Thursday, February 22, 2007

Leipheimer Saves Lead by a Thread

Again, I'm not having the time every day to watch these stages unfold and hang on the edge of my seat as these guys ride up the edges of mountains. But it's exciting still to get an e-mail once a day with a capsule review of the latest stage. Local boy Levi Leipheimer is still leading the Tour of California as the race leaves the San Francisco Bay Area and heads south down the coast.

I don't get too excited about watching or tracking most so-called spectator sports--I'd rather be out on the field playing than sitting in the stands watching.

But I do get a vicarious thrill from watching these guys tackle roads I'd love to ride, and it does inspire me to cycle better.

Yesterday these guys rode nearly 100 miles in slightly over half the time it would take me. Well, that's how long it would take me on flat roads, subtracting for breaks--about 7 hours. They finished, with no breaks, in 3.75 hours, including a stiff ride up a mountain that probably would see me getting off and walking. Last summer, when I was in shape, I was nearly breaking myself on a ride (near home) that climbed 722 feet in 1.77 miles. Yesterday these guys attacked a mountain that climbed 1700 feet in 4 miles. That is a stiff hill, and that's a long way to go up it. And it came after 70 miles of hard riding, at a spot in the route where I'd normally be taking it easy and hoping for a little wind from behind.

If I rode 100 miles, I'd be ready to take it easy the next day. Instead, for these guys, the next day is a 200-km bike ride, about 135 miles.

So when I get out on the weekend and spend a couple of hours on a 20-mile ride, and come back groaning and grinning about what great shape I'm in, these guys are an inspiration to tell me that the human body can still do better, and fly faster, and have less of a belly. On a ride with spectacular vistas.

With the Tour of California, part of the excitement is that these are routes I actually could ride myself--or, in Long Beach, a route I actually have ridden parts of. A guy can fantasize about taking a long weekend and attacking some of the same roads. For the Southern California routes, I wouldn't even have to take a long weekend--just a map and lots of water.

And humility.

So my fascination with watching the cyclists is a little more than if I were watching basketball or football or some sport I'm not actively involved in. Sure, the vistas are great, and also the strategies are intriguing. But the raw power these guys put out is a headline attraction for me, because it sets a standard against which I can measure myself. And when I know a particular hill in California is a Category 1 climb, or a Cat 2 or Cat 3 or hors categorie, I can ride it with my own legs (or drive it in my own car) and understand better what the cameras are showing me in the summer when the Tour de France takes the exact same riders over legendary routes like Alpe d'Huez or some col in the Pyrenees.

Then when I go out on the road myself, even if I'm moving at only half the pace, I can put to work some of what I've learned about distance cycling, and leave my body in better shape too.

Too many words, but here are a few more: The AP doesn't know how to spell Voigt, and the way the promoter describes the scene (check out how they describe the size of the crowds, which it's heartwarming to hear).

I'll admit part of the fun this week is watching the U.S. riders do well on home roads. And yes, I'm still happy to see Levi Leipheimer clinging to his lead, even if it's by a slim thread!

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