The Tour of California is one of the biggest draws to professional cycling that hits the US each year. But, let us not fool ourselves, we like to watch bicycle racing because — as that famous song says we want “to ride our bicycles.” Each year, as we pack up the van — and the Rapha Mobile Cycle Club — from the dark and stormy days that are Portland, Oregon, we are hopeful that along with seeing the best bike racing this country has to offer – we will ride as well.
We would like to think that this same mentality is what propels all of us. Certainly it is the same with Aaron Stinner of Stinner Frameworks in Santa Barbara, California. The fifth stage of the Tour of California was finishing in his hometown on this day and the best way to celebrate a race coming through is to ride up and greet it. The solo KOM of the day would be at the top of San Marcos pass, and as it turns out, the base of the climb — one that we did recently with the Rapha Women Ambassadors — is just out the door from the Stinner Frameworks shop.
It would be a lie to say that that the road starts out easy and just increases in elevation as it winds its way out of town. The reality of the situation is somewhat different, the pitching upward starts early and happens often.
We are passed by a gentlemen in the early parts of the climb. It is unclear what John is actually saying at the time, something to the effect of “this is going to be hard and I’m not sure how my legs are going to handle it” a personal assessment none the less. The rider responds to us in a rather snide way, commenting that it was “probably your tires that were holding you back.”
We will get back to him in a bit.
The Amgen Tour of California stage had started earlier in Pismo Beach and wound its way away from the coast line and up towards San Marcos pass for their one KOM of the day. It was going to be a hotly contested sprint at the top. Mostly because the break was made up of all the heaviest hitters, but also because the run down into the finish in Santa Barbara is a heady, fast descent that would separate any group that was together. That, and the KOM is the start of that very descent.
We were running late on our departure from the Stinner Frameworks shop. Mostly because that is our nature when traveling with these events. Part of the time is spent riding, part of the time shooting photos and the rest packing up all the gear and clothes and foodstuffs that are needed to simply get to the start the next day. The rest was because there was more than enough to marvel at in Aaron’s relatively tidy workshop. A few new bikes and frames hung on the wall to the right, and a large Stinner Frameworks logo had been neatly painted on the back wall of the garage. The third and final thing keeping us from heading out was the heat, nearly 100 degrees and climbing at that point in the day.
The nice thing about technology these days is its portability. The Tour Tracker app that Amgen makes to follow along with their race can fit in the palm of your hand. It is like listening to the Sunday afternoon baseball game on the radio, but on your person. You can start up the live feed, stick your phone back in your pocket and listen along as you climb. About half way up the climb we realize that we might not make it to see the peloton come through the blown up red arches that are the KOM. This works well and we hear that Jens Voigt is off the front in one of his crazy attacks.
It was right about this time that we came across our aforementioned gentleman once again. He was now seated under a tree, panting and huffing and looking red in the face. John rode over next to him asking if he needed anything to which he mumbled something about the ride (and the heat) going straight to his head. It could have been his tires.
After deducing he’ll be OK, we jam on it, and do make it to the top before the peloton comes through. There is a very excited young gentleman at the top – part of a very sparse crowd of spectators – but also part of the entourage of people who make these races happen. He is holding down the balloon arch, while keeping spectators at bay, and also being a very excited fan at the same time. All faces turned away from us and towards the opposite side of the mountain as we approach.
You can hear them before you see them, as with most races, a roar of the crowd that moves towards you like the wave at that Sunday baseball game. Then before you know it, the break is over the top, there isn’t even time for celebration at the KOM because everyone in the break is already focused on what happens next — the finish line. Which we hear later really is a race for the line, one that the American time trial specialist Taylor Phinney, attacks on the downhill and holds on for one of the most exciting race wins of his professional career.
And like that they’re gone.
We move our conversation to a small bar that is tucked away in the woods nearby. There is a side road, presumably the old highway again, that picks up just on the other side of San Marcos pass. The bar is closed, but they take pity on us and offer us beers and chili to hold us over for the rest of our ride. This is one of Aaron Stinner’s favorite stops on one of his favorite roads. The talk turns to the pro’s, the unimaginable speed at which they must be descending down into his hometown.
All this talk gets us fired up for the descent and Aaron can’t help but put it in the big ring and rocket down there. I look back over my shoulder at John who is leaned off the side of his bike, one hand in the drops shooting photos. It is about this time that I notice the police car right off of John’s wheel. I motion for him to put the camera away just as the cop pulls up next to the three of us who are going somewhere close to 45 mph down the side of the mountain. He gives us a healthy thumbs up and jams on the accelerator past us.
We jet back onto Old San Marcos Highway just as the light is starting to get really good. The beers have added a layer of warm fuzziness to a day that couldn’t get much warmer and we continue to marvel at the sheer bliss of the descent behind us — and being that we have cell reception we see the good news — Taylor Phinney did it, he stayed away. “That must have been what the cop was so excited about” one of us states casually. As if even for the briefest of moments even the California Highway Patrol can be cycling fans.
People do funny things when the big race is passing through town.