This was my first day covering the Tour of California. It’s now 11pm and I am fried, exhilarated, stunned, inspired, overwhelmed, insecure and I can’t wait for tomorrow’s stage two.
That’s the intensity of a race and an experience you can’t get blogging from long distance. I learned so many lessons on day one that it would take another week just to process.
First, I blew it right off the bat. Flat out missed the media vans from the hotel to the start line in Nevada City. The kind of rookie mistake you’d spend years living down. Got up at what I thought was plenty of time only to find the lobby and parking lot empty. Circus gone, stupid monkey abandoned. I panicked, then forced myself to take a few deep breaths. Okay, found a rear guard, a Media Two car leaving late. Twisted Spoke rescued.
The late morning in Nevada City was the kind of day California is famous for: perfect, sunny and warm. The town is a former gold rush burg with beautiful Victorian buildings that’s since become a gold mine for tourism. And on this day, the biggest stage race in America.
I had an assignment from Pez Cyclingnews and one from Cycle Sport magazine. I was hyperventilating with options, sensory overload, story angles, local color — trying to take it all in at once and trying to step back for perspective at the same time. Trying to act like a pro and not exactly knowing what a pro would do. I attempted to channel Bob Roll but nothing happened. I had to hit Lance’s Juan Pelota mobile cafe for a latte just to get my bearings.
First cool thing — the press credential hanging from my neck. I had a front row view of the sign-in and it was the all star show. My whole body was vibrating with that a is-this-really-happening? feeling.
There was Tom Boonen, George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Francesco Chicchi, Mark Cavendish and Dave Zabriskie nearly at arms length. Andy Schleck wheeled his bike around me, Fabian Cancellara adjusted his ear piece while I worked the iphone camera. I stopped Heinrich Haussler Nextas he was wheeling away and got a great candid shot. Hincapie gave an interview with me leaning in. And nobody from security said, get the hell out. It was a true fan moment, like seeing gods for the first time, in the flesh and lycra.
Next I learned one of the surprising ironies of covering a race: You don’t see much of it. I couldn’t be there for the actual start because the media caravan has to get the hell out of Dodge before the riders do. It was a sprint to the car and in seconds we hit the accelerator out of town. A closed course, a police car escort and instructions to stay in front of the riders. A sweet deal: running every stop light and stop sign in the gold country and pretty soon we’d blasted out of town past thousands of cheering fans on both sides of the road. Well, that was cool, where’s the race? I felt like king of the parade.
Behind us, unseen, was the race itself. Then a break of four riders went clear and we eased off the throttle so we could actually spot them. Yet another lesson: hard to watch a race out the back of a car window. I tried a few photos with the new camera I don’t know how to use but realized without a massive len I wasn’t getting squat. The guy in back with the big rig Nikon, yeah, he was happy.
Writers stick to what they know so I settled in with note taking. Which was mostly about sitting in a car breaking all traffic laws. Race motor bikes ripped past, we side-swiped team cars, the tired screeched. At one point I decided I was actually in the Tour of California Rally Car race that just happened to have a bike race scheduled right behind us.
It was a long breakaway, something like 80 miles, so on we rolled. The crowds were tremendous in size; the scale of the event felt huge. We listened to the caravan radio feed as the time gap dropped from six minutes to one — and that was our cue to get out of the gap between break and peloton.
Stage one was a guaranteed sprint finish in Sacramento so we hammered even harder and faster than the HTC-Columbia train to beat them to the finish line. We had an engine and still we only clocked them by five minutes.
The exhilaration of being down inside a race was amazing and electric. When we hit the suburban outskirts of the city, the crowds were non-stop, three and four deep. The barriers were up and it felt like we were the advance jeep going into Paris on D-Day. I should have been throwing chocolate bars out the window and stopping to kiss women.
About 50 yards past the finish line, our driver in Media Two braked hard and we bolted. A submarine drill, all hands on sprint finish. The trains were rolling and I barely had time to get my bearings. There was a flat screen for writers to watch and I arrived just in time to get shocked: Boonen down and not getting up. Later, the french writer from L’Equipe would tell me the Quick Step riders said it was a Liquigas guy that took him down.
The rest of the script had been written months before when Mark Cavendish said he was coming to California. The lead out was text book except for Cancellara and Voigt refusing to give in. They dragged Haedo up and the Saxo Bank sprinter made a fair run at Cavendish, gaining ground but running out of it fast — too fast. The Manxman grinned and somewhere in Italy Andre Greipel gritted his teeth in jealousy and disgust.
Then it was a four block walk to the press room where 60 to 70 journalists and photographers were working like mad. Plenty to tell there but how’s this for trial by fire? I sit down to write my first assignment and who is sitting directly across from me: Juliette Macur, the cycling writer for the New York Times. Yeah, that will make you question your own talents.