Monday, February 23, 2009

Stage 8 - No Tomorrow

"Saint" Lance's gritty, iron, determination shows

For those race fans asleep under a rock on another planet, welcome back, and let me tell you, the story of the 2009 ATOC was the absolute iron grip Astana had on the race from Stage 2's Bonne Doon road break-away by Levi Leipheimer onward. That effort by Leipheimer and Popovych cemented their control over the race for all of the remaining stages. The only time that was in jeopardy was in the Solvang Time Trial, and Levi used that to put the nail in the coffin of any other rider's aspirations for a winning the overall CG.

Rewinding a day to Stage 7, I have to say I was amazed at how easy these riders made Stage 7's climb up to 5,000 ft seem. They have some serious power in those legs and they can keep putting it down for an hour or more if the climb requires it. Btw, I have a nice bike calculator I found online which calculates power from speed and vis-versa. Based on the calculator, when Cavendish hit 51mph, out-sprinting both Hincapie and Thor Hushovd, he was generating 2,292 watts! Mark's got quite an engine there. :D (I've found this calculator to be pretty accurate, and used it extensively to inform my choice of 46/38/24 gearing)

I was, of course, very sorry to see Francisco Mancebo hit a rock and crash out of the race. I was going to mention sand on the road as a factor in the race after the rains, but rocks are an equal hazard in the San Gabriels. They aren't as decomposed as the rock in the Marin Headlands at the north end of the Golden Gate bridge, which will crumble into a mini avalanche of rock if you simply kick it with a good hiking boot, but that sandstone is pretty hazardous on the road right after a rain. I have to think Mancebo would have challenged Team Astana on the Cole Grade climb and changed the complexion of the race.

As it was there were a lot of tired legs, and a handful of notable names dropped out of the race from fatigue and futility. This may well have been Lance's best day too, as he crushed any hope of a run at Team Astana with the savage pace he led the Peleton with on the Cole Grade climb. Nobody had the legs to attempt a breakout off the front of the Peleton, and the Peleton had already been shattered into 2 or more pieces by the pace of the first long climb up to Mt Palomar.

On the descent from Palomar I saw the first really talented descender of the race - Vincenzo Nibali. He was smooth through his line, his positioning on the bike - whether sitting up, tucked over the drops, or chest on his hands resting on the tops of his bars - was well chosen for the tightness of the turns, grade, and speed. His transitions from these positions were well-anticipated and smooth - never rushed or twitchy.

Above all though, the one thing that made his skill obvious was the way he stuck his inside knee out into the wind to pull himself through turns. This not only moves your center of gravity well inside the line of the turn, but by plowing through the wind 18" from the centerline of the bike, it's like an inside air-brake that sucks you through the turn. It's something you see all the time from motorcyclists, but not nearly often enough from bicyclists. This small addition to technique can save your life if you take a bad line through a turn and need every last advantage to get you through it. The small amount of extra drag is usually more than offset by your ability to carry extra speed into the turn.

(To kill a lot of speed quickly if approaching a turn too fast, sit up, stick both knees and elbows out in a figure 8, and brake lightly over the front of the hoods with both brakes - then tuck all but the inside knee in and get low in the drops, putting your outside foot all the way down, thigh pressing lightly against the top tube to prevent wheel shimmy. Resume the same "dirty" aero position to kill more speed, once through the turn, if necessary.)

Descending down from Mt Lassen on a tour, loaded with 50lbs in my panniers, I was horrified to watch as my front brake pads began to melt, liquefy and pour off the back of the brake while I plummeted down an 8% grade into a hairpin turn. These techniques and a divine wind of about 80mph right at the turn are all that saved me. I ended up stopped about 3 inches from a solid stone barrier and a 1,500ft sheer drop. The next day in Quincy I bought a pair of Scott Mauthauser high temp brake pads and never used black rubber pads on that bike again. The magic ingredient in those pads? Iron oxide. Kool-Stop bought the patent on them years ago, so now most of us ride them. I don't know who was more shook up, me or my wife at the time, who was a quarter mile behind watching in horror as I careened toward a certain death. More so than in most things, in biking, small things matter a lot.

Stage 8 was all it was cracked up to be, a long steep climb followed by a short very steep climb. The Mt Hamilton climb from Stage 3 in 2008 is shorter than Mt Palomar, but is at least as steep as Cole Grade. Mt Hamilton done from the Patterson side also comes after an 8-10% grade from Franke Raines Regional Park to the little town of San Antonio. The descent down San Antonio Rd to the base of the Mt Hamilton climb is a great relief, and a lot of fun - until you realize you are going go have to climb back every last foot of that descent to get up to Mt Hamilton. Both Cole Grade and Mt Hamilton are rated "hors catagorie" - beyond categorization. Mt Hamilton averages about 9% with pitches up to 25% grade. You can ride it as the Lick Observatory ride in the Canyon Classic if you like a challenge. I'll be there.

Aside from the dominance of Astana and Leipheimer, the other standout was the crowd. Reported to be at 2 million for the race overall, it beat my estimate of 1 million handily. On the all-important Stage 2 day I couldn't get into the Tour Tracker as it was maxed out at 100,000 viewers. I hope the race organizers will offer a DVD of the entire ride with some of the interviews and other coverage that didn't make it into the Tour Tracker environment.

I have been Googling around to try to find out what the total race attendance is for the Giro d'Italia, but I have to think the Amgen Tour of California is now nipping at the Giro's heels in terms of fan participation, and increasingly, in importance for professional teams and their sponsors. I wish for all the riders, especially those who crashed, a speedy recovery and quick return to racing. Thank you Amgen for the many lives you've saved, and for sponsoring a fabulous event and a fantastic spectacle.

PS: My sympathies to my Blogspot friend Rachael on losing her friend Dean. May his after-life be as fruitful and rewarding as this one.

No comments: