Up late tonight–not unusual–reading up on what’s supposed to happen with the first stage of the Tour of California in the morning. The race is starting at Lake Tahoe to give it some true alpine flavor. You know, like that big race they have in France every summer (and also, the big races in Italy, Spain, and elsewhere, not to leave anyone out). No one could have guessed when the route was chosen last year that a winter-ish storm would roll into the state this weekend. But it did. I’m listening to rain down here at sea level and looking at weather reports of snow up along Interstate 80 clear over Donner Summit to Lake Tahoe. So now, the race organizers say they’ll wait until 9 a.m. to decide whether the race will proceed on a mountainous circuit around the lake or be abbreviated to avoid sending 168 racers sliding around a potentially snowy, icy course. We’ll see.
Over the last 10 days, we’ve gone from a dry season, a sort of perpetual autumn, to full Northern/Central California winter. Which means: rain in the lowlands and someplace unseen, far to the east, the Sierra Nevada living up to their name. We have a storm parked offshore now, and the rain has fallen all day without much of a let up. We got out this morning to walk Scout during a break of an hour or so. But a couple of later excursions took place in a pounding-down rain, and the dog was soaked when we got back (he doesn’t seem to mind; and he seems to like the process of us toweling him down before we let him back in the house).
Over in Davis this morning, just this side of Sacramento, Stage 1 of the Tour of California hit the road. The route was 107 miles to Santa Rosa over many of the same roads I’ve ridden on brevets, or centuries or just on rides with friends. The big climb of the day was up Howell Mountain Road. I remember it as a steep 2.5- to 3-mile grind I once did with my friend Pete. The eventual stage winner made one of his big moves on that climb today.
I’ve ridden some of these roads in the rain, but today it looked like the racers got pelted from beginning to end of the stage. You see all everyone wearing rain jackets, shoe covers, tights, and what look like scuba gloves. None if keeps you dry. The longer you’re out in the rain, the more water you get in your shoes, the more sodden your shorts get, the colder you become. Of course, the elite pros in today’s peloton really raced today; it’s very, very rare for weather to interfere with the running of a race (one exception I remember: heavy snow in the mountain passes during a stage of the Tour of Italy maybe 15 years ago caused the race organizers to abbreviate a stage). They raced today, but they were miserable, just like the fraternity and sorority of just regular riding folks.
How bad was it? Here’s the Twitter Lance Armstrong sent out after finishing:
“Holy hell. That was terrible. Maybe one of the toughest days I’ve had on a bike, purely based on the conditions. I’m still freezing.”
More rain in the forecast tomorrow. And some patchy, wild roads, too, including another one I rode with Pete once: Tunitas Creek. It turns into a wild one-lane route through a redwood forest. When we road it, the road was all patches and patches on patches. I saw a report from a local cyclist today that the route had debris on it today. Which makes it kind of amazing to me that the best cyclists in the world are riding it. It’s more than a little like the Yankees showing up to play on your local diamond, complete with pebbles in the infield and potholes in the outfield. Seeing the best on your home field — well, it changes the way you see the field.
I bray every July about Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, our English-language TV announcers-for-life of the Tour de France. It’s not just the cliched, empty language they use–granted, it was charming once upon a time–it’s their tendency to miss big moments in the race and to make assertions that are simply wrong.
To really appreciate how terrible these guys are, though, it’s necessary to tune in to the Tour of California coverage that their network, Versus, is airing each night. The main problem I have is that Paul and Phil have no concept of the race geography or terrain. Thus on last night’s Stage Two show, Sherwen spouted off about “the long straight roads of the Napa Valley” as the leading racers were shown speeding down the long, straight roads of the Central Valley, on the outskirts of Sacramento. Cycling fans hear constantly about how the racers themselves ride the course to get to know it. You’d think that the guys broadcasting this stuff could at least drive the course so they might get a feel for what’s going on; but there’s no evidence they or the producers take such a rudimentary step. Instead, they just talk over the edited video of the race and spout off. In yesterday’s stage, much of which I’ve ridden many times myself, it was obvious they had no idea where the action was taking place or what was to come. It’s just lazy, lazy, lazy crap.
That’s not the only problem with the Versus coverage, though. The stages have been edited down to a point that it’s hard to get a sense of the action unfolding. Key moments, such as a crash that put local rider Dave Zabriskie out of the race, are missed or ignored (despite the fact the show hasn’t been airing until a good four hours after the finish). And Bob Roll, the one on-camera guy I’d assume (since he has lived here) has a sense of the region. is reserved to his usual role of clown savant.
The best alternative, if you’ve got a high-speed Net connection: the live video/audiocast on the Tour of California’s own site. The video is choppy, but the audio commentary is vastly superior to what the Versus boys deliver,.