Tour of California 2009 – Stage 8

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Pasadena is a large city in the San Gabriel foothills just north-east of Los Angeles. It’s raining and damp and colder than our Hollywood-style motel pool and its surrounding palm trees would otherwise suggest. Evidence that today is our last stage can be found in the small exchanges between riders. Little is actually said – we just ‘do’.

It may be verging on cliché but now that our tour is almost over we’ve found our stride. We have a routine, the tried and tested procedures and rituals we need to complete the day. Which maybe explains why, as we load up for the two-hour drive to the start of Stage 8 in the San Diego suburb of Rancho Bernardo, there is a comfortable silence between us. We are operating half-asleep, on automatic pilot. With the finish in sight we need to conserve what energy we have left.

What we know about the ride is that Palomar Mountain is the most infamous climb in both Orange and San Diego County and, at 5,123ft, the highest ascent in the Tour’s history. From the Stage 8 elevation profile, this ride appears as a series of tiny triangles, all ramping up to one massive spike, the center of which comes at mile 43 of the 99-mile route. It is followed by a second series of small triangles which ramp down, to the finish in Escondido. The straightforward profile of today’s climb is welcome and after a quick team review, everything (and everyone) that can be turned off for the next two hours is shut down.

In the van, California’s freeways, its cloverleafs and figure-eights, hum by at 70mph; six, seven, sometimes 12 lanes wide. From time to time, one of the riders looks up from the crook of an elbow or from inside a helmet, watching as a procession of shopping plazas, car dealers, tan hills and concrete river beds speed past. Later, as we prepare to depart from a suburban parking lot in Rancho Bernardo, we go through our routines one last time, without anxiety or trouble. We talk a bit, get kitted out, find our maps and leave. It takes 25 minutes.

The beginning of the ride consists of staple southern Californian urban sprawl, until an innocent-looking left drops the team into a small valley that has recently seen some bushfires. Suddenly, we seem far away from the golf courses and housing developments of moments ago. A palm tree farm marks the end of the valley and the start of a craggy, rocky climb. It’s short, less than a mile, but steep enough to act as a wake-up call. At the top, Bandy Canyon Road is lined with stands of bamboo and orange groves. Not long after we pass a fruit stand. The couple who own it are excited to hear about the Tour and they press for more details. Will the Tour stop in their town? How many pro riders will pass through? Do you think we’’ll sell more fruit? Behind the stand, a man operating a small backhoe is also curious. At home, he has a Batman suit and a life-size replica of the Batmobile. He considers whether to bring both out for the Tour. On the edge of the adjoining intersection, a short man listening to headphones pumps a sign in the shape of an arrow at passing cars. It reads: HOMES FOR SALE. It’s a sign of the times. The next part of our ride ratchets up into an area dominated by Lake Wohlford, a small body of water surrounded by trailer-park hills and popular for fishing and boating. Further on, Valley Center Road drops into the widest valley imaginable. Much of the area is owned by Native Americans and, rather incongruously, a number of massive casinos line the road ahead.

For the past few hours the sky has been occupied by low, formless clouds. Suddenly, serendipitously even, they break to reveal the base of Palomar Mountain. The summit is still obscured but a large portion of its middle face is now lit by the winter sun. We begin to thaw out, coming to life for one last climb. It’s not the longest or the hardest we’ve encountered and certainly not the prettiest. But there is something about it, bathed in sunlight, that transforms Palomar into an epic ascent. It is 12 miles long and the road shifts between switchbacks and ramps, between steep sections and those that require a gradual, steady rhythm. It climbs through forests, some living and some seemingly burned to death. From its middle to the top, the climb provides stunning views of the valley. In some ways it feels as if we have ridden to the very bottom of the state to climb this mother of a mountain. This week suddenly feels that simple; one climb after another, one mile after another, just to get here.

On Palomar, with more than half the ride left to go, Jeremy delivers the performance of a lifetime, the escape of our tour. He virtually flies to the top of the mountain. Knowing the final finish line of the tour lies on the other side of this climb, he’s working harder than he ever has before or ever will again. Disappearing from view with every turn, it looks as though he is being drawn up by some invisible force, right to the very top. Around the last corner, in one final surge, he rides straight to the road sign marking the apex – and stops. Leaning against the sign, still clipped-in and head hanging, he pants viciously: “It’s done, I’m finished.”

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