Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Wild Tour of California Stage 2 -Weather Adds Drama to Stage 2 finish in Santa Cruz

Here's my report from the Monday, February 16 race!

Fans and Cyclists alike kept spirits high despite rain & hail

The sky unleashed hail, driving rain, drizzle and even some sunshine during Stage 2 of the Amgen Tour of California, which finished yesterday in a packed downtown Santa Cruz. The wild weather did not dampen the spirits of thousands of spectators cheering the world’s best racers, including Lance Armstrong, seven-time winner of the Tour de France.

In their third day of racing the 9-stage event, the pack started at 8:30 a.m. in Sausalito, crossed the Golden Gate bridge — closed to traffic for a sporting event for only the second time — raced down Highway 1 and completed the challenging 115.9-mile ride on Front and Cooper Streets at about 2 p.m. It was the first time the city hosted the 4th annual event, the biggest professional bike race in the U.S.

The crowds were wall-to-wall at the finish area. Armed with umbrellas, raincoats, ponchos and waterproof pants, the throngs were undeterred by Mother Nature’s unpredictable behavior, which included sudden downpours even after the rain had mostly abated.

“It was brutal,” said Wendy Bowers-Gachesa, of the hail that pelted her while she watched the race from Bonny Doon Road, the site of the second and final climb of Stage 2. “We were out there for two hours,” said the Watsonville resident who joined a dozen friends to cheer for the cyclists. “It was hailing, drizzling, then hard rain, more hail,” she said. “For about 10 seconds, there was sun. My car said the temperature was 39 degrees.”

From the racer’s perspective, the conditions were even worse. “Turn the shower on as cold as it gets, then stand there for four hours,” said two-time Tour of California champion Levi Leipheimer who wore the leader’s yellow jersey after Stage 2. “That’s what it was like.” He was bundled up in a hat and two jackets at the post-race press conference held at the Santa Cruz Veteran’s Hall.

Team Astana’s Leipheimer, who battled to become the overall Tour of California race leader during Stage 2, was not the only racer impacted by the harsh weather. “It was hailing in Pescadero and the coldest point was on Skyline,” said Ben Jacques-Maynes, a pro cyclist on Team Bissell who lives in Watsonville with his wife, Goldi, and their two young daughters. “The cold seeps into your legs. The wind and rain wears on everyone.”

It’s likely that the dangerous road conditions played a role in the accident that took Andy Jacques-Maynes out of the race. The twin and Team Bissell teammate of Ben Jacques-Maynes make a trip to the hospital to have his injuries, which were considered moderate and not life-threatening, checked out.

Despite the cold, Bowers-Gachesa, a nutrition instructor at West Valley College and an avid cyclist, had no regrets about her Bonny Doon vantage point. “The vibe was really good up there. There were a lot of spectators and it was an exciting race. I just wish they were slower so I could have seen them for longer!”

The steep climb of Bonny Doon Road was where the day’s drama unfolded. The second climb of Stage 2, after Tunitas Creek, was a thrilling spectacle thanks largely to the Herculean effort of Levi Leipheimer. The two-time defending champion of the Tour of California and teammate of Lance Armstrong made a daring break away from the pack on the climb. The initial attack had been launched by Carlos Barredo who was in the lead up to the summit of the hill. Leipheimer, essentially riding solo, closed in on and caught Barredo (Quick Step). Ultimately, Thomas Peterson (Garmin-Slipstream) won stage 2.

“When we hit the bottom of Bonny Doon Road, I could see everyone was at their limit,” said Leipheimer later at the press conference. “I felt good, so I turned to [teammate] Popo and said ‘light it up!’ Then came the real suffering.”

The challenging climb was followed by the treacherous descent down Empire Grade. Reaching speeds of 50 miles an hour on rain-slicked pavement, the racers had to take care not to have their rear tires slip. Due to his bold descent and strong overall riding, Ben Jacques-Maynes was awarded the “Most Courageous Rider” title for Stage 2. “This feels like a nice homecoming,” said Jacques-Maynes, who helped design the race course for Tour of California. “To stand up on the podium with so many family and friends here was amazing.”

From Davenport to downtown finish line spirits stayed high as people banded together to celebrate the event. “I just came in from standing in the rain for an hour in Davenport, waiting for the bike race to come,” reported Ann Parker via email. “It was fun local camaraderie!”

Members of the Peloton Club, the Tour of California booster club, were cozy on the heated patio at Woodstock’s Pizza watching the broadcast of the race, then moved to the roadside tent to watch the finish.

“We are being treated like royalty,” said one member, munching on the buffet catered by Southern Exposure.

Stationed at the finish line at the 200 meter mark, Terri Schneider, an endurance athlete and coach who lives in Aptos, said the weather was no big deal. “I figure the riders are getting hammered and we have nothing to complain about.”

After Stage 2, cycling fans drifted to downtown shops while others went home to recover. For the pro racers, there are still 450 miles to go in the Tour of California and no days off until the tour ends, Feb. 22 in Escondido. Asked about his overall race strategy, Leipheimer said, “I will take it day by day, kilometer by kilometer. It’s gonna be really tough.”

For full results visit, www.tourofcalifornia.com.