Saturday, February 21, 2009

Race: Angeles Forest Highway (Team Astana)

As soon as the peloton rode into view, I had a “Duh, of course” moment.

My nephew’s sage recommendation after the rainy stage we saw in Northern California was “Next time let’s do this when it’s sunny.” Check.

My brother and I talked about something else we both thought we’d do differently: It’s easy to spend more attention capturing a moment in life than living in that moment. When a pack of racers rockets by, if I focus on taking pictures, I don’t see the racers. He and I agreed that if we could go back and play that morning again, we’d both rather pay more attention to watching the race itself, trying to figure out what we were seeing going by, rather than blindly hurrying to preserve it.

On Tunitas Creek Road last weekend, he and I both stood there and took pictures while 100 of the best riders in the world fought past us, and we both know a lot of these riders by name and reputation. But between us both, I think only he recognized a single rider.

So I came out today thinking I was going to pay more attention to spotting Lance Armstrong, plus anyone else I could. If I got any pictures, that was fine, but it wasn’t going to be the main mission.

So the riders all come over the hill and around the bend, and I thought, “Duh.” On Tunitas Creek Road, the riders were a jumble of rain gear in no particular order. By now, though, with Levi Leipheimer in the overall lead, the Astana team is riding in a baby-blue bunch at the front of the pack, controlling the peloton’s speed and strategy as a leader’s team usually does.

Lance and Levi weren’t going to be buried back in the pack. Spotting them was going to be easy.

I had not been sure earlier which rider in the breakaway was George Hincapie. I saw the side of a jersey that said Hincapie, but that’s a brand of sportswear that other teams might also use, though I guess in retrospect they probably wouldn’t display the name so prominently on their outfits. Anyhow, I wasn’t sure I had seen George.

But I saw both Lance and Levi ride by me today, close enough to recognize them both, slow enough for me to glance down and check their bike numbers too, to make sure I had the right guys. Their numbers are easy: Levi’s bike number is 1; Lance is 2.

No way I’m going to recognize every rider as they go by, but I was pretty pleased with myself for being able to say I had seen them both riding—not just that a pack had gone by and they were somewhere in it.

You get a much better view of all the riders if you watch them on TV. But being there in person to hear them breathe as they ride by, working hard just a few feet away from you . . . it’s like having seats a few feet away from the pitcher’s mound, even if it’s just for a pitch or two. No TV picture can really be quite like being out there in the sun and the dust and the trees with them.

After the dust settled, I could pore over the pictures and figure out who else was who.

In order, from the front of the line to the back, you’re looking at:

6 Yaroslav Popovych (“Popo”)
8 Gregory Rast
3 Jani Brajkovic (white windbreaker over his jersey)
7 Jose Luis Rubiera Vigil
5 Steve Morabito
4 Chris Horner (yellow shoes)
1 Levi Leipheimer (yellow shoulders on his jersey, dark blue sleeves)
2 Lance Armstrong (black-and-yellow helmet, yellow Livestrong jersey)

A lot of these guys have gone multiple seasons with Lance, and Levi, and George, and Albert Contador (who is not riding the Tour of California this year, because he’s representing Astana in a different race this week). Racing solo, many are contenders in their own rights. Under Johan Bruyneel, a master strategist and manager, they work together in a legendary team formation.

As you can see, even though it isn’t a huge hill, they’re pulling mightily to get up it. Those bikes don’t move themselves.

Imagine being able to stand 10 feet from Babe Ruth as he swatted a homer. No instant replay. No circles and arrows drawn on the screen by a commentator to highlight form. In the flash of an eye he connects with the ball, and it’s gone. Watching the riders go by is like that.

The guy behind Lance, although his jersey is similar to the Astana jerseys, is from a different team: Garmin-Slipstream.

The day before, Levi had shown what it takes to stay in control of a race like this. In the individual time trial in Solvang—riding solo, with no team riders around to help carry the pace—he beat Dave Zabriskie, one of the world’s best time trial riders. They had started the day 28 seconds apart in the general classification, and Levi outrode his previous time and the time of Zabriskie, a three-time U.S. national time trial champ, to stretch that to 36 seconds.

On a mountain stage, if you fall behind, it’s easy to lose not just seconds but whole minutes to your competition. So if Levi chokes on a climb, he could easily fall from first place overall to tenth or worse. He’s riding in a well-protected position here, with a blue train of six guys in front of him to create a pocket of air to suck him along, and Lance Armstrong, who knows something about race strategy, riding practically at his elbow, covering the rear.

There was more race after Astana went by, but nothing that would match the thrill of seeing the Blue Train go by, one after another.

After it was all over, I got back in my car and headed for home. All the way, my cell phone serenaded me (once I got back into tower range) with a steady stream of updates from my brother, who was watching the end of the race on TV across the continent.

All in all, an outstanding afternoon.


Kangamoo said...

You either needed a steeper hill or sunshine to slow those bikers down. Those are some really nice pictures. That would answer the question asked by my kids about if you were watching live.

Too bad about taking that picture, you could have had a high 5.

Papa Bradstein said...

Those are awesome shots, and I'm glad that you also took the time to watch what you were looking at through the lens(es).

What a great story...thanks for sharing. I'm glad you got the texts. I was pecking them out for you as 3B sat on my lap asking repeatedly to "Watch the bikes on the trainers." I figured you didn't have TV reception up there.

Fortunately, he indulged me.