Watching the ATOC on the tracker today the terrain started to look very familiar, and then the announcer said those magic words, "Del Puerto Canyon Road", and I knew instantly that the tour was heading down the same patch of road I'd ridden on returning from Mt Hamilton on the Canyon Classic Century last year. A little checking revealed that the entire center section of today's stage was the first 60% of the Canyon Classic Century.
It was thrilling watching the entire Peleton strung out like a long piece of mozzarella cheese as the riders flew down those same rough, broken, narrow, patched roads I had struggled up going to Mt Hamilton, and flown back down returning to Patterson. The road cuts through the old crumbly rock like a gash. Walls of rock rising straight up from the road, inviting rock sizes from pebbles to boulders to fall onto a road littered with debris. Little wonder there were 3 wheel changes and 10 mechanicals on that 20 mile stretch of road.
Lets not forget the rim-shattering, bottle ejecting cattle grates, and steep, sometimes 16% grades that suck you right into hairpin turns on road so rough you have to stand in the pedals and use your calves for suspension to keep both brakes hooked up well enough to keep from flying off the end of the road - all 10ft of it - and down into canyons unprotected by guardrails. Road so narrow it has no center lane markings, but dishes out endless potholes and makes that flat, hollow sound when you roll over it. The sound of a thin crust that is loose but not yet dislodged from the layer just under it.
Then down, down, down in thrilling 3-6% grade to Frank Raines Regional Park where the road flattens into an endless false flat when climbing up from Patterson, but provides thrilling speed with just the slightest bit of power on the way down. Finally the road bends around the large stream that flows through the valley floor, where freshly planted fruit trees dot the hillside, marking the climb back out of the valley, across I-5, and into Patterson.
I remember well the "suicide squirrels" on this section of road returning near sunset - so many having lost their race across the road to oncoming trucks and cars, their crushed bodies still thrashing as I flew past. The calm, detached numbness with which I watched - induced by a long, hard day of riding - as one hit my chainring, spinning it, rolling like a log, its long body curling up into a ball instinctively as its tail flipping into my rear wheel, threatening to topple me into a heap just 10-12 miles from the finish. Then spitting him out of my wheel, looking back in vain, curious to know if any serious damage had been done, but finding he'd disappeared into the waist high tumble weeds overgrowing the edges of the road as fast as he'd appeared.
As for the race from Patterson to the finish, it offered so many plot twists I gave up trying to figure out what might happen next, or who might blow themselves up trying to do the impossible sprint to the finish, or stay out on a 1-man break. I have to say though, I think the long descent must have tempted many to greatness today, as there were endless attacks right to the end. Attacks that answered some questions for me about how any team could beat Cavendish.
Like a puncher with a substantial reach disadvantage who works over his opponent's body until the head dies, Garmin Transitions attacked 3 times, as did Cervelo, and with nothing to gain Radio Shack left it to HTC to pull Cavendish for 3 long circuits around Modesto, disrupting their timing, and tiring the train that puts Cav in position to win 100 yards from the finish line on such flat, fast stages.
Like the defense collapsing on Kobe, everyone worked to thwart Cav today - and he almost beat them in spite of it all. In the end though, he settled for 3rd, and settled a bet I'd made with a friend. You can't beat Cav, but you can beat the body that supports that head, and he will go down with them.
This, the half-way stage of the Tour, was just fantastic. A play so full of surprises it was new in a way I've not experienced in many years. This move to May has paid such huge dividends. This is a field close to its TDF peak. A field of competitors.
It will be absolutely thrilling to see if Johan, Lance and Levi can pull off the biggest win short of the TDF. Big Bear is going to be a monster, and my guess is only 20-30 riders will be there for the final climb. The rest will have been shattered in the San Gabriel Mountains. The ATOC has arrived!