For anyone who is a fan of cycling or just likes to ride a bike, getting to a pro race should be a top priority. The sights, sounds, sensations and access of the pro tour allow fans to get right into action, and best of all there's no ticket price.
Unfortunately, geography is a big road block in terms of getting to a race. There are only three sanctioned races in the US that top pros are allowed to participate, but luckily for us here in the Valley two - including the Amgen Tour of California, the biggest and best tour on the continent - are within a day's drive.
The Tour of California just finished up its 8-day tour on Sunday in the Los Angeles suburb of Thousand Oaks. Cycle made a road trip to catch the action at two of the final three stages, stopping in the Danish hamlet of Solvang for the individual time trial and hitting the slopes of one of the final climbs in Balcom Canyon as well as the finish laps in Thousand Oaks.
The Tour, formerly held in February, moved to May to avoid early spring storms and cold weather at the higher elevations. This is a perfect time for us to load up the cars, throw the bikes on the rack and escape the early summer desert heat by heading to the west coast.
The route began in the north-central part of the state and pushed on south through Sacramento, San Jose, Modesto, San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles before arriving in Solvang for the favorite of stages for spectators -- the individual time trial (TT). This is the stage where each rider starts on their own, usually a minute apart, and goes around a shorter circuit lap as hard as they can. The race of truth it's called because it is simply man and machine against the clock and the elements.
This was the fourth year Solvang has hosted the TT, and it's clear that it is a favorite of both fans and racers. The course starts and finishes in the same area so it's possible to see each rider start, run a block over and see the last fifteen riders blaze through for the finish. Also in the same central town area is the Lifestyle Festival where all of the sponsors and vendors show their wares and pass out free stuff, as well as the staging areas for each team where the riders interact with fans and warm up.
The access at the time trials is amazing. One moment a fan could be rubbing shoulders with legendary cycling announcer Phil Liggett, the next they're dodging pros riding to the start house from their team bus. And T-shirts, water bottles, foam fingers and posters are flying all over as each team sponsor hopes that you will waive their brand high and loud.
The other great part of the Solvang TT is that because of when it comes in the tour and how the course runs, the tour winner is typically either determined or highly favored after this day's race. California's favorite son, Levi Leipheimer, won the previous three editions of this race en route to the overall title each year. This year, race leader Chris Horner was able to manage his overall lead even though certified nut Dave Zabriskie blazed to a new course record.
The downside to Solvang is that hotel space is limited and usually swallowed up by the teams or tour personnel, however Santa Barbara is just 40 minutes away and other towns like Thousand Oaks, Camarillo and Ventura often make more strategic bases as you move between Solvang and the next few stages that begin to venture east and south.
Stage seven moved to the San Bernardino Mountains and the hardest climb in the history of the tour. Cycle opted to not make the drive to catch this stage in person and instead enjoyed a great ride through the Solvang/Los Olivos wine region, which will be featured as an "Escape the Heat" ride next month.
For the final Stage 8, Cycle headed to the super steep climb of Balcom Canyon Road. This climb is rated a "Category 5" climb (the lowest rated category), but that is simply because it is only one kilometer long.
It's because of the crazy steepness, and its location near Los Angeles, that this is a favorite spot for cycling fans to line the roads, don ludicrous outfits, bang cowbells and yell at riders to go harder and faster. It is the very essence of those scenes from the great mountains of the Tour de France. It's a loud party.
One of the best moments from this year's tour was seeing Horner clad in his race leader's golden jersey smiling as he saw three fans running alongside the peloton clad in nothing more than recycled inner tubes and used spandex.
Once the riders and support vehicles made their way over the top of the ridge, the entire group began flying down any open road they could find in hopes of getting to Thousand Oaks and the finishing circuits. We parked in Camarillo and rode to Balcom, about a 10-mile ride each way. The route ran through groves of strawberries, citrus and avocados and was a great contrast to the retail lined streets where the finish was set.
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But there is no place that truly expresses the amazing speed and power that these pros ride at than a finishing straight with a group sprint.
We set up 300 meters from the finish line and caught the breakaway leaders and main group speed past at 35-45 miles per hour. The rush of wind and the whir of wheels is awesome and intimidating with riders moving for position and driving their legs with ridiculous power. The stage was won by Australian Matthew Goss, winner of this year's great Italian spring classic Milan-San Remo.