UnitedHealthcare. Close but no California podium.

An hour after the Baldy stage, San Millan & Sutherland discuss what might have been.

Part of covering a story is getting too close, the lines between liking a team and the riders and keeping a safe, objective distance are hard to judge. That’s a difficult thing and a delicate balance that all cycling journalists struggle with and we’re certainly on the learning curve.

It’s the same game on the other side of the team bus — how much access do you give, how much do you share with a prying writer with his own agenda — and God knows what he’s going to print? We all do our best and sometimes it’s awkward and often it’s wonderful.

We like this United HealthCare squad a lot. There’s no Radio Shack or Garmin or Leopard attitude, no ProTeam looking down the nose when a writer asks a question or tries to get access to a star rider. Team DS Mike Tamayo has been more than accommodating with us, team physiologist Inigo San Millan is a gentleman and a scholar, assistant DS Eric Greene can’t help but tell revealing stories about the team and team leader Rory Sutherland always makes time for questions, win or lose.

Today was a bad day. Rory started the day 3rd on GC with a serious shot at the podium after a seventh overall last year. He gave it everything and it wasn’t nearly enough. That’s bike racing, as the cliche goes. That doesn’t give credit to a team that has raised their game and spent the last year doing everything they could to get Rory on the podium.

When Rory straggled up Mount Baldy behind a tow from teammate Charlie Wegelius, we dropped our objectivity. We shouted, we screamed encouragement, we threw whatever energy we had Rory’s way. It wasn’t much and it certainly wasn’t enough. In that moment, we were no longer covering the team, we were a fan hoping against hope that somehow our guy Rory could find a second wind and two more powerful legs.

That didn’t’ happen and a year of hard training, careful logistics, team upgrades, major cash infusions, a license upgrade and just plain painful hard work didn’t necessarily pan out.

Earlier in the day, I saw Rory’s wife near the top of the climb pushing a bright plastic car stroller with their young son inside. Yes, he’s a climber. I gave her a break on the pushing, being a parent myself, and we talked about Rory and racing and the Tour of California. As a school teacher, she has her feet firmly on the ground and she helps keep Rory there as well. He’s lucky to have someone to cushion the blows that this ezhausting and often cruel sport hands out each and every race.

Rory Sutherland will be back next year, Tour of California 2012. We had all better watch out because this team is only going to get better.

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email