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Postcard from the Tour of California, Part 2: Balcolm Canyon

Stage racing can be as much about logistics as it is racing. This goes for both all those involved with the race and all those watching it. You need not only a map and a timetable, knowledge of how to get to the next spot, but how to do all without going crazy, getting stressed, knowing when to expend energy, when to save it, where to eat, etc…All those in the race need to be up by a certain time, know where breakfast is and how to get there, eat enough, finish in time, get two bags packed, and get each on the right transport to get to the next spot. And that’s before they can think of racing and all it entails.

The support staff for the teams and the administrative staff for the race have it even harder. In many cases, they barely see the race, as some just to stage starts and some just do finishes.

It’s nearly as complicated for the fan. Where are you going, when do you need to get there, how do you get there, what do you bring, etc. Even for the practiced, spectating a stage race is complicated. The successful ones know when to stress, when to relax, when to be flexible, and are prepared for all contingencies.

We decided to spectate Stage Six of the 2007 Tour of California, the Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita road stage. It appeared to be the last chance for a GC shakeup. Discovery had the first and third spots on the classement, but CSC had the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth spots. That’s a lot of cards to play, and Riis’ team has never been afraid to go on the attack. They also seem to embody the Musketeer philosophy; for them it doesn’t seem to matter if Voigt (second), Julich (fourth), O’Grady (fifth), or Vandevelde (sixth) is the one who wins.

Photo: 1KM to KOMThe top of Balcolm Canyon looked, from all the course information, to be an ideal place to watch the Tour of California pass by. It was the last KoM climb of the race, and appeared to be the toughest section of the final road stage. Before reaching Balcolm, the riders had three KoMs and two intermediate sprints. After, it looked like 40 miles of fast rollers that could chew racers up. If anyone was going to crack Discovery Channel’s hold on the leader’s jersey, they’d have to establish themselves before Balcolm, tear up the climb and then romp the second half of the stage. Conversely, Discovery would probably want to hold things together on the first half up to Balcolm so they’d have a comfortable ride to the finish. Either way, the forecast called for pain, and we wanted to be there.

We were furthered buoyed in our dreams of seeing ProTour racers struggling by the tip from a friend that Balcolm had grades tilting up to 24%, probably the steepest pitch in the race. Fun for us, lung-searing for them. With this in mind, we headed out early from the stage start in Santa Barbara to find Balcolm Canyon.

We had stayed in Solvang the night previous to keep transport prettier. We only tasted a bottle offered up by the local tourist board knowing that we wanted to be on the road by 8. We took the scenic route to Santa Barbara to see San Marcos Pass, the route the race used last year to get to the Santa Barbara stage finish—Levi attacked, got nowhere, and Hincapie took the sprint in town.

First stop was the stage start in Santa Barbara. The race started on Cabrillo, the avenue that runs alongside the beach. The race entourage would filter in. This promised to be even more crowded than Solvang as SB is a city with large cycling population. After taking in the scene, eating a few ounces of Jelly Belly Apple Pie ala Mode jellybeans, we struck out for Balcolm.

We called our friend en route. His plan was to be 200m from the KoM line, on the cliff side. He estimated the walk to be about a mile or so. Ah, this is where the press pass comes in handy. Cue evil laugh.

We joined up with the course just past the intermediate sprint. The road was flat and smooth and headed through orange groves. It was already marked with turn signs and cyclists were already testing out the course. We could tell we were at the turn for the climb when we saw cars parked on both sides of the road. Make the turn, and BUSTED. The press pass isn’t worth squat. We were walking.

Father and sonsOnly one thing. No one seemed to know the distance to the top. Our friend had said a mile. One state trooper said two miles. Another two and a half. The race bible suggested two and a half. A woman who had parked her chair 500meters from the turn wanted to get to the top, but the road was closed earlier than she had thought. She had come from the east coast to watch the race and was there at 9, but the road had already been shut down. People sitting on the back of pickup trucks appeared to work the groves also had no idea how far it was to the top. At least we had time. It was a bit after 11 and the race wasn’t supposed to go over the climb until around 1pm, 1:05 if the race averaged 45kph. We should be able to walk 2.5 miles in less than 50 minutes on a paved road.

Packed the pack, slung it over the shoulders and headed for the hill. While there was no checked tablecloth, we were toting a glass San Pellegrino bottle and clothes to withstand cold weather. Stage race watching, Euro’ style.

A benefit was company on the walk. Two fathers had taken their kids, each in a separate group. A guy who was carrying the Pope’s headwear and a mop handle was walking up with a woman. One of the families hadn’t expected the walk and was going up without anything. The other was prepared. In the second group, the father was teaching his sons the ways of a super fan. He was stopping periodically to write messages in chalk on the road. The one we saw him chalk up was in support of Jens Voigt, a common sentiment. While there appeared to be more Leipheimer fans, Voigt and CSC had a lot of support.

Cyclists kept on riding by, some going up, some going down. Many of the down came back up. It was a pretty scene on the road, and we were jealous. Smooth road closed to traffic with orange groves and cows out to pasture. Even of the guy on the old MTB who was chugging his way up the hill looked to have it better than those of us hoofing it.

We got to the 1k board at a curve, and finally saw what our friend was talking about; the road switched from a gradual climb to a wall. We could even see the top of the climb in the distance; that had to be more than a k away.

The cyclists passing us started having trouble. A number were paperboy-ing and more than a few walking. We were coming across the makings of a big crowd. One group had a tent set up and a grill going. Turned out they had driven up the night before to stake their place. They had even brought a port-a-john for their needs. Very Euro. A large tent was set up by a homebuilder who was developing houses in Santa Clarita. They figured there would be a large captive audience on hand and they could give out paraphernalia. In their bags were a water bottle, bottled water, a disposable film camera, a multi-tool, and brochures on their work. They were also set up across the road from another set of portable bathrooms. It was by the homebuilder that the road really kicked. Still a long way from the top, though.

Pantani license plateMy friends were where they said they’d be, on the cliff side of the road by the 200m sign. They had their picnic blanket spread behind the car with ‘PANTANI’ on the license plate. We ate sushi, speculated on the race and enjoyed the scene. One of the peeps had brought his son and a bucket of chalk.

The rest of the crowd was even better. They were so busy enjoying themselves; they didn’t notice Saul Raisin climbing up the mountain in his Credit Agricole kit. Raisin had vowed to ride every stage from start to finish ahead of the race as a fundraiser. We had seen him roll off in Santa Barbara with a large group of cyclists, but few seemed to be with him now. We had a friend who started with Raisin. No sign of him.

Various race sponsors had a picnic on the hillside above the KoM for their employees and even that was no big deal, as the road was choked at the summit with people admiring their climbing abilities, the view and getting ride reports from their friends, whom they had either dropped or been dropped by.

It was easy to forget why we were up there. A warm day, friends, a good view, food. All was right with the world. Then we heard a plane. Could it be the race helicopter? Even if it’s only a plane, looking down to the 1k sign was necessary. Jolted back to reality, we remembered why we were there. The bike race. No sign thereof.

Maybe we’re just hungry, but Trader Joe’s sushi is good. In France, we ate sausage. Here, California rolls. We probably should have gone with that bottle of Solvang red or California spring water to wash it all down. Next time.

Big Hair SuperfanA wander around the mountaintop reveals all manner of cyclist and fan. Scott ‘The Tour Baby’ Coady was selling his DVD in a camper. Jax cycling had a van and seems to be both selling stuff and supporting their club. Parents were encouraging their kids to draw on the road. The riders were in all manner of shape and style, from those who prefer loaded touring to club riders to pro wanna-bees. We couldn’t find the Specialized Angel, but we do come across the Big Hair Superfan and the Pope. A van came up, a few people hopped out, and suddenly, it’s swag time. Amgen and Tour of California thunder stix. Bells. Chalk. A rep from Shimano is giving empty placards and loaning magic markers.

1:15 and we were starting to get motorcycles. We could hear the chopper. A few minutes later, we got an earful of play-by-play from an announcer. A few official-looking people with vests and whistles and fans were spreading out and yelling at people to hug each other at the side of the road.

At this point, it was time to make a critical decision. Focus on taking good pictures or watch without worrying about the camera. The sight should become etched in memory, but the digital photos will be forever to share with friends, even if they’re less than pro quality. It’s not like Graham Watson is standing alongside.

First, everyone stood on the cliff side of the road to hug the barrier and look down to the valley. And then, when the motos got by, run back into place to get a good view of the racers as they come by. No one pays attention to the marshals.

When the break went by, we recognize Pate right away, but aren’t sure who the Predictor-Lotto guy was and who the CSC rider was. The break zipped by. Vandevelde? Too small to be Voigt or Julich. The moto had a sign that said 2:35, or maybe we got it from the announcer. A great sign. Discovery should be blowing the race to pieces behind to catch up.

When Danielson, Hincapie, et al, passed, they looked strong and fast, but few seemed to be hurting. Most of the field seemed to be with them. Maybe they weren’t going so hard.

Answer. They weren’t. Tony Cruz was several seconds behind the field. Bruyneel’s philosophy is not to lose riders on mountains. They probably held back so Cruz can rejoin on the descent.

The stragglers didn’t look so bad. The hill wassn’t crushing their spirits. All seemed within reach of the peloton.

In a minute or two, the broom wagon rolled by. Our show was over.

That’s all. No one wants to hang around, so it’s time to pack bags, mount bikes, get in cars, and head back. Turns out my friends came from the other side of the mountain. We started walking, but realize if we can hitch a ride, we might be able to jump ahead of the field before they got to the finish.

Off the mountain, back to the car, floor it on the local roads, make the turn onto the main road. Things are looking good. Bam. Stopped dead. We read the map wrong. The field joined with the main road further up than we anticipated and there was no way to catch them now.