Monday, May 30, 2011

Chasing Lance

The athletes, the competition, the journalists, the history, the mountains, the food. Martin Dugard captures more than the race in his book, Chasing Lance: The 2005 Tour de France and Lance Armstrong’s Ride of a Lifetime. He serves up a taste of the carnival atmosphere that surrounds the greatest cycling event in the world, as he follows each stage of Armstrong’s final grand win.

Dugard actually provides three stories in one. First, he introduces the reader to the sport of professional cycling—how it works and what to watch for. While an effective primer, the quick, straightforward information does not bore the serious fan. Next, the author shares the build-up of Armstrong’s victory and the chronicle of his career to that point. Now years later, it is a reminder of the athlete in his prime, prompting the question, could Armstrong have pulled off an eighth win if he had not retired (then come back, then retired again)? The book also gives a pre-Twitter insight into the smack talk and ego dramas among the players and the multiple stand-out achievements that year. It is not all about Lance.

Perhaps Dugard’s most unique offering is the story of his adventure chasing the Tour around France. He takes us along the precarious mountain roads to the odd little hotels to hear from the French waitress, the English photographer, and the many other characters along the three-week journey. It is the closest thing to being there, explaining why some of us take planes, trains, and automobiles just to see it in person.

Easy-going with a sense of humor and adventure, Chasing Lance is a great read for cycling fans as well as traveling enthusiasts. Dugard is a compelling writer of other books about heroes and adventurers, including Farther Than Any Man about Captain Cook, though his own journey with the 2005 Tour is a true highlight.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Contador's Giro Win

Today in Milan, Alberto Contador was crowned champion of the Giro d’Italia for the second time. He dominated the three-week race from Stage 8, leaving the other riders to fight for second place. Race commentators reported that Contador started celebrating his victory the previous evening, disinterested in pursuing a stage win in the individual time trial finale.

Sadly, many cycling fans are also disinterested. The mess of Contador’s failed doping test from last year’s Tour de France mars his every performance and the races he participates in. Each step of the process has appeared biased in Contador’s favor. The laundry list of special exceptions is so long and egregious, it is impossible to take any officials or testing seriously. It is also impossible to respect any results Contador produces in the meantime.

It is high time for all stakeholders in the world of cycling to commit to a fair, consistent, and transparent system. Until then, we cannot know who is cheating and who is racing right.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Journey to the Giro

I start up the mountain. Slow and steady. Step by step. I’m going as far as my feet will take me. I’m heading up the mountain, in the afternoon heat, with no regard for how I will get back down. This is what I came for—to see Lance Armstrong in a mountain-top finish at a Grand Tour. So I just keep walking up and up. It’s May 2009.

Back at my real estate office in LA, I joked that I would make it to that finish line if I had to walk all the way up Mt. Vesuvius. I have seen Lance in the Pyrenees, on the Champs Elysees, at book signings. I’ve seen sprint finishes and time trials, but never a mountain-top finish. This is my chance to see the master in his element, maybe for the last time. So I traveled from LA to Italy, Rome to Naples, Pompeii to Mt. Vesuvius. This is the day, and I am actually walking it.

This morning, I began at the ruins of Pompeii. Broken-down stone buildings hide little gems, like perfect tile mosaics and elaborately painted dining rooms. It’s not much to look at, but as you cross the stone streets, it is easy to relate to people who lived here so long ago. Like them, I am distracted by the lovely green and blue mountain in the distance. With only a few hours to get there, I gotta go.

An absence of taxis does not bother the other tourists, but I’m headed where buses are banned today. No service because of the bicycle race. After asking every local I can find, I jump into a van with some guy and cross my fingers that he is a gypsy cab driver. The guy thinks I’m nuts to travel so far to see a bike race. I’ll never get back to Naples on my own, he warns. He wishes me luck and drops me at the base of mountain. A little past the first traffic barricades, the race markers read 10K to the finish. I start walking.

The afternoon heat is beginning to build. Most Italians are having a siesta right now. I’m climbing this mountain in 95 degree heat. As the road winds back and forth, I enjoy the cool shade where I can find it. Vesuvius is lush and green here. Sometimes I am trekking through a cool forest of tall trees. Keep going, and the trees are replaced by short bushes with wildflowers and sweeping views of Naples below. 8K to the finish.

This is quite a work-out. The steep incline limits my pace, and I can’t imagine riding a bike for five hours before hitting this. My face reddens, and I feel the heat building in my core. Better slow down or I’ll pass out. I reapply sunscreen and watch the other fans walking with me. Mostly men: grandfathers with kids, guys with their girlfriends. Everyone looks Italian, except for a few hard-core fans. They stand out in their team kits and Texas caps, walking their bikes up the mountain. We’re all heading the same direction: up.

In a patch of forest about 7K to go, I follow the curving road to meet a huge banner of Lance’s face. “Hope rides again,” it reads, and I know I’ve found a friend. A middle-aged man in full Livestrong cycling gear gives me a big smile when I say hello. He is a cancer survivor of nine years, and with his wife, raised over $30,000 for Lance’s foundation. They followed Lance at the Tour de France for years as their annual vacation and were excited to mix it up in Italy this time. They have staked out a great viewing spot: in the shade, following a sharp turn, at a high incline that will slow the cyclists. They’re cheerful and enthusiastic, and I’m tempted to stay put. But I’m here for the finish, so I keep on walking.

I take a picture at the 5K banner, in case I can’t go much further. If I don’t get crushed by the heat, I’m expecting intimidating crowds. I wish I could have joined them, camping out and drinking for days in anticipation of today’s exciting finish. But on my own today, I’m wary of the drunks and limiting my water intake to minimize pit-stops behind the bushes. Expecting to see a crush of fans after every turn, I’m surprised by the empty viewing spots and subdued spectators.

It’s got to be 110 degrees by now. My face is red as a beet, my Livestrong t-shirt is soaked with sweat. At 3K to go, I refuse to quit. Now it’s a matter of principle. I will keep going as long as my body will let me. Forget about the way back. I did not haul my ass across the world to miss the finish by a measly few kilometers. Like those bigshots nearing the summit of Everest, I cannot imagine explaining that almost-made-it story back at the office. I told them I would walk it, and I keep walking. Step by step.

The sight of the 1K banner is a joy. I imagine Phil and Paul in my ear: She’s gonna make it! She dug deep and found the inner strength to conquer this beast of a mountain! This American has shown the Italians how it’s done! At 500 meters to the finish, the barricades are up, and I’m moving faster through each turn of the road. My feet are so light, as if I had just started walking. Is this how the cyclists feel at the end of the day? At 200 meters, I make the 90-degree right hand turn and see the final banner. I made it.

The crowds are lighter than I expected. The mood is strangely quiet, like for a funeral procession rather than a great bike race. The last 100 meters are lined with drunk, shirtless Italian men who are surprisingly well behaved. There is a polite little tunnel between a row of sweaty bare backs and a second row of sweaty hairy chests. I wiggle my way through to touch the finish. I made it. I made it! I walked up Mt. Vesuvius and touched a mountain-top finish of the Giro d’Italia. One of the sweaty Italians takes my picture and gives me a thumbs-up.

Then a passenger van zips up the barricaded road and drops off a group of spectators. Excuse me? They head different directions to find a good viewing spot. Are you telling me I could have gotten a ride? From within the sweaty man tunnel, hot and red-faced, I burst out laughing. Oh well.

Time to find a good spot to view the cyclists as they come in. I settle in with two Kansas law students clad in pink Giro t-shirts and drinking red wine straight from the bottle. These guys stand out in the crowd because they are actually excited to see the race. They are chatting with Franco Pellizoti’s father, who is wearing a t-shirt with his son’s face on it. Even Pellizoti Senior is surprised by their enthusiasm. All the other spectators in sight look like they’re on a TV set to mute.

Finally the cyclists start to come in. First Sastre and Pellizoti, and only the Kansas boys and I are shouting. Di Luca, Menchov, Basso. How can you keep quiet when you think about what these cyclists have done just today? Stage 19 out of 21, that’s 164 kilometers of riding this afternoon, the last 13 up the steep roads of Vesuvius. Then Levi comes around the bend. The boys go nuts. The Italians around us are laughing, completely ignoring the race and just laughing at us tourists. Undeterred, I’m thrilled that my Kansas boys recognize the cyclists quickly, giving me time to prep my camera and the proper cheer. Go Levi, go!

A few more riders come through. Now here comes Lance and his black socks. He’s riding well today.

Lance Armstrong
Go get ‘em, Lance! Go get ‘em!

In a heartbeat, he’s gone. We cheer the remaining riders as they finish, applauding their efforts. An amazing athletic achievement. Inspiring.

Suddenly the air is cooler. The cyclists head back down the mountain to their team buses, and the spectators follow by foot. Back past the 1K banner, 2K, 3K. The Livestrong couple packed up their bikes and their banner and headed to head to the next stage. The sun is setting. The Kansas boys watch out for me, and we slip through mobs for a few precious spots on a shuttle to the train station. We are all smiles.

By the time I get back to my Naples hotel, it is 10 p.m., and I am exhausted. Time for the a cold shot of the local limoncello. I will venture to tomorrow’s stage start and the time trial in Rome, but I have already accomplished what I came to do. My journey of 6,505 miles—10,469 kilometers—was complete with that mountain finish. Vesuvius: 2009—I was there.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Top 10 Lessons from the Tour of California

10. While the world may be dwelling in old debates, American cycling fans have plenty to enjoy right now.

9. It snows in California… a lot… in May…
8. Bob Roll is better looking in person. Nice dresser, too.

7. When your last name means fast, you may have an advantage in the sprint.

6. What happens in Solvang, stays in Solvang.

5. Women cyclists tear it up.

4. Mt. Baldy is a stage blessed even by the pope.

3. California wine pairs well with finish lines.

2. When Garmin wins the team competition, podium girls should avoid wearing white. 

1. Sometimes nice guys finish first.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

View Goss' California Win

Matt Goss took the sprint finish at Stage 8 of the Tour of California finale in Thousand Oaks on Sunday. The HTC-Highroad rider brought home the sole stage win for the team in this race. We also see overall winner Chris Horner in the yellow jersey thanking his teammates on the way in from the finish line.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Pedal to the Midnight Sun

A quiet little road trip story, Pedal to the Midnight Sun is a documentary on the 1,300 mile bike trip two buddies take across Alaska toward the Artic Circle in 2006. The first of the pair’s efforts, Pedal is a bit like a very good homemade movie. It is a simple presentation with some weaker camera moments, accompanied by original banjo music. The charm is in the friends, JJ Kelley and Josh Thomas, who are down-to-earth, unassuming guys with a good sense of humor and wilderness beards. As they travel under their own steam, often on long stretches of dirt road, it is easy to share their enthusiasm for the unique Alaskan landscape. I got a good laugh when they were fighting a bit of boredom after cycling five hours a day for over three weeks—imagine doing it fast, in France, in July!

The buddies’ second movie, Paddle to Seattle, documents their 1,300 mile kayak ride from Alaska to Seattle, and it demonstrates an improvement in their filming skills. You may want to check this one out first, and if you like these guys, you will likely enjoy their bike ride, too.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Great Story in American Cycling

Chris Horner wins Tour of California
It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Chris Horner brought home the victory at the Tour of California on Sunday, surprising nearly everyone in a great story for American cycling. Twenty years into his career, Chris has worked as a loyal teammate and now he finally gets a chance to seize the day himself. But he did it with the help of his team, an example of the unusual role that teams play in this sport, where leaders become assistants overnight, and vice versa.

A short week ago, all eyes were on Levi Leipheimer: age 37, three-time winner of the Tour of California and Santa Rosa resident. No one had bigger expectations than Levi had for himself, particularly after losing the top spot to Michael Rogers in 2010. His team, Radioshack, included Chris Horner, the 39-year-old who worked by his side at the Tour de France last year, as well as six other younger support riders.

Best known as a climber, Chris served as a solid teammate who shepherded teammates including Levi and Lance Armstrong for years up the mountains of California, France, and around the world. The advantage cyclists have when following a teammate can be surprising, as the amount of drag created by cutting through the air and wind is significant. So as a sacrifice to their own prospects, these shepherds take on the effort and enable their teammates to conserve energy and win the race.

Last year at the Tour de France, Chris was serving this role as assistant for Lance Armstrong, who was unable to keep up. As a result, Chris was eventually freed from that responsibility and allowed to pursue his own achievements. He finished tenth overall, a result that most professional cyclists only dream of. In addition, in 2010, he won the Tour de Basque, finished fourth at the Tour of California, and secured top ten finishes in several European classics including Fleche-Wallone. It added up to an impressive year at an age when most cyclists have retired.

Fast forward back to the 2011 Amgen Tour of California. After the first stage was cancelled due to snow, the sprinters dominated the next two days. On Stage 4, Radioshack drove hard at the front of the peloton, aiming to create an advantage for Leipheimer. The leading cyclists narrowed to a smaller group, and at about three kilometers to the finish with an average gradient of over 9%, Horner had the legs. Levi could not keep up. Horner was freed to go for it himself, leaving behind Levi and every other rider. As he powered to the finish, Horner wore his signature look in the mountains. It is a grin that could be a smile or a grimace, though the smile fits better with Horner’s easy-going personality.

Horner won the day, secured the race lead, and became the Radioshack team leader. In cycling, that leadership is earned on a daily basis, and bad luck or bad legs can turn team roles upside down. Now the original race favorite, Leipheimer, was obligated to help his teammate best their competitors and even best him. Horner had a 1 minute 15 second advantage over Leipheimer, who was 7 seconds ahead of the third place man, Tom Danielson of Garmin-Cervelo.

But not so fast. The individual time trial is a break from the team rules. It is a race against the clock for each man, free to pursue his own goals. The Stage 6 time trial in Solvang was an opportunity for all the cyclists to pull back time on Chris, who is regarded as a good if not great time trialer. Levi is known as one of the world’s best, and he had won this stage when it was last in Solvang in 2009. Despite a solid effort, Levi missed the stage win by 14 seconds, with David Zabriskie of Garmin-Cervelo finishing first. For the overall race, he closed part of the gap to his teammate, but Horner retained the lead by 38 seconds.

Matthew Busche
The next stage was the most dramatic mountain-top finish the Tour of California has ever seen. While a relatively short course at 75.8 miles, the riders climbed 15,000 feet to finish atop Mt. Baldy. The Radioshack team kept control of the race for leader Chris Horner, and Levi resumed his support role, shepherding Chris up the mountain. Brutal pacemaking was done by teammates Matt Busche, age 26, and Dmitriy Muravyev, age 31, among others. With about two kilometers remaining, Levi pulled away with Chris following right behind, and they drove together the finish. Just before crossing the line, the teammates touched hands, congratulating each other on their double win—Levi won the stage and Chris’ overall victory was nearly secure. Race organizers called it Radioshack’s “one-two punch.”

The teammates did not compete for the stage win. It was understood between them that Levi would cross the line first. He would get credit for the day’s hard work and the work he put in for the team throughout the tour. Chris would win the overall race the next day, and that was plenty. While fortunes rise and fall quickly for cyclists, these gentlemen’s agreements remain firm.

Horner, Leipheimer & Danielson on the podium
As expected, Stage 8 was a sprint finish that did not affect the leaders standings. Chris Horner won by 38 seconds over teammate Levi Leipheimer. Danielson of Garmin-Cervelo finished third. At the awards ceremony in Thousand Oaks, Chris was grinning from ear to ear. He thanked his team and recalled learning to ride on the nearby roads of Simi Valley. At the ripe old age of 39, he was on top of the podium.

Chris Horner is an American cyclist who always stops to greet fans, pose for photos, and give autographs. He has worked hard and earned a reputation as a nice guy and a loyal teammate. He has continued to push himself for better form and even better results. That is the kind of guy who is more than one kind of champion.

Congratulations, Chris and Team Radioshack! Sometimes nice guys do finish first.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

California Finale Delivers

Concluding with a sprint to the finish, the Amgen Tour of California arrived in Thousand Oaks for the Stage 8 grand finale.
 To catch a breakaway, the peloton reached 45 mph at times, and Matt Goss of HTC-Highroad crossed the line in first, followed by Peter Sagan of Liquigas and Greg Henderson of Team Sky.
Goss, Sagan, & Henderson
Chris Horner of Radioshack won the golden jersey as the winner of the general classification. His teammate Levi Leipheimer came in second with Tom Danielson of Garmin-Cervelo in third place overall.
Winner Chris Horner
Leipheimer greets Danielson
Leipheimer, Horner & Danielson celebrate with champagne
Sagan won the points jersey in the sprint competition, and Jonathan McCarty of Spidertech won the king of the mountains competition.
Peter Sagan receives green jersey
Jonathan McCarty
Tejay Van Gardaren of HTC brought home the best young rider win, for the best finish of a rider aged 24 or under.
Tejay Van Gardaren
 Congratulations to all the riders and teams for a great race! The California fans look forward to next year.

Garmin Loves the Champagne

Garmin-Cervelo won the team competition at the Tour of California this afternoon, and they made the most of the giant champagne bottles they received on the podium. Dressed in black, the podium girls, who do the traditional cheek kisses for the winners, were a bit surprised by how far the boys in black went with their celebrations. Let's just say that it's good the girls weren't wearing white.
Perhaps not the most gentlemanly way to celebrate. The team competition has each squad's top three rider times added together, with the lowest total time as the winner. The top finishers for Garmin were Tom Danielson, who came in third place, Christian Vandevelde in fourth, and Ryder Hesjedal in tenth.
Dave Zabriskie (in the orange sunglasses) was the most vigorous with his champagne shooting. He's always full of surprises. And the podium girls remained calm, cool, and collected, while soaking wet. So is the funny, or... ?

Savoring the Race

Time trials allow you to savor the race, I overheard a fan say at the first time trial I saw in person. He was so right. The chance to see each man start and finish individually is a treat, much different than the pack speeding by in other stages. You can see how big they are, get a look at their game faces, feel their energy in the air when they cross the line. You keep the start time list close at hand and keep checking who is coming next, who has the best time so far. You listen to the announcers updates on who is leading at the first split. And as the afternoon progresses, the tension builds. The general classification contenders start rolling out. The hometown favorites get the crowd riled up, and then the last rider to leave the gate is the current race leader. Will he defend his position, or will a few seconds cost him the golden jersey?

Here are a few more photos from the Tour of California Stage 6.
Crowds surround the start
Danny Pate in ice vest heads to the start
Peter Sagan 50 meters to the line
Tejay Van Gardaren powers to the finish
Levi Leipheimer on his way to 2nd place

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Women Deliver Exciting Race

Top three finishers: Armstrong, Neben, Becker
Thirteen women cyclists competed in the first international women’s time trial in Solvang Friday. Their competition preceded the men’s individual time trial at the Tour of California. The female competitors were invited to race for the $10,000 prize, won by Kristin Armstrong. She is probably the most famous woman cyclist today, and the race marked her return to competition after having her first baby nine months ago. Team HTC-Highroad demonstrated the strength of its women’s team with five participants, including the second, third, and fourth place finishers—Amber Neben, Charlotte Becker, and Evelyn Stevens.

The local evening news led with the story of the women’s time trial, and fans lined the course and cheered the riders on. However, it is surprising that the names of the competitors could not be found on the Tour of California web site in advance of the race, and now even the results are missing or impossible to find there. Luckily, other news sources have published the information, including cyclingnews.

I spoke with competitor Jessica Phillips following the race. She shared the difficulties in obtaining support and promotion for women’s cycling competitions. Jessica is working on the upcoming Aspen/Snowmass Women's Pro Stage Race in Colorado from August 22 to 24. While the race is markedly less expensive to put on each day than the Tour of California, for example, the finances and sponsorship is challenging. Learn more about the Aspen race online. Organizers are hosting a fundraising dinner with HTC-Highroad’s Tejay Van Gardaren on June 2 that also benefits the USA Pro Cycling Challenge Aspen Queen Stage 2, as well as a clinic with Tejay on June 3.

Before Solvang, I had never watched a women’s race and wondered how their times compare to the men’s. Kristin Armstrong’s time for the 15 mile course was 34 minutes, 29.59 seconds. Of the 131 men, 37 had times slower than hers. David Zabriskie of Garmin-Cervelo had the fastest time of the day at 30 minutes, 35.92 seconds.

The women's time trial action was just as exciting as any cycling race I have attended, and I will be keeping my eye out for more women’s races.

Time Trial Returns to Solvang

Peter Sagan greets fans
The Tour of California arrived in Solvang on Friday for the Stage 6 individual time trial. Normally a quiet town dotted with Danish shops and bakeries, Solvang was buzzing with the teams, vendors and fans. The charming streets were packed, but there were fewer fans than in 2009, the last time the town hosted the time trial and when Lance Armstrong was competing.

Solvang offers a warmer and more welcoming setting for the event than the downtown Los Angeles site of last year. While the course starts with a tough grade making it challenging for the cyclists to get into a fast pace, the cozy set-up adds to the excitement for spectators, and the views of green hills definitely beat the concrete and construction scenes in L.A.

The day included an amateur time trial and first-ever women’s international time trial, before the men’s race. David Zabriskie won the day, a disappointment to Levi Leipheimer who was still looking for good results in this Tour. Leipheimer missed the win by fourteen seconds, and Tejay Van Gardaren came in third and moved up in the overall standings to sixth as a result.
BMC rider warming up
One spectator confronts the Contador issue
Phil Ligget poses with fans
Leopard-Trek team bikes

Friday, May 20, 2011

Change the Channel

Again come the doping accusations against Lance Armstrong. It is unfortunate that the only widespread media coverage of the sport of cycling is this story. He is not even competing and has passed every drug test. His accusers face no meaningful repercussions for lying, having only fame to gain. The hard-working athletes who are actually competing at the Tour of California do not deserve this cloud, again tainting their honest efforts.

I am not going to listen to this now. Not again. I am changing the channel.

To more interesting news, this morning we will see the first ever international women’s time trial in Solvang. Who will win the $10,000 prize?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sagan Wins Sprint Finish

Peter Sagan raises arms in triumph
Another exciting sprint finish signaled the end of Stage 5 at the Tour of California. The route from Seaside to Paso Robles had originally been set to flow south along the coast and Highway 1, but mudslides earlier this year required the course be moved inland, setting the scene for a sprint into the town’s central plaza. Team Radioshack started the day determined to maintain Chris Horner’s overall lead, which at over one minute from the rest of the pack, may be enough to carry him through the finale on Sunday.

A breakaway was pulled back to allow the sprinters to duke it out on the line. Peter Sagan of Liquigas-Cannondale inched out Leigh Howard of HTC-Highroad and Ben Swift of Team Sky. It was a bit of payback for Sagan, who was bested by Swift on Stage 2. HTC and Garmin-Cervelo are still itching for a stage win at this race. With the time trials set for tomorrow and a tough mountain stage on Saturday, the final circuits in Thousand Oaks on Sunday may be a sprinters battle.
Second-place finisher Leigh Howard
Tejay Van Gardaren of HTC-Highroad took the new lead in the competition for the best young rider, while Oscar Freire of Rabobank was awarded the most courageous rider jersey. Chris Horner successfully stayed out of trouble and kept the overall lead.

With the gloomy weather behind them, the cyclists are heating up the competition under sunny skies as they head south to Solvang tomorrow. The men’s race will be preceded by the first women’s international time trial featuring 13 competitors, invited by race organizers and competing for a prize of $10,000.

See you in Solvang!

Paso Robles Turns Out for Race

The central California city of Paso Robles welcomed the Tour of California for its Stage 5 finish this afternoon. A region increasingly famous for its local wineries, the town turned out to see the largest pro cycling race in North America. Numbers seemed to match the last finish here in 2009, well over 600 spectators.

Before the race rolled into town, children participated in boys' and girls' sprint races to the finish line, and the crowd favorite seemed to be the tricycle competition.

Popular television commentators Bob Roll, Phil Sherwin, and Phil Ligget were on site, broadcasting from Paso Robles.
Bob Roll prepares to broadcast from Paso Robles
The Lifestyle Festival was on all day and featured music, a beer garden, vendor booths, and big screens to watch the action live. 
Team sponsor Nissan displayed its 100% electric Leaf
Spectators check out festival booths
The pace of today's stage was faster than many expected, and the fans lined up three or more deep to watch the last 250 meters. The size of the crowd surprised local residents, who said that it exceeded the city's annual wine festival which starts tomorrow.

Bike for Babies

On the California coast, a shorebird paused mid-flight—wings outstretched and buffeted by the strong ocean winds. I also stopped on my way north to the Tour of California, to visit new friends I met last fall thanks to cycling.

Staff & volunteers at Alpha in San Luis Obispo
The team at Alpha in San Luis Obispo greets me with smiles and hugs. Their tiny staff and devoted volunteers help mothers and babies, providing practical help, education, and support during pregnancy and through baby’s first year. That means everything from rent money to diapers, to support groups and teaching on parenting, and more. The non-profit is providing a unique service and making the most of in-kind donations and the expertise of long-time volunteers including retired maternity nurses.

The funny thing is that this group devoted to healthy babies puts on a first class amateur cycling event as their big annual fundraiser. I met them at their race last fall, the SLO GranFondo which featured pro cyclists from the HTC-Highroad squad. The Alpha team has become expert in race organization, and most of the 600 participants would never have guessed that this top-quality event was put on by experts in breastfeeding. In the current economic environment, the race is all the more important to fund the organization, and they are already hard at work for the next SLO GranFondo set for October 15th.

The Alpha enthusiasm for healthy babies is contagious, and I got hooked last year. This new connection is just another example of the unexpected roads where cycling has taken me, far beyond the sport to welcoming and accomplished people, driving hard for a win in their own part of the world. So on my way to see the Tour of California, I stopped by to say hello.

At Alpha, the day’s tasks included organizing in-kind donations and equipment for new moms, such as gently used baby shoes, breastfeeding supplies, and a new delivery of formula. Currently, there is a special need for clothes for 12- to 24-month-olds, as well as car seats which must be new for safety reasons. The local French Hospital has a car seat drive underway for Alpha families and notes that new car seats may be purchased for donation for only $40. It is a hard year to obtain grants for those much-needed car seats. They were also working on the summer schedule for their support group for new fathers.

I was struck by the admiration they have for their clients—the new mothers and fathers. It is an honor to be there with them as they enter this new world of parenting, says Executive Director Jen Miller. She is struck by how open they are to learning and sacrificing as their goal is the best for their babies.

The SLO GranFondo: Bike for Babies is even more appealing now. A well-organized race through the beautiful rolling hills of San Luis Obispo that benefits those earnest parents and brand new babies. So glad I made time to visit these friends along the way.

Tour of California, here we come!

SLO GranFondo bike race, October 15, 2011:
Alpha Pregnancy & Parenting Support:

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Congrats, Chris Horner

With his win on Stage 4 of the Tour of California, Chris Horner is the new overall race leader. It literally couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy! A reliable support rider for favorites such as Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer, Chris is regularly seen greeting fans right after a big race. His wins at the Tour de Basque and 10th place finish at the Tour de France last year are individual career highlights. At age 39, he is one of the senior members of the peloton, and today he certainly proved he has the legs not only to keep up with the younger fellows, but to beat them.

Last season, Chris wrote a thoughtful blog on key races, giving fans a detailed play-by-play and true picture of his view of the road. He has started up again with the Tour of California this year, so check it out:

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sprint Finish Surprise

Sprint Finish Surprise

The sport of cycling continues to surprise me. I thought I loved the sprint finish because of the elegant displays of teamwork. Like a flock of birds gently flying over the ocean, or an orchestra coming together for the perfect symphony, teams winning a sprint finish coordinate their efforts seamlessly. They are beauty in motion. But not today. Today, at the Tour of California, I enjoyed the mess.

In the last two years, San Luis Obispo-based HTC-Highroad has dominated sprint finishes. Squads including Garmin-Cervelo gave them a run for their money, but HTC seemed to have mastered the lead-out train. That is the team’s coordinated effort to control the pace in the final kilometers, stay at the front, and take turns in cutting the wind. They shepherd their big finisher, the one with the most explosive final drive, to the last possible moment. Then he is launched to cross the line on his own for the stage win.

Thanks to this combination of teamwork and explosive power, HTC sprinter Mark Cavendish quickly racked up the most stage wins of any Brit at the Tour de France. The squad was pocketing sprint wins all over the world. Soon enough, they looked unstoppable. I would watch those final K’s hypnotized by that lead-out train, following their white jerseys drive at the front, pull off, next one at the front, and again, and now the next guy is at the front, and then comes the launch, the big finish, and the win. Gently hypnotizing and exhilarating at the same time.

But not today. Mark Cavendish and other members of the infamous lead-out train are competing in Italy, and back here in California, the HTC team featured Matt Goss, who won a great sprint finish earlier this year at the Tour Down Under in Australia. Goss just missed the win yesterday, bested by Team Sky’s Ben Swift. Swifty won the day, making him the overall leader of the Tour of California.

Given today’s stage profile, another sprint finish was anticipated. Ben Swift and Team Sky Procycling aimed to defend his overall lead and rake in another stage win on top of that. ProTour squads including HTC, Garmin, and Liquigas also focused on the stage win and snatching the leader’s jersey for themselves. Game on.

But in the final kilometers, Canada’s Team Spidertech was at the front of the race. When they ran out of steam, no solid lead-out train emerged. The birds were not flying in formation! A string broke on the cello and the flutist lost her place in the score! Swift’s teammate Greg Henderson was trying to lead him out for the win, but Swift got separated in the confusion. Henderson kept pushing forward and with about 100 meters to go, he realized no one, not even his teammate, would catch him. He pushed all the way to the win.

Team Sky is thrilled. They keep the overall jersey, and Henderson gets the stage win. Not what anyone expected, but they kept in all in the family. HTC (and everybody else) is thwarted again.

I have been accused of being a perfectionist, and I am surprised that I didn’t miss a classic, precise lead-out train. I enjoyed the unexpected win from Henderson, and I look forward to watching HTC get it together. Today’s sprint finish wasn’t a symphony, but it was a pleasant surprise.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Tips for Viewing the Tour of California

From start to finish, the Amgen Tour of California offers us the unique opportunity to view this beautiful sport and amazing athletes in person. Here are a few suggestions for those new to the race to make the most of your visit to the greatest pro cycling race in North America.

The excitement along the race route is infectious, inspiring casual spectators along with diehard fans cheering the cyclists speeding by. A motorcycle escort signals that the riders are on their way, and when you see the first man coming, whether he is alone or in a big group, you cannot help but be impressed by the athletic accomplishment. As the colorful parade of jerseys passes by, I dare you to resist the temptation of becoming a cycling fan.

To savor the moment and catch the longest glimpse of the race in action, aim for a stage or section of the course that is slightly slower. This includes areas with higher inclines, such as the mountain-top finish on Stage 7 at Mt. Baldy on Saturday, May 21st. Keep in mind that many roads may be temporarily closed for the race, so add some extra time to get to your location spot. Also, cycling fans are often most excited about mountain stages, and the roadside crowds on Stage 7 will be big and boisterous. To see route elevations, visit the Stage Profile pages on the Tour’s web site:

Race action also slows a bit when the riders take sharp turns, which happens in every stage. Of course, this slowing is all relative; they are still so fast that you need to keep your eyes open. Look at the Tour of California web site for the Stage Logs, which list the course directions and all the turns.

In addition to the excitement of the race in action, spectators may be interested in capturing a look at individual cyclists. This is best accomplished at each race start and finish, as well as the individual time trial. At the start, you may glimpse the riders signing in or rolling in from their team buses to the starting line. They gather in a bunch with the race leader at the front, and when the action begins, they slowly ride out before the competitive moves begin. Look up the team roster so that you can use the riders’ bib numbers to help identify them. These guys look awfully similar in matching outfits plus helmets and sunglasses to hide behind.

The finish line is an exciting place to see the action. Just keep in mind that you may not be able to see exactly who won given the speed and your vantage point. To spot individual cyclists, look for cyclists returning to the team buses, where they may stop to sign a few autographs before taking off for the next stage. Winners are may be seen coming in and out of the doping control tent, where they are required to submit to testing. They are also presented on the main stage shortly after the race has rolled into town.

The most reliable spot to view individual riders is at the time trial, which will be in Solvang on Friday, May 20th. Unlike other stages, the individual time trial features each cyclist riding by himself against the clock. They roll out according to their overall standings, with the slowest man starting first and the fastest man in the race thus far starting last. Event organizers distribute the schedule to the crowd that day with start times for each rider. You can get quite close to the cyclists as they warm up at their team buses. Each one heads to the start line a few minutes before his scheduled start time, and each is announced as he starts off an elevated podium with a good view for the crowd. As the Solvang stage is a circuit, you can easily move between the start and finish lines, catching many riders or seeing your favorites at both points.

One final note on the time trial is that is a very popular stage, and when it was last in Solvang two years ago, the cars exiting the town were backed up for several hours. You may consider enjoying an after-race break in Solvang while the traffic dies down.

No matter where you choose to view the Tour of California, seeing it in person is sure to spark your interest in the sport of cycling. Have fun, and get out there!