Fact: I lovelovelove cycling races. I think it’s because riding a bike is so easy, but the best riders in the world take it to a level so far beyond what seems human. Every July, Chuck and I spend our evenings watching the day’s coverage of the Tour de France – the crashes, sprints, and best of all, the mountain stages – the top riders accelerate on the way up the mountains, while the sprinters and “normal” riders just try to hold on and complete the stage within the time limit.
In 2008, I discovered the Amgen Tour of California, then in its third year. The final stage was in Pasadena, with five circuits around the Rose Bowl; we made our pilgrimage to Pasadena and stood in the rain for three hours waiting for the riders to reach the end of the stage. Five times, we saw the riders fly by, a blur at about 35 miles an hour. There was a small breakaway with a shrinking lead, so we saw one blur of five or ten riders followed by a blur of 80 riders, five times around, until finally George Hincapie (former domestique extraordinaire for Lance Armstrong and one of my absolute favorite riders) won the stage, making good on the promise of the breakaway.
It was a lot of fun going to the race last year, and we absolutely would have gone to Pasadena to watch the race again.
This year? They decided to bring the race to San Diego county for the first time. We learned that the final stage would be running from Rancho Bernardo to Escondido, about half an hour north and east of downtown. Nice.
And then we found out it would be a mountain stage. On the last day of the race, the riders would face the biggest challenge, climbing to 5123ft on Palomar Mountain, the highest peak ever in the four years of the Tour of California’s existence. A mountain stage, practically in my back yard? We had to go, no question about it.
Seriously? It doesn’t get much better than that.
So we went.
And the experience absolutely lived up to my dreams of Alpine Tour de France stages – early morning on the mountain, fans in crazy costumes, messages to the riders painted (well, chalked) on the road, the chance to be oh-so-close to the riders as they labor up the slopes.
I hope the Tour comes to Palomar Mountain again next year.
If they do, Chuck and I want to join the people biking up the mountain before the tour – how cool would that be?
Without further ado, our Amgen Tour of California King of the Mountain experience:
We were so excited to see the riders – we had been hearing that they were only “minutes away” for about 45 minutes by then, and we knew there was a breakaway out in front. The big surprise was seeing Levi Leipheimer in the front pack – he hadn’t been in the breakaway according to the (few) updates we had, so we thought he must have made a big move to catch up to the lead group and defend his lead in the overall standings.
Also – Andy Schleck was one of my favorite riders from last year’s Tour de France, and who would have guessed that we’d see the rider from Luxembourg competing in San Diego? And Jens Voight! This field was stacked!
As the second group of riders came by about a minute later, I was excited to recognize Lance Armstrong riding second in the group. That’s the great part of the mountain stage – the riders are going slow enough that you actually have a chance to recognize individual riders as they go by. We had moved to the other side of the road for a closer look, so we were probably about five feet away from Lance as he rode past.
Seeing Christian Vandevelde (5th place overall in last year’s Tour de France) riding up the mountain was another of the exciting moments – he’s one of the people we were able to recognize by sight as they flew by.
The other great thing about the mountain stages is that we get to see so many different groups of riders go by. Even with the mountain slowing the riders down, they go by pretty quickly! The next two pictures, of the last big group to pass us, were taken only 11 seconds apart:
On Monday night, we watched the stage on TV to find out how, exactly Levi caught up to the lead group and to watch the rest of the stage unfold. We also had an ulterior motive – to see if we made it onto TV! By the time the riders passed us, Versus was only showing the leaders riding up the mountain, so we only made it on once, but Chuck took freeze-frame pictures of the TV to remember the moment:
I hope we get to do it again next year!