Sunday, February 22, 2009

Race: Coda

When you’re leading a multi-stage bike race by 30 seconds or so, you have to defend your lead everywhere: on the flat and on the steepest slopes. Levi Leipheimer had led all week, and he had shown in the individual time trials a few days before that he could outrace anyone else in the peloton on the flat, with no team members riding in front to break the wind.

This day was harder in some ways: an hors-categorie mountain climb, where one by one his teammates fell away after protecting him as far as they could. Floyd Landis attacked on the lower slopes, riding out in front of the peloton, but Levi didn’t have to react, because Landis was so far behind in the standings that he could gain several minutes and still not be a threat in the overall.

Then Floyd fell back into the peloton, and, after a flurry of other positioning, Mick Rogers (from Australia) and Dave Zabriskie rode out ahead, together with a few others. Only seconds separated these guys from Levi in the overall standings, so he had to answer. It’s easy to lose whole minutes on a mountain climb if you can’t keep going at 110% all the way up and over the top. That would have cooked Levi’s race and made all his efforts over the past week futile.

Here he is, duking it out with some of the very best, toughest, strongest riders in the world. Above you can barely see Levi off on the left, half hidden, in blue shorts and a jersey with yellow sleeves. After a climb that wrecked a lot of riders’ legs, this was the first group to get to the top of the hill. When the race came to Palomar, none of the hotshot sprinters who led breakaways on the flat earlier in the week could match the legs and endurance of the big dogs.

That’s Mick Rogers in the yellow-and-white jersey in the middle of this handful of riders, and Dave Zabriskie (who races out of Utah) in blue shorts (Garmin) and white jersey right behind him. These two guys, plus Levi, plus a couple of the others in this group, are among probably the dozen best riders in the world. It was a treat to have them ride by.

This picture was actually taken several dozen yards up the road from where I was standing before. I ran alongside the riders, as fans on the upper slopes do, cheering them on in the last excruciating piece of the climb.

The word only came out a week later about how hard Levi had to fight to match these guys every inch of the climb: It turned out that since the third day of the race he had been riding with a fractured sacrum, the result of a collision on the road. He got up and kept riding that day, and climbed on the bike every day after that to defend his position, knowing how much it hurt to ride, probably not wanting to know why.

One of the most famous forearms in the industry. That’s Johan Bruyneel in the car, the guy who coached Lance Armstrong to seven consecutive Tour de France victories, still managing Lance (and Levi, and Albert Contador, and Chris Horner, and a bunch of Lance’s other old teammates), coordinating strategy via race radio while the riders wrestle their way up the road. That forearm spends thousands of miles every July weaving through France, passing water bottles out the window, gesturing, collecting rain gear when the sun comes out.

Next to him I think is Jani Brajkovic, but I'm really not sure (except that it looks like him).

Note that this bottle matches the one on the bike above. I honestly don’t remember which Astana rider chucked it off into the dirt as he rode past where I was standing, but I went straight over to retrieve it. I didn’t bring home a lot of souvenirs—posters or shirts or buttons or anything. But this is something I’ll be able to use.


Kangamoo said...

You should wash it first. It has been in the dirt.

CaliforniaGirl said...

Nice of them to ride by and throw out souvenirs while you stand by the side of the road. I hope it was an easier drive home, what with all the extra water to drink.