This was like an episode of Survivor: the Tour of California version.
Most times the last stage is half ceremonial with the title already decided. There was nothing to celebrate on this 80 mile roller coaster that went four laps around and up the canyons on a climb called Rock Shop and later to be re-named Evil Bitch.
Mick Rogers had a measly nine second lead on Dave Zabriskie of Garmin but given the Aussie’s strength and the power of his HTC-COlumbia squad, all gurus said Zman and Levi Leipheimer didn’t have a chance. I asked Bjarne Riis, who was loitering outside the Macy’s at the Thousand Oaks start, what the odds were. He said it wasn’t impossible but he was trying to be diplomatic. Then he bought some socks and underwear. Just kidding ’bout that.
Allen Lim, the genius physiologist that worked with Zabriskie and now helps train Leipeimer thought it was a tall order. He said Rogers would have to have a bad day but this wasn’t Alpe d’Huez so that didn’t seem likely. Still, it was just a day after the challenging LA time trial and two days since the KOM crazy stage to Big Bear. Optimists in cycling cleats thought, well, maybe.
Once you saw the difficulty of the three mile climb, factored in a steady, sometimes strong breeze and two angry and motivated teams like Radio Shack and Garmin, you knew Rogers wasn’t taking the day off. Sure it was Sunday but there was no rest for weary legs. Johan Bruyneel had his SWAT team geared up and Jonathan Vaughters had a plan of attack and cool white pants. Not nesessarily a wise color choice considering the blood.
This isn’t some over-amped, over-dramatized version of the race. Attacks went immediately, Garmin turned the dial to 11 and made everyone either abandon and crawl back to the team bus or join the lactic acid lollapalooza. There was a pope on the mountain offering benediction and holy water from a plastic bottle.
The crowds lining the climbs were three and four deep, you couldn’t find a spot that wasn’t taken. When we zoomed up the switchbacks in a media car they went nuts, screaming, cheering, beating drums and abusing cowbells. Riders were dying on the climb and fans wanted to show them how much they appreciated the last rites.
You had to go down the the whole Garmin and Radio Shack roster to list all the attacks: Horner, Popovych, Leipheimer, Hesjedal, Danielson and Zabriskie. Big George Hincapie attacked early and stayed away, driving the pace up. There was an old undertakers’ hearse parked at the top of the climb. Rogers was going to keep his golden jersey or finish in a pine box with owner Bob Stapleton in tears by the grave.
So props to Michael Rogers, a genuinely nice, normal team guy with a big engine and revitalized confidence. He countered every attack, stayed super cool and never let Zabriskie or Leipheimer out of his sight. He earned one of the biggest wins in his career, a fat check, a trophy with a metal bear on it and dark horse status for the Tour of France.
Levi Leipheimer leaves the tour with no regrets. He rode at the limit, made no mistakes and his well-drilled Radio Shack team did everything possible. He lost Lance outside Backersfield but even with the Texan riding hard, HTC-Columbia was too tough to crack.
Dave Zabriskie finished in second, a disappointing deja vu for the Garmin rider. Sure, he won a surf board for his win in Santa Cruz but the Tour of California was his to win in the Los Angeles time trial. So close, so far away from the podium step marked with number one. Losing by nine seconds takes years to forget.