I haven't posted to RBR for years, but thought ya'll might like this. It's geared towards folks who don't know much about road racing.
At 2am late last Tuesday night, my teammate Duane, the owner of our local bicycle shop and race director of the Tour of Nevada City, got a phone call.
“This is Mr. Smith (not real name,) Lance Armstrong's Engagement Director. Do you think Lance and his two Astana lieutenants, Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner could do your race next Sunday?”
“Let me think about that for a second okay I’ve decided yes.”
The Tour of Nevada City is the second oldest race in North America. Greg LeMond won it in the 80's and it's been on the national calendar every year since. Over the last several years, it's gotten smaller and smaller. Last year, we had maybe 2,000 spectators on the 1.1 mile course, an extremely challenging circuit with 120+ feet of climbing per lap and three terrifying, off-camber corners at the bottom. Speeds commonly exceed 50mph on the entrance to Turn-1.
Lance Armstrong has road- raced in the United States ONCE since 2005.
By 8am on Tuesday, the core race staff had received the call. For the last few years, I've coordinated volunteers, primarily consisting of Course Marshals and Registration/Awards personnel. Initial elation that The Man was coming to do our little race was swiftly overwhelmed by consternation. I personally had counted 35+ crashes in Turn-2b in 2007. We might get some attention on Father's Day, but what if we took out the greatest athlete of all time two weeks before the start of the Tour? What if we couldn't control the crowd on the open top section? What if the drunks got the better of us on Turn 2? (I've personally escorted several across the course from one bar to another when they refused to be flummoxed by the snow fence.) We could handle a couple thousand spectators, but what about five thousand that want a piece of Lance? Ten? Twenty? Thirty? This is a very small town... But, we depend on tourism and a hit like this can only come once.
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday: Suddenly, every Pro/1/2 racer I've ever known starts emailing me: “Peter, do you think you can get me in on Sunday?” Me: “No.” Suffice it to say, pre-registration filled up minutes after the announcement that Lance was coming. Several times a day, I'd see the Sacramento affiliate news trucks wandering around Broad Street looking for something to film. A couple times I saw Duane from my office giving interviews and I'd come out to make faces and call out embarrassing questions.
Sunday morning, 5:45am: My alarm goes off but I'm already up. Two slices of birthday banana bread (44 the day before) and I'm hobbling out the door (still on a cane two months after some nasty surgery.) 6:30-11am is a whirlwind of setting up registration, training Course Marshals, distributing race radios, settling vendors and handling early-rising racers who are hoping to get in at the last minute.
The night before, some chucklehead decided to spray paint, “I love Cheryl Crow” at the first killer climb, right in front of Sopa Thai Cuisine (great lunch!) What were they thinking? Is it an insult to Lance, or do they not know they broke up two years ago and that Lance has a brand new baby (made the old-fashion way!) with his girlfriend Anna? I don't mind the insult, but I can't stand the thought that the Pro peloton thinks the locals can't decrypt national news. Me, on race radio: “I need a half dozen cans of black spray paint ASAP. Who can hit the market?” Ten minutes later I'm un-defacing Commercial Street.
First race is the Juniors: They all race together, but are placed in two groups: 13-15 and 16-17. The gaps are huge and the massive field includes both girls and boys. Turn-2b rears its' head very early in the race and starts taking racers out, one broken bone or totaled bike at a time. I really don't like seeing kids cream themselves in this slick, off-camber corner and wish the Masters (35+ and 45+) had gone first. Sure, I race Masters when I'm not post-op, but I figure every year after procreation is a gift. After the Juniors finish, our local Man Friday (his name is actually Bruce) has his crew apply this tacky sandpaper to the greasy corner. Go Bruce!
My ex-teammate Jonz, a 40 year-old lawyer from Redding, shows up at registration. “It's pretty exciting, isn't it?” I ask. “Yep. But I'm going down fighting.” Jonz is just good enough to have a license to race with the Pros. He'll be able to tell his kids a great story when they get older. I'm struck by his attitude; it's not really realistic that he can challenge Lance & Co., but the purity of racing attracts a certain type of warrior mentality that I have always found entirely seductive. A chill runs down the back of my neck.
Minutes later, I start getting complaints from Juniors and Women who had already raced on the course: 'You have a problem in Turn-N. And Turn-N. There are peds running all over that corner.' It's my job to make sure these people are controlling the course. I flag down Chris Kelly (http://www.kellybike.com/) on his BMW moto and hitch a ride to the problem corners. It's always awkward because, even at 44, I'm decades younger than our average volunteer and I feel like a squirt and worry about finding the right words.
“What the HELL is going on this corner??? You guys have to SHUT. THE. CORNER. DOWN. When you hear a whistle, you STOP. THE. PEDESTRIANS. Any of you guys play football in high school? Back in the 20's, or whenever it was??? TACKLE THEM. If I hear that Astana is taken out by a pedestrian in this corner, I'm going to come back and beat somebody into a bloody pulp with this METAL CANE. Am I clear????” Okay, I didn’t say that very last bit, but my countenance was very stern.
I have no idea where I learned how to disrespect my elders like that. Certainly not from my parents. Seriously.
There were no problems in those corners for the rest of the day.
Nobody knew exactly when or where Lance was arriving. I did know they had a private jet landing locally from Aspen, but Duane felt a shell-game was a good way to make sure our guests weren't mobbed. It worked. Right in the middle of the Women's Pro race, Lance, Levi and Chris suddenly appeared on the course, apparently for a warm-up, and more or less shocked the crowd into silence (Overheard: “Dude, those three flat-chested chicks looked crazy strong.”)
The Elite-3 race: Fast, but not Pro-fast. Craig, my erstwhile Mega-Volunteer comments that everything is going smoothly and that there have been no crashes so far. I point out that he missed the Clown Show during the Juniors race, complete with red-noses, little cars and flaming bowling pins. The provided ambulances haven't come back from the hospital yet. We fret.
The Big Show starts half an hour late, around 5:40. The town has more people in it since gold was discovered in 1849. Turn-2 is slick again, the drunks are drunk, and the masses want to eat their cake. God help us.
As I hear the crowd at the Start/Finish going insane at Lance's introduction, my broken legs call it quits. I hobble back to registration and sit. The race goes by. Goes by again. Then again. Okay, I have to see this thing. I hobble down to the 50 mph straight-away between turns 1 and 2 and hop over the fence. “Sam, give me your flag and take a potty break.” “Thanks!” The peloton flies by, cranked over at a 35 degree angle, tires hissing on the overheated pavement. Astana is tucked into the first 10 guys. Sam comes back, but I stay on course.
Five laps into the race, Lance, Levi and domestic Pro Ben Jacques-Maynes are off the front. Earlier, I had predicted that my boy Chris Horner would win; he's on the short list for Astana's Tour team, but hasn't been officially tapped yet. He's recovering from a brutal crash in May's Tour of Italy and one way Lance and Levi can help him get the final berth is to set him up for a win at the Tour of Nevada City. No such luck. I was clearly over-thinking the situation, and what was obvious to the non-cycling layman watching the race suddenly became clear to me:
Lance came to destroy.
I watched him a bit closer. Nothing erotic, but roadies tend to check out other roadie's butts and legs. Visible fat is a rough barometer of fitness. Three ripples on the calf is more terrifying than two. I'd watched parts of May's Tour of Italy, and Lance looked a touch heavy. Not heavy-heavy, just not the way he looked from 1999-2005.
Lance, his teammate Levi, and Ben came by again. I counted five ripples on Lance's calf. Officials were pulling lapped racers off the course on every lap; we were down to maybe 30 guys on course and 3 guys duking it out at the head. I suddenly recalled a vignette from Lance's second race back, the Tour of California in February: Johann Bruyneel, the director of Astana, was following the race in the team car. A TV moto pulled up to the open window and Johann looked into the camera, held up eight fingers... and smiled.
Brief history lesson: Lance has won 7 Tours. His teammate, the young phenom Alberto Contador, has won the Tour de France, the Tour of Italy, and the Tour of Spain. In less than 15 months. So, who's team Astana's “main guy” for the Tour, which begins July 4th? Is it the clear favorite Contador, or the old retread Lance Armstrong? After what I saw today, here is where my money is: Texas.
Six laps to go and the three leaders lap the main field but the officials let them all stay in. Astana moves right through the field to the front. Five laps to go, and Lance screams by. No Levi. No Ben. No lapped field. Nothing. The clock ticks. Crickets chirp. “Crap, there's been a crash.” Tick, tick, tick... Suddenly, the pack appears. Ho. Ly. Crap. Here’s my buddy John’s Turn-5 video seconds after the vicious attack: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8WIAyUxSLs. (Lance is going so fast uphill he barely makes the corner most Pros “fly” up at 14mph.)
Lance won all by himself and, for the record, is his first victory since winning the Tour in 2005. Here's what the general print media perceived:
CBS Sports (video): http://cbs13..firstname.lastname@example.org
(and, for the record, there were 34,000+ aerial-confirmed spectators.)
Here's what really happened:
And from Chris Horner's blog, here's what really, really happened:
Lance's tweets the evening after:
“What a great Nevada City Classic. I managed to get the win, @levi_leipheimer was 3rd. HARD race. The crowds? Electric...”
“Thanks again Nevada City. You guys seriously rock. That race deserves to be around forever.”
…and finally, an awesome on-moto video from Carson Blume, another ex Redding teamie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yPtOUy5oZc. A full lap of the course; you really get a sense of the speeds. The downhill part looks familiar to me, but they’re going so fast up the hills that I barely sense a speed change. (I’ve only competed twice in the five years I’ve lived here.)
Five minutes before the win, I got a call on the radio to report to the Start/Finish tower with some muscle. A split second after the race director called it a race, about eight of us ran out onto the course holding a rope to set up a perimeter around the tower. Two minutes later, I looked uphill and saw Lance and Levi finishing their victory lap and heading straight for me. I should probably lift this rope... Moments after they were inside the perimeter, I learned why it's called the media “scrum.” I have no idea how they did it or where they came from, but almost instantaneously there were 200+ telephoto'd Nikons and TV cameras pointing in the same direction. Then they began to push. And push. The rope was failing and I handed the end of my cane to the Muscle on the left. The perimeter shrunk to half its original size, but not before Lance told the announcer/interviewer that the 2010 Tour of California would be crazy not to include Nevada City (thanks!) Moving to May, the Tour of California has to compete with the grand tour of Italy.
After the interviews, all order broke down and the scrum nearly flattened me. If a lens or two were broken by an aluminum cane, I know nothing about it. Lance is on top of the podium and I hear a crazed voice behind me: “Wave to Lance, Lance! Wave to Lance, Lance!” I look back and this wire-hair with eyes spinning like pinwheels has a little kid on his shoulders who looks like he's going to throw up. A couple minutes later, I had to make room for the famous people to escape. Just as Lance (the man) was literally squeezing between me and the tower, Crazy Man behind me screams, “Lance, Lance!! Hahaha! I named my son after you! Oh my God! Hahaha! I named my son after you! Oh my God!!” Surprisingly gracious, Lance the Man smiled and nodded. I couldn't stop myself from muttering: “That's a little creepy.” The Man heard me and laughed.
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Thread: Inside the Tour of Nevada City