Tour of California 2009 – Stage 2

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Ahead of Stage Two, in front of Café Trieste in Sausalito, the Continental riders catch up with Michael Robertson, a local photographer, writer and, for today, our guest. As the team get dressed and ready for riding, Michael briefs them about riding over the Golden Gate Bridge: easy enough but he has some concerns about how to safely co-ordinate riding and documenting this section of our route. Fortunately, the bicycle path and road across the bridge run parallel, with very few obstructions along the way. Sounds easy enough but this is no average bridge and the respective car and bike entrances that access it are nowhere near each other.

We make it across the span and we get our shots but it kills the morning for us. More importantly, potentially valuable daylight is lost, and we’ve a long way to go. If Stage One was by no means flat, Stage Two will come hard in the form of two distinct and difficult climbs, Tunitas and Bonny Doon. On the far side of the bridge, Hahn mentions in passing that he “can’t wait to see pros ride that section of today’s stage”. It’s a comment that will become a popular refrain in the coming week.

After Golden Gate Park and the Great Highway, the road dumps like a waterslide, sunny and wet, on to the Pacific Coast. The next 30 miles are fast, with the team averaging 25mph but a steady crosswind makes it difficult for some of the riders to stay comfortable, even tucked in. At the bottom of the hill, after a left turn on to Tunitas Road, the incline comes immediately, the beginning of the climb and a 30-mile, U-shaped detour from the coast. The team transforms from a uniform, six-headed bullet, to six individual climbers, all unzipping and unhelmeting. Whether they break into pairs or go alone, each rider searches for his own rhythm and cadence to get him to the top. The lower half of Tunitas Road is freshly paved, with black, oily asphalt, hot and tacky. The road is narrow and switches back and forth, averaging 7% for several miles until the ridge where the grade drops down for the last push to Skyline Blvd. Here, the eucalyptus trees are impossibly dense.

Dappled sunlight sneaks through on the corners but otherwise it’s pretty dark. The atmosphere, like the air, is tight and still, nothing moves. It’s quiet except for the sound of labored breathing and the sticky noise of tires pushing steadily uphill on the tarmac. Though the pro peloton will likely be strung-out at this point, the idea of 180 riders charging up this mountain couldn’t seem more incongruous with the closed-in nature of the surroundings. The team isn’t talking much but what conversation there is, is about attacking and strategy and how Tunitas might compare with Bonny Doon, still 30 miles down the wind-exposed coast.

At the top, we regroup and head first south on Skyline, then west on Hwy84. Pausing only for a beat at the San Gregario Market for ice-cream sandwiches, we’re back at it and headed south on Hwy1. The sky is blue but dusty at the edges – and the light is fading fast. The team is now in silhouette. To their left, six shadows lengthen and spread across the road.

Bonny Doon Road, wide, straight and heavy with traffic, is the opposite of Tunitas. This late in the day, it’s a struggle even without the added pressure of fading daylight and its repercussions can’t be ignored. A narrow split in the canopy lets what’s left of sunset across the road but otherwise it’s almost dark. Halfway up, the team thins out, the riders spreading out at irregular intervals to the last visible turn below. At the top of Pine Flat Road the riders roll up in ones and twos, the headlights of passing cars bright behind them. We call it for safety. In the dirt on the side of the road, we pack up and drive the remaining 15 miles to Santa Cruz. It feels as if we have taken a 100-mile step forwards and one 15-mile step backwards. It’s not simply the gradient but where it comes along the route that makes Bonny Doon Road a killer. In good weather and spirits, both this climb and Tunitas would have been perfectly manageable. Coupled with our slightly slow start, the double the day before, not to mention the delays on the bridge, it’s no wonder the day finishes early in front of headlights.

Cole and Hahn, in particular, feel robbed about missing the downhill on Empire Grade. Earlier this summer, as part of Rapha Continental’s Big Flamingo Loop ride, they both climbed it and know it to be scenic and steep. Their spirits soon recover but the day ends with a sense of disappointment, an acknowledgement that the Tour of California is far from in the bag, far from a given. It’s as if we have faced a worthy adversary, then bowed politely and made plans for the next morning. We said our goodbyes to the road and turn our attention to more pressing issues. Like dinner and where a fresh bag of chips might be had.

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