Ihad a sore butt and stiff back after driving 125 miles to Paso Robles last Thursday, but I was not about to complain. While I had been sitting at the wheel, more than 100 cyclists were grinding away in Stage 5 of the Amgen Tour of California. It was the longest day of the race, covering 134 miles from Visalia to Paso Robles, a five-hour commitment to toiling in a hunched-over position.
When Lance Armstrong says grimly, “It’s been a hard race,” you know the Amgen Tour has garnered serious respect in its four years of existence. The 2009 edition spanned 750 miles in nine days, starting with a 2.3-mile prologue in Sacramento, then stretching out into the state’s geographic diversity, from the coast to the Sierras to the wine country, and finishing Sunday in Escondido after a climb of Palomar Mountain.
Amgen Tour of California Sixth Stage - Solvang Time Trials
It was a tough challenge in any conditions, and the weather was brutal during the early stages. The riders looked like refugees from a hurricane when they crossed the Golden Gate-more like the Leaden Gate-Bridge in the midst of a downpour on the third day. It was during that stage, on a climb over the Santa Cruz Mountains, when Levi Leipheimer seized an overall lead he never relinquished.
The skies cleared midweek, but difficulties persisted. There were crashes and broken bones. Of the 136 men who started, only 84 were still riding at the end of the tour. Team Type 1 (featured in The Independent on February 5) lost five of its eight riders to injuries or exhaustion. Two riders with Type 1 diabetes both dropped out. Fabio Calabria, an Australian, couldn’t take the cold. Phil Southerland of Atlanta succumbed to tendonitis in his knee.
“I’m not discouraged,” said Southerland, who hopes to make it to the Tour de France someday. “Racing for one day at this level is going to make you better. These are the fastest racers in the world. On the climbs, Astana [the team of Armstrong and LeipÂ-heimer] was barreling uphill at Mach 9.”
The long, long ride to Paso Robles came down to a 40-mph sprint. Britain’s Mark Cavendish showed why he is considered the fastest man on a bike when he accelerated to the finish line for his second-stage win.
The next day, Friday, brought the entourage to Solvang for “the race of truth,” a 15-mile individual time trial that painfully tests one’s ability to sustain speed over distance. U.S. champion David Zabriskie and Gustav Larsson of Sweden posted swift times, but Leipheimer, riding last, was the swiftest. He solidified a lead that Astana was sure to protect in the final stages. If the 35-year-old Leipheimer seems to be developing dimples, it’s from having his cheeks creased so many times by the kissing women on the podium during his three-year domination of the California tour.
While thousands of spectators lined the streets of Paso Robles and Solvang, all was quiet in Santa Barbara last week. According to Andrew Messick, the president of AEG Sports, which owns and markets the Amgen Tour, the city did not make the financial commitment to land a stage. It pains him somewhat as a native of Santa Barbara. “In places like Sacramento, Davis, and Santa Rosa, we’re part of the fabric of the community,” Messick said.
Solvang, too, has gone all-out to host the time trial. It raised some funds by staging an open-to-the-public “race of truth.” Amateur riders each paid $1,000 for the privilege of racing on the 15-mile course in front of the crowds waiting for the professionals. Gary Douville, sponsored by Platinum Performance Santa Barbara, was the fastest of the 32 amateurs. Messick took a turn in the saddle, as did Mike Hecker, one of Santa Barbara’s cycling pioneers. Now 40, Hecker lost 35 pounds in six months, borrowed a bike, and got his friends to help him cover the entry fee.
“I’m very disappointed Santa Barbara did not take part this year,” Hecker said. “I blame the city, the Visitors’ Bureau, and the Chamber of Commerce. They could not see the silver lining in giving local organizers a little bit of help financially.”
GAMES OF THE WEEK: Author Jane Heller‘s book launch party for her homage to the New York Yankees, Confessions of a She-Fan, will happen this Saturday, February 28, at 3 p.m. at the Hollister Brewing Company. My apologies for getting the date wrong last week. : UCSB’s women play their last home basketball game at 2 p.m. on Saturday against Cal State Northridge, and the Gaucho men take the floor at 7 p.m. against UC Davis. : Also on Saturday, a double-header against Vanguard concludes Westmont‘s regular-season home schedule.
For more sports, including a weekly highlight schedule, see independent.com/sports.