Tour of California 2009 – Stage 3

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After a trip to Kelly’s Bakery in Santa Cruz to start the day, we’re on our way to San Jose for the start of Stage 3: an even 100-miles long and with a total elevation gain of 4,500 feet. It’s in San Jose that we meet up with a reporter, Laura Oppenheimer, and her photographer, Stephanie Yao. They’re both from The Oregonian, Oregon’s largest newspaper, and both will ride along with us for four days to document our efforts for an upcoming story on Rapha. It’s in San Jose that we also gain Chad, a professional race mechanic who works for SRAM, friends and partners of the Rapha Continental.

But let’s back up. An army marches on its stomach. We understand that now more than we ever thought possible before we started our tour. Food is a minute-by-minute concern and so it is that with bags of food on our laps and coffees by our sides, we have our morning team meeting on the drive over the coastal range to San Jose – at 65mph.

Sierra Road, only seven miles from the center of San Jose and the start of Stage 3, is the sort of climb that can only be loved only by climbers. That it comes so early in the day is just one reason it makes such an impact. That the climb starts with a straight-up ramp no less than a mile long is another. Within 15 minutes the team is strung out on its way to the top. Before the smog has entirely burned off and before the morning is over, today’s ride is underway in earnest.

In California, like nowhere else in the world, you can ride out of a Valley, a city and its smog and into big sky. It’s as if California has a patent on this particular spectrum of vivid, electric and metallic blues. Sierra Road feels like the driveway to a Norse god’s summer villa; majestic, endless switchbacks, some wide and which cut deep into the hillside, others tight and steep. And always ramping up. Climbing 1,930ft, Sierra Road is edged with green hills, rumbling and rolling like a verdant blanket all the way down to the smog-shrouded city below.

Dan and Ben go off – and stay off – the front. They are followed, not far behind, by Jeremy and Ryan. Cole takes his time and, at one point, swerves to the roadside where a calf, having broken through a fence, walks slowly toward the center of the road. He does his best to herd it to safety but the calf doesn’t get it. Clearly spooked, it runs ahead, keeping to the middle of the road. Hahn is hurting badly. He’s the last to the top and soaked through with sweat and effort.

After the summit we follow the ridge for a bit until it drops precipitously into the Calaveras Reservoir area. Winding through the next valley, past San Antonio Reservoir and Livermore, the route begins to roll, climbing again through countryside lined with orchards and vineyards. The second major climb of the day, Patterson Pass, arrives at mile 48. It is shorter than Sierra but steep enough. From the top, it’s clear that we are headed into a different world; browner, hotter and flatter than whence we came. The descent is whippy and curvy but with some sufficiently straight sections to carry high speeds. It’s 65 degrees and though sunny, the sky ahead holds the prospect of some low cloud cover towards the end of the day.

The second half of the route takes us deep into another valley, past new housing developments, non-descript industrial buildings, freeways, and more orchards. We zigzag for long sections; five, 10, 15 miles at time. The wind is steady as we turn left into it. Turning right makes it a crosswind, right again a tailwind. It’s becoming clear that Stage 3 is in fact two rides. The first half is made up of the two climbs and which are separated by rollers. The second is dead flat and exposed for hundreds of miles to the weather and prevailing wind. We pace line for 50 miles, all the way into Modesto, rolling into town and the hotel parking lot just before dark. When the pro peloton arrives it will still have to complete two circuits in the city. Even without that additional effort, we barely beat the clock.

At the end of Stage 3, Chad, in his SRAM-sponsored Volvo, brings some much appreciated benefits. Some, like his tools and expertise, are obvious. Others, like his aura of professionalism and calm, problem-solving skills, are less tangible. Having spent just 10 hours with our team, he’s already invaluable. As the team gets dressed for dinner Chad, in the parking lot, sets up what will soon become a familiar sight. A red stand, a bucket, hose and a number of brushes and towels. The last thing we see as we pull out for downtown Modesto is Chad, zipping himself into a bright red SRAM union suit and donning a red beanie. Our very own Santa Claus, Chad has brought the team the best present of all – professional bike love.

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