Confessions of a Cycling Fan

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This email got me thinking about my relationship to cycling as a fan and rider.

I have followed professional cycling for decades or since Greg LeMond won his first Tour de France. I have spent much of my precious time and resources as an avid fan in Italy, France, England California and Australia. When the UCI ejected Peter Sagan from the Tour de France last July, my fan heart was broken.

I never thought Lance Armstrong was clean because I saw an interview with Greg LeMond talking about getting dropped by riders who the year before were middling racers. Then he knew the drugs were winning. Lance was up among the elite riders who were winning and they were getting caught doping. My assumption was that he was better at not getting caught. So I left some room for being wrong and cheered Columbia High Road and other riders on. Besides he was a bully, that was clear without a urine sample.

Somehow I survived those wretched years when the press broke a new drug scandal every year. I remember once I was traveling in Africa and spent some time with a German couple. He was a sports writer and the German press had just made a big deal about not televising or covering the Tour de France because of the drugs. I couldn’t understand how you could just stop caring. I was still in the throes of attraction to cycling.

Now I understand. Sometimes the corruption of the officials and the lack of fair play doesn’t just knock the wind out of you, it hits you with such a punch you just don’t give a flying fig anymore. I have huge respect for Peter Sagan. His cycling skills are unparalleled today. And his attitude is super fun and eccentric. He brings excitement to the sport. Oh, and he’s won the world championship 3 years in a row. He was on track to win the green jersey again, when his crash with Mark Cavendish drew the ire of race officials. They didn’t just relegate him for that stage (like they did Mark Cavendish when he had a similar crash back in the day), but ejected him from the race. Later the UCI dropped the disqualification, as if that does anything to erase the stupidity of the first decision.

The rest of the season I followed the Australian team and their excellent videos on social media. Orica Bike Exchange’s Backstage Pass was awesome. I stopped using my NBC Gold Pass to watch races. Still I wondered if I’d go back to feeling good as a fan after a break.

Then I received this email about Peter Sagan’s Fondos in California. Nope. I have a precedence. After many years as a USC football fan, I read about the concussions, then I took my family to a home game and the pre-game videos of greatest “hits” made me sick. Haven’t watched a game since. The Olympics, well who hasn’t lost faith in the Olympics? The latest in scandals is the Russians’ systematic doping. But that has been going my whole life. See the documentary Icarus on Netflix for a refresher.

I am sad to announce my heart break was finally irrevocable. I am a former cycling fan.

Pro Cycling Shines in Sacramento

20170514_152403It is hard to beat Sacramento for watching a bike race on a sunny day. AMGEN Tour of California Stage 1 ambient temperature was a perfect 73 degrees with barely any wind. The only kink in my plans was the coincidence of Mother’s Day. There were many fans along the road and in the VIP tents, but it was still possible to find a place to watch the finish at about 3:15 p.m.

20170514_152209World Champion Peter Sagan moved to the tail end of the Quick Step lead out train for Marcel Kittel. Then it looked like he might get boxed in. Across the line it was Marcel Kittel first, Peter Sagan second. Thrilling!

20170514_152831Afterward I hung out to watch the jersey presentations and delighted to talk to the first female commissaire that I’ve ever seen at the international level. I asked her how she earned her spot. She said she paid her dues refereeing local races. Normally she rides along in an automobile. Today was one of the few times she was on a motorbike. I asked if she had to prove her ability as a motorcycle driver. The UCI provides a driver and she rides along. I asked how many women there are at this international level–not many. This race has three!  Could this be my third career? haha.

Tour de France: Making New Memories

Jens Voigt in his element: media interviews. He earned the KOM jersey in Stage 1 2014.
Jens Voigt in his element: media interviews. He earned the KOM jersey in Stage 1 2014.

This time last year I was having an absolute ball in Yorkshire with Trek Travel. This year the Tour is in Holland for the first two stages and I am watching it from California. Today in Stage 2 the wind, rain and nerves resulted in a split in the Peloton with a group of a couple dozen riders about a minute ahead of the rest of the Peloton. Crashes and pressure created a third group that fell off the back of the race for awhile. It was exciting to watch. One additional bonus was hearing Jens Voigt’s commentary scattered throughout the broadcast on NBC Sports.

When I arrived in York and met my Trek Travel tour guides I had a mental list of my cycling heroes that I definitely wanted to meet and ask to sign my California state flag. 1. Greg LeMond, 2. Jens Voigt, and 3. Fabian Cancellera.  Just 24 hours later I had all three!  And Jens Voigt and Fabian Cancellara struck me as opposite personality types. Fabian seemed almost shy whereas Jens is an extreme extrovert.

Cancellara's nickname is Spartacus and his Trek bike is tricked out accordingly.
Cancellara’s nickname is Spartacus and his Trek bike is tricked out accordingly.

Whereas Jens retired, I am still following Fabian Cancellera’s career. He had a serious crash at the beginning of the season and it was uncertain if he would make the Tour team. He is definitely coming on form as he came in third in the Stage 1 Time Trial. As he started Stage 2 he said in an post-race interview that he had not been thinking about winning the yellow jersey for the 29th day in his career. I guess it is possible that it was not a conscious thought, but he is such a canny cyclist that I do not believe that he had not figured out the scenarios where he could win the yellow jersey (fastest time overall).

The Trek Team must have given him a free pass to do what he can as he was the only Trek team member to get into the breakaway group. The three great sprinters were also in the group: Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan and Andre Greipel. (Of the four favorite GC riders only two made it into the breakaway: Chris Froome and Alberto Contador.) If Cancellara placed third, the bonus time in the sprint would give him the yellow jersey. Tony Martin was in a similar situation and he also made the breakaway. However, there is a difference between theoretical opportunities and having the bike skills, experience and confidence to execute.

Cancellara preparing for Stage 2 in 2014
Cancellara preparing for Stage 2 in 2014

The sprint started at 500 m to the finish. It may have been too early for Mark Cavendish as he was out fast and first. The Peter Sagan broke wide and poured on the gas. Then Greipel’s huge engine kicked in and he surged forward. But who was the only rider with them at the finish? Fabian Cancellara. And he took advantage as Mark Cavendish faded to take third place and grab the yellow jersey.

I am delighted. This may be his last Tour and I am enjoying the new memories he is making!

One month until Tour de France

I pedaled to the Avid Reader in Sacramento–the only bookstore left between Arden Fair Mall and Elk Grove where new books and magazines are sold. I was looking for a specific book and browsing for new fiction to read this summer. Much to my surprise and delight the Velo Tour de France 2015 Official Guide was on the newsstand!

Ultimate 2014 winner Vincenzo Nibali heads to the starting line wearing the yellow jersey.
Ultimate 2014 winner Vincenzo Nibali heads to the starting line wearing the yellow jersey.

I read this issue from cover to cover every year. The Velo Guide cover traditionally features the winner from the previous year. Vincenzo Nibali dominated and ultimately won the 2014 Tour de France. The reporters had an irritating habit last year of saying “Nibali retains the yellow jersey…” and then adding “after Froome and Contador crashed out.” Ignoring that Nibali wore yellow before they crashed out. And that not crashing is one of the objectives of the race, essential to winning.

This year the sportswriters are salivating because Froome, Contador, and Nibali are all starting this year. I am excited because Nairo Quintana returns after a year off. He took the 2013 Tour de France by surprise placing second overall. His team Movistar bet on Alejandro Valverde last year and sent Quintana to win the Giro and was on his way to winning the Vuelta when he crashed out. It should be an exciting battle.

The race leaders run the gauntlet of news reporters after each stage.
The race leaders run the gauntlet of news reporters after each stage.

The Velo editors rank their favorites for the Tour each year. The magazine is written several months ago so it does not reflect the spring season. They rank the leaders in the following order: 1. Alberto Contador, 2. Chris Froome, 3. Vincenzo Nibali, 3. Nairo Quintana, 4. Thibaut Pinot, 5. Tejay Van Garderen, 6. Andrew Talansky. Contador just won the Giro. How will that impact his performance at Le Tour?

This issue also features profiles of each of the teams. For the first time, there will be an international team from Africa: MTN-QHUBEKA. It is helpful to track the changes in names as familiar teams change names as sponsors change. My favorite team is much easier to call out as their name is shorter: Etixx-Quick-Step.

Peter Sagan fine tunes his bike before a stage. He is wearing his "second skin" the green jersey.
Peter Sagan fine tunes his bike before a stage. He is wearing his “second skin” the green jersey.

They spend much less time handicapping the other jerseys. I was disappointed with the feature on the green jersey. At one time the green jersey point system made it the sprinter’s jersey. Then they changed the scoring system with more emphasis on intermediate sprints that perfectly suited new rider Peter Sagan. I love watching this exciting cyclist. He has completely dominated the green jersey in the last three years. The writers did not have the advantage of seeing Sagan win the Tour of California before they wrote this article and they cast a shadow on his chances. The bigger miss though was a clear explanation of how the green jersey point system has changed to reward sprinters more.

As Cyclingnews reported in October:

“The changes favour stage winners and will only be in place for the nine flat stages of the race. The winner of the stage will score 50 points, 20 more than the second placed rider, who will score 30 points, boosting the stage winner’s points total and rewarding stage winners more than rider who place consistently.

The jersey leaders at stage start.
The jersey leaders at stage start.

The first 15 riders to cross the finish line to be rewarded with 50, 30, 20, 18, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 points respectively on the nine flat stages. The remaining 12 stages will continue to award points in the same distribution from 2012 to 2014 when the classification was last changed with 45, 35, 30, 26, 22, 20, 18, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 points to the first 15 riders  across the line.”

I will be interested to watch how this changes the competition for this jersey. And I will be watching the continuing evolution of major talent Peter Sagan as a racer.

The issue also features a stage by stage description of the race. It changes ever year. This year it moves counter-clockwise around France after a time trial in Utrecht and a second stage in the Netherlands. If you look at the profiles of some of the stages you might think the Tour is not as hard as its reputation. Exhibit A. It is not the challenge of any one stage, it is the relentless pounding day after day, kilometer after kilometer. With hundreds of other nervous riders. On narrow European roads including cobblestones. Exhibit B. The mountains–Pyrenees and Alps. Just ask Secretary of State John Kerry who recently broke his leg riding one of the Tour de France routes.

3 Reasons to Love Bicycling in California

1. Oh my gosh! If you did not see the finish to the Tour of California then you need to get on YouTube and watch some video. All 8 stages excited, but the last couple of days amazed. Stage 6, the time trial, had to moved because of snow in May. This is just plain weird, especially for Southern California. At the end of the time trial Peter Sagan had the overall (general classification) leader’s jersey. After 5 years winning the green points jersey for sprinting, Peter has found another gear and he is winning sprints on the hard days and, thanks to time bonuses for the top finishers, leading the race.

I believe he loves California. When I was following the Tour de France I staked out his team bus one morning when I had a VIP pass. I waited patiently as all the other team members collected their bikes and rode off to the start. Finally, Peter Sagan emerged from the team bus. The crowd pushed forward. I stood my ground with my California flag and sharpie (and a friendly smile). He fine tuned his bike with the mechanic for about 10 minutes and then turned to leave. I was the only person he stopped to give a signature and I believe it was the California flag!

Now he has even more reason to love California. While he lost the leader’s jersey by just a few seconds to Etixx-Quickstep’s Alaphilippe. However Sagan turned himself inside out to finish so close to Alaphilippe on Mt Baldy on Stage 7.  This performance shows how Peter Sagan is really in a league of his own by finishing so strong.

I remember when Tour de France had time bonuses for the top 3 finishers of stages in addition to the intermediate sprints. Now they just give points toward the green jersey. The Amgen Tour of California does give these time bonuses and this makes it possible for Peter Sagan to be in contention for the GC. Mark Cavendish and the Etixx-Quickstep team did everything they can on Stage 8 to thwart Sagan and keep Alaphilippe in the leader’s jersey. Cav did win the intermediate sprint at 40k from the finish–but Sagan got second. And Alaphilippe got third! (Thanks to teammate Mark Renshaw.) Now only a second separated them so if Sagan got a time bonus for one of the top three at the finish then he would win the entire race.

Watch the finish! And remember to never give up.

2.  California is usually in the top ten lists for bicycle friendly states, but often edged out by Washington or Oregon. But seriously, there are so many fantastic places to ride. I have been reading Ann Marie Brown’s book Northern California Biking with more than 160 suggested rides. I am using to identify rides as I train for RAGBRAI. I need to be riding 20, 30, and up to 60 miles in a day. And I need to ride 4 days in a row, so my go-to ride is on the American River Parkway. It is 1.8 miles from my doorstep and I can ride 60 miles if I ride to Folsom Lake and back. It is wonderfully entertaining–I see deer, woodpeckers, wild turkeys, snakes, turtles, and more. Yesterday I also saw women plowing with draft horses on an urban farm in Rancho Cordova.

The paved bike path hugs the American River. Many river rafters pull their boats out at Ancil Hoffman park.
The paved bike path hugs the American River. Many river rafters pull their boats out at Ancil Hoffman park.

3.  Putting aside a freak snow storm in Big Bear, California aside, the weather is fantastic for cycling. One of the benefits of drought is perpetual sunshine.

As I get ready for RAGBRAI, I am also working on my friendly factor. People in Iowa are much friendlier than people in California. So I am developing the habit of saying “good morning” to cyclists and joggers I pass before noon, and “G’day” to those I pass in the afternoon. By projecting friendly energy I have had many great interactions and conversations with people–including Jens Voigt!

Tour of California, Stage 3

Stage 3 of the Tour of California started and finished in San Jose. It was a day of climbing and descending over Mt. Hamilton. I checked in via the app and saw there were several breakaway attempts and finally one stuck. It was a larger group of around 7 and then one by one they fell back and were reabsorbed into the peleton. One rider, Toms Skujins with Hincapie Racing Team went off the front and established over a minute lead. The rest of the break then becomes the chasers.

After 2:00 p.m. I switched to video and began watching on my iPad while I worked on my computer. Pretty soon I found myself holding my breathe as Toms increased his lead over the chasers and the peleton. He took risks downhill and almost went off the road at least twice. Gradually Paul, Phil, Christian and Jensie (the announcers) began estimating whether or not Toms would stay away and win the stage.

I learned that Toms was from Latvia and had been racing a long time (he is 23) but without the elusive pro contract. The Hincapie Racing Team was formed to develop young riders and give them opportunities to compete with the pros. The team has been aggressive in all three stages. They look lean and mean in their black cycling kits. Today George Hincapie must have been doing somersaults and back flips.

Cyclists jump into the breakaway because even if they are not successful at staying away they get a lot of attention for their sponsors (obviously even more when the race is televised). And as Jens Voigt has pointed out, while you may only have a 1 in 10 chance of being successful in a breakaway, if you do not try you will not have any chance.

When the lightning strikes, and the 1 out of 10 tries succeeds, it is thrilling. As a fan you want them to succeed. While Toms continued to pour every ounce of his energy on the road, the peleton got their act together and began to seriously chase. They gobbled up the remaining two chasers and narrowed the time gap. The announcers were trying to do the math about distance and time and finally determined Toms still had a chance but they were not sure if he would gain enough time on Peter Sagan to win the leader’s yellow jersey.

Meanwhile, after a day of mechanical difficulties and other challenges Peter Sagan and his teammates began to attack the last hill into the finish. (What sadistic person designs an uphill finish?) I really admire Sagan. He is such a great rider and he’s won lots of green jerseys as a sprinter. He is a consistent rider and is so talented at 25 that I wonder what kind of rider he will develop into… maybe a more playful version of the Badger. Who to cheer for today??

I began cheering for Toms so loudly that Lulu came into the room and started barking and jumping around. The gap continued to close but Toms was getting closer and closer to the finish. At last he crossed the finish line and he won the stage. Then the clock started ticking to see if he would wear the yellow jersey.

Now I could cheer for Peter Sagan. He turned himself inside out to win the sprint for second and retained his second place overall in the race. Toms managed to win the overall lead.

Enjoying the perks of victory with a huge smile and a wink!
Enjoying the perks of victory with a huge smile and a wink!

Imagine in one day changing your fortunes. Skujins has the attention of pro cycling managers now. He will probably have a contract for next year by mid-summer. He clearly was enjoying the thrill of victory and trembling from exhaustion and excitement. It was wonderful to witness.

Tour of California, Stage 2

I had so much fun watching the Amgen Tour of California I decided to drive to Lodi to watch the finish of Stage 2. Lodi is about 50 minutes south on Highway 99 from downtown Sacramento. The race started in Nevada City in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The route was almost entirely downhill to the farm town of Lodi.

Welcome to Lodi!
Welcome to Lodi!

Lodi is known for zinfandel wine grapes. They have a Zinfest wine festival every April. It is a charming smaller Central Valley town. It was interesting to see the range of support. One cranky business owner put up a sign complaining about the road closures. This was made up by lots of entrepreneurs with food trucks and selling water and cherries. Fans lined the road and were in a festive mood. I watched some guys on tricked out bikes ride by advertising Bikes and Bites. (I checked it out on the way home but it was closed to enjoy the race.)

The finish line for Amgen Stage Two in Lodi.
The finish line for Amgen Stage Two in Lodi.

It is fun when the people around you follow cycling. I enjoyed chatting with Jill from Folsom. Like me she saw the race earlier and got caught up in the excitement and drove to Lodi to watch the finish. We were positioned about 200 meters from the finish so the racers were going to pass us three times.

Cheerful young woman selling water and cherries.
Cheerful young woman selling water and cherries.

The three breakaway riders were still away when they passed us the first time. The second time around the sprinters did not appear to be very organized. Lead out trains were not obvious but they had managed to catch the breakaway. Etixx Quickstep had done all the work to close the gap and it may have burned out the lead out riders. The final time around we could see Cavendish and Sagan in the front but it looked like everyone was scrambling.

PeletonIt took a minute or two but then the App informed us: Cavendish won again. Sagan second. So worth driving down to watch in person!