Astana at their hotel. This is a regular and probably tiresome chore for the pros, but they were pleased and interested to find that the tech in charge was a die-hard rider and fan. All of them were gracious and generous with their time when visiting with her. Of course, she pretty much had them captive there during the mass blood-letting, but they didn't have to be as nice as they were. Susan is also a cancer survivor, and so she got some special time with Lance, bonding around that shared experience. To say she came away from it all a bit starry-eyed would be a serious understatement.

Or then there were a couple of guys I know who, in addition to being cyclists, are also expert motorcyclists, and they pulled duty riding support for the teams on their training rides. One described zipping around the kinky corners on a King Ridge descent, trying to stay ahead of Levi and Lance and Alberto, with a photographer sitting backward on the saddle behind him. (And with a dozen follow cars full of reporters and other media types behind the team.) Another told me about motorpacing Levi and Scott and friends south along Hwy 128 in Knights Valley; about how Scott kept calling to him: "Up!....Up!..." Meaning faster, faster. I asked, so how fast was fast? Maybe 30-mph? And he says, oh no, much faster! I double-checked the stretch of road he was talking about because I wanted to be completely clear on this. You have to understand that the piece of road in question is a false flat uphill of about 2%. I feel good when I can hold 15-mph along this stretch, and this is where they were urging the moto up to well over 30...

Or take my friend Doug McKenzie. Doug is a pretty good amateur racer in the younger masters ranks. He also took a flier at the California Triple Crown Stage Race last year and finished on the podium. So, by my standards, a strong rider. Here's a note he sent to the list...

"I cruise through Healdsburg and see most of the Astana team heading through. About two minutes later, two Bissell riders. I decide to do Pine Flat, but only to the guardrail."

(A note from me: Pine Flat is another of Sonoma County's great climbs and a personal favorite of Levi's. It's also a personal favorite of Doug's, who twice a year schedules time trials from the bottom to the top, 12 miles up. He does this hill a lot and has it wired. The guardrail he mentions is at a flat spot 3/4's of the way up the climb. It's a spot where cyclists often turn around because beyond that flat section it becomes brutally steep.)

"As I approach Pine Flat I see four riders, three in black and white (yes, BMC) and one Astana rider... guess who, yes Levi, with Scott Nydam, Jonathan Garcia, and one more whose name I didn't get. Levi recognizes me, says hi. So I say I'd like to hang on until... well, until I can't. We head up at a nice pace, 250 to 300 watts, sometimes hitting 350 or so. I'm comfortable with this pace. I could do the whole thing at that and not max out. So I ask what the plan is, going to the top? No, tapering, so repeats on the middle part. (Tapering? This is what I do when I'm doing serious, hard training!) We get about three miles in and Scott points out a rock to his teammate. I think, uh oh. Sure enough, no more 200 watts: 300 plus, heart rate way up. I try not to breath too hard, but then have to. 400+ watts...okay, I can't do this very long. Bye guys.

"So I got dropped by some pros on a tapering training ride. I'm okay with that. On the way up, the rest of the team was coming down, the ones I saw in Healdsburg. Then I saw the two Bissell guys coming up as I came down and passed three Colavita pros also. And on the way down 128 I saw a group of women, didn't get the team, blue and white; one looked like Brenda Lyons. She waved at me. I think it was her, but my eyesight isn't what it used to be."

Or Steve and his wife Jessie (both former amateur racers), out for a spin in Alexander Valley and coming upon a paceline of younger riders in full team kit matching Lance Armstrong's black and yellow Livestrong livery. It's Lance's Under-23 development team. (I didn't even know he was involved in such a program, but here they were.) Hooked on at the back of the line, Steve is chatting with the front-seat passenger in the team car behind the group, and after a little conversation, it hits him that he's talking to Davis Phinney. Davis' son Taylor, one of this country's most promising new talents, is on this team.

I could keep repeating these anecdotes almost endlessly. We were chatting about this at our February club meeting, and everyone took a turn telling their stories. Out of a room of 50 or so cyclists, only a small handful had to confess to no sightings at all, and they did so with a kind of sorrowful demeanor, as if they'd been slackin' on the job.

Over and under and around all our accidental sightings, there has been a constant buzz of media attention, as evidenced by the dozen cars crammed with reporters and photographers careening around the corners on King Ridge, trying to keep up with the Astanas. The Lance thing has changed everything. Our local paper had one or two reporters on the story every day for over a week, with sports page and front page copy like they were covering the Super Bowl. It was a Very Big Deal. One of our club members who lives over in Napa Valley sold his local paper on the idea of giving him a press credential to cover the team during their camp and along the route of Stage 1 of the ToC through Napa Valley. So there he was at the Astana press conferences, rubbing shoulders with reporters from the Washington Post and the London Times. He was there when Armstrong chewed out Paul Kimmage over his "cancer" comments, and he said it was as exciting as any sporting event he's ever attended. (If you haven't seen the Armstrong-Kimmage scrimmage, it's out there on YouTube and is worth a look. And for the record, I am 100% in Armstrong's camp on this one. I don't always agree with Armstrong, but this time I do. Kimmidge is a disgrace to his profession...the embodiment of what Lance once referred to as "vulture journalism.")

Most of our sightings of pros are devoid of all those extra trappings of media hype. Most of the time, we'll be riding along and some guy or group will go by and our pro-radar will start beeping. Usually it's the team kit that tips us off. But in the pre-season camps, this can be tricky. Teams pick up new sponsors and redesign their uniforms over the winter. Look at Columbia: solid blue last year and gold-&-white this year. So the revamped graphics may not register right way. Failing that telltale, the next clue is simply the way they look; their actual profiles: those trim, whippet physiques, with jerseys that fit so well, like a bespoke Saville Row suit. I'm saving up a topic about body types and jersey cuts for another column, so I won't belabor that point here. But suffice it to say that if I tried to wear a jersey that fit that snugly, I would look like one of the plumper varieties of sausage...not a pretty sight.

Often, the passing pros will be friendly. They're not haughty or aloof. Cat 3's may be snotty, but not real pros. They may be mean in a race or talk trash in the peloton, but they don't bring that to their training rides, at least not for the chance encounter with citizen cyclists. They're confident enough about their place in the cycling food chain to not have to dump any attitude on the average recreational plugger. They're well schooled in the fine art of buttering up sponsors and VIPs, so they know how to make nice. As long as you don't flip out and start acting like a gushing groupie, the pro will probably meet you halfway, with a cheerful greeting or a little banter.

We who ride in Sonoma County on a regular basis can tend to become rather insufferably smug about our good fortune. For all-around variety (in scenery and topography), for the dense network of bike-friendly back roads, and for a generally mild climate, you can't beat it. And if all that is not enough, as a bonus, for a month or so in the winter, when our cycling lives might otherwise be rather dull and dreary, we get to add the spicy sauce of seeing our quiet little roads thronged with the sleek, swift road warriors of the pro peloton...the stars of our firmament.

I suppose it must be like spring training in Fort Lauderdale or Tucson, except, unlike the Grapefruit League, we're not sitting in the stands watching the players on the field (and we're not paying exorbitant ticket prices to do so either). No, if our timing is good and we work it just right, we can end up out on the field with our own major leaguers, riding right alongside them and basking in a bit of the reflected glow of their exalted status. We can be right out there with them, at least until they kick it up on the high side of 400 watts.


Afterword: I'm writing this last paragraph about an hour after the conclusion of the Tour of California. Normally, I might devote my whole column to rehashing the big show, but this month, I will let it go with just a brief salute to Levi and Astana for a job well done and ditto to the race organizers. Now let's see if we can move the date for 2010 to that vacant Tour of Georgia slot in mid-Spring.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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