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Why Watching the Tour of California is Exhilarating

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Amgen Tour of California riders race through the town of Piru in Ventura County. | Photo: Courtesy Doug Penisinger
Amgen Tour of California riders race through the town of Piru in Ventura County. | Photo: Courtesy Doug Penisinger

Once, in a posh hotel lobby in Boulder, Colorado, I had the good fortune to visit with three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond. LeMond, retired from competitive cycling, was serving as ambassador for the sport, and, in this particular hotel lobby, doing a fine job of it. Hair touched with gray, he politely answered questions. He posed (again and again) for pictures, beaming broadly. He signed autographs, graciously and genuinely inquiring about the autograph seekers interests and lives. Folding his hands on his knees, he listened in a thoughtful manner.

Eventually the crowd left, and it was just LeMond and me. I had been introduced by a good friend of LeMond's, and so was afforded even more gentlemanly treatment. We talked about family and life. Greg smiled pleasantly. And then I asked him what it took to reach the top of his chosen sport.

The smile wandered off his face, leaving no expression at all. His body coiled slightly. It was probably my imagination, but I had the distinct impression he was going to leap for my throat.

"Eat or be eaten," he said. "There are easier ways to make a living."

I bring this up because this weekend in Sacramento, a bevy of professional cyclists will launch themselves into the ninth edition of the Amgen Tour of California, riding from the start in Sacramento to the finish in Ventura County's very own Thousand Oaks, an eight-day stage race, more than 720 miles of all-out battle through 12 host cities (with)... two mountaintop finishes, a bevy of twists and turns, climbs and sprints galore, and the most beautiful and varied scenery the state has to offer. From lush forests to desert roads to oceanfront finishes -- and even a historic start on a pier -- this year's route promises breathtaking moments for riders and fans alike.

You probably recognize this italicized bit. You've probably read some press releases, and I have too. No doubt, the words are accurate. It is the ninth year for the Amgen Tour which is, indeed, a world class stage race. The north to south route will pass through Sacramento, Folsom, San Jose, Monterey, Cambria, Pismo Beach, Santa Barbara, Santa Clarita, Mountain High, Pasadena and, finally, Thousand Oaks. Some of the world's top riders will compete, among them Sir Bradley Wiggins, so knighted by his Queen after winning the 2012 Tour de France and four Olympic gold medals.

It will be America's Largest and Most Prestigious Professional Cycling Stage Race Promising Breathtaking Moments for Riders and Fans Alike.

But you should know the grittier underside, too, because it makes the race all the more breathtaking and meaningful.

If you are an aficionado of cycling, you may know that Sir Bradley Wiggins' Team Sky squad includes several Americans, among them a young man named Danny Pate. I met him when he was truly young, a dozen years ago when he was racing for the Prime Alliance Cycling Team. Looking for an insider's glimpse into the life of an America bike racer, I wrangled access to the Prime Alliance Cycling Team. I traveled to Boulder, Colorado for the August 2002 running of the Boulder to Breckenridge Saturn Cycling Classic, where Prime Alliance was racing over one single visceral day: 140 miles, up, down and over seven Rocky Mountain passes, at altitudes of 11,000-plus feet.

In Colorado, the Prime Alliance Team kindly gave me limitless access. And so I learned a little bit about their lives. In the course of a year they rode their bikes some 25,000 miles, the rough equivalent of a trip around the world. They slept in cheap motel rooms festooned with bike tires and locker room smells. They traveled to so many places to race they sometimes didn't know where they were waking up. Pennsylvania, Colorado, Wisconsin, California; they raced in multi-day stage races, single-day events and madcap looped criteriums where, in a wink, a dozen riders can collide, splintering spokes and bones

As LeMond pointed out, there are easier ways to make a living.

I liked Danny Pate the moment I met him. The Boulder to Breckenridge race featured one particularly terrifying descent that, if poorly negotiated, could see the guilty rider free fall 1,800 feet. My question to Danny was simple. Was he afraid? Danny shrugged. "Last weekend on a descent at a stage race, Svein (teammate Svein Tuft) was doing over 100K," Danny said, poker-faced. Then he beamed. "And I blew Svein's doors off. I was probably going almost 70 miles an hour."

There you have a glimpse into the mindset of the professional bike racer.

Pate's teammates were equally forthright. When I asked Pate's teammate Michael Creed how it felt to ride as hard as you can for 140 miles over seven Rocky Mountain passes, he made it understandable.

"What's it feel like? It's all relative. Say somebody doused you in gasoline and set your whole body on fire. Okay, that sucks, that's horrible. Then they put you out, and only your arm is on fire. And you're like, 'Well yeah, it's not as bad,' but it still sucks, eh? It's kind of like that."

The year before in the same race, Creed had to stop 30 miles from the finish because he was, in his words, "throwing up all over the place." "Basically,'' a teammate told me, "he rode himself into unconsciousness."

I remembered the look on Greg LeMond's face.

As I said, Prime Alliance gave me unlimited access, and so I rode in the team vehicle and witnessed the entire Boulder to Breckenridge race. It was one of the most moving things I have ever seen, and I have been graced with more than my share of moving things.

This year's Amgen Tour of California finishes right here in Ventura County's Thousand Oaks. The Thousand Oaks course is dramatic: four roughly 20-mile circuits that pass through Westlake Village and Agoura Hills, and include four ascents up what is locally known as the infamous "Rock Store" climb (up Mulholland Drive). It is possible the race will be decided on the last day. There could be much door blowing off and eating and being eaten. Spectators can stand right alongside the road.

If you have never seen a world-class cycling race, grab this chance. It is a grand thing watching a stage race like the Amgen Tour. The peloton (the main group of racers) continually morphs in amoeba-like fashion. Single riders or small groups attempt breakaways and are reabsorbed. At the back, riders who have no more left "pop off," an innocuous cycling term for the sad moment when body and mind are fried and the pop-ee is jettisoned by the peloton. It is not pretty for the pop-ees, nor is it pretty for the riders who ride on. Mouths agape and rimmed with spittle, chests heaving, they look straight ahead to a place only their eyes can see.

To see this is to witness a certain perseverance and dedication unusual in this world.

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