International sports junkies, high school patriots, moms, dads, and round-ball fans enjoyed a feast of activity in our backyard last weekend.
It started Friday afternoon in Solvang, where the strongest collection of cyclists ever assembled in North America went through a 15-mile time trial, the fifth stage of the Amgen Tour of California.
Santa Rosa native Levi Leipheimer, his compact body cutting through the winds that buffeted the course, averaged almost 30 miles per hour as he won the trial-known as “the race of truth” because it pits each rider by himself against the road and the elements. British standout David Millar was a distant runner-up. Leipheimer (rhymes with hype-timer) beefed up his overall lead and maintained it to the end of the 700-mile tour Sunday in Pasadena, where he was crowned champion for the second consecutive year.
Before Leipheimer’s climactic ride, the veteran U.S. rider George Hincapie received the loudest greeting from thousands of cowbell-clanging fans lining the streets of downtown Solvang. Hincapie’s time trial was only the 23rd fastest, but he finished the tour on a high note by winning the final stage.
A glorious time was had by 19 amateur cyclists who each raised more than $1,000 for the privilege of going through the same time trial that the pros pursued. “It was totally awesome,” said Matt Benko of Santa Barbara, who turned in the second fastest time. “I had a motorcycle ahead of me and a following car, just like the pros. It was the coolest course and the best bike I’ve ever ridden.”
The Ojai-based firm Testrider.com let Benko try out a bike with a carbon-fiber frame and top-of-the-line components. The tires were dimpled like a golf ball for aerodynamic purposes. Benko, the owner of the Chicken Ranch restaurant, said cycling helps keep him fit at age 41. “I’m lucky I don’t own a donut shop,” he said.
Saturday’s penultimate stage started on Cabrillo Boulevard. A large crowd turned out to get a close-up look at the riders. It was gratifying to Barney Berglund, who has chaired the local organizing committee since the first Amgen Tour in 2006. Berglund had to parry a pack of naysayers to assure that Santa Barbara would be involved in the race.
One had to admire the athletes as they rode off toward the hills with the wind in their faces and rain clouds looming. “Right now [I have] legs of stone,” lamented Austrian rider Bernhard Kohl before the start. They would have to pedal 105 miles before taking a break in Santa Clarita. They went 93 more miles on Sunday, finishing in downpours that brought the Auto Club 500 NASCAR race in Fontana to a standstill.
Soon after the cyclists departed Saturday, another throng converged, but this time on the Santa Barbara High pool to watch the CIF championship girls’ water polo game between the Santa Barbara Dons and Dos Pueblos Chargers. Spectators packed the bleachers, stood five deep on the deck, and filled a catwalk over the pool. Above them, on the roof of the gym, a flock of gulls gathered.
The Dons were hoping that Dos Pueblos, an extremely talented but young team, would crack under pressure. Didn’t happen. DP senior Helen Zukin scored the first goal, then freshmen Kiley Neushul and Tiera Schroeder attacked relentlessly, while sophomore goalkeeper Sami Hill frustrated the Dons. The Chargers won their first CIF title, 9-2.
Later in the day, a season of living dangerously caught up with the UCSB women’s basketball team, which lost for the first time in 15 games. UC Davis defeated the Gauchos 59-56 in overtime at the Thunderdome. UCSB still has the inside track to the Big West championship.
The Gaucho men, meanwhile, remain in the hunt for a title after notching their 20th win last week. They finally drew some good crowds, but they had to leave home to do it – almost 15,000 turned out for their games at Pacific and Utah State. Santa Barbara fans have one more chance to catch the Gauchos at home on Saturday at 7 p.m. against UC Riverside.