Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Greatest Bike Race In America. The Greatest Bike Racers In The World.

Women racers circling Tahoe in Stage 1 of the Amgen Tour of California.
Too bad they couldn't find a scenic place to hold the race!

Hey everybody, pull up a cushion or chair, sit back, and I'll tell you a story about some amazing young women who are part of a group of bicycle racers kicking butt in the road racing world. These women set Tahoe bike racing on fire three days ago. Unlike lots of what I write, this story won't be fiction. It will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

On Thursday, May 11, the Amgen Tour of California began here in Tahoe. The Amgen Tour is a 10-day bike race throughout the state and is regarded by many as the most important race in the country. The tour runs in four stages (races) for women and seven stages for men. The stages take place all over California and add up to many hundreds of miles. Think Tour de France California style.

The opening race was the women racing around Lake Tahoe. 72 miles with lots of elevation gain and loss.

Nearly 100 of the best women racers in the world, coming from 20 countries, started at Heavenly Resort and rode around Lake Tahoe in about the same time it takes to drive around the lake! As they finished, the winner was Megan Guarnier, an American who races for the Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team from The Netherlands. No surprise there, as Megan won the overall Tour of California last year. She is, by every measure, one of the racing world's biggest stars. In second place, just 8 seconds behind, was Anna van der Breggen, a powerful racer from The Netherlands and one of Megan's teammates. It was a spectacular race.

This is when the racers first appeared as they approached Emerald Bay.

Part of bike racing strategy is to stay back in the group so the group leaders do the work of blocking the wind. Teammates help each other out by shielding the one they think has the best chance of breaking free from the group and carrying that momentum to the finish and possibly win. Racing strategy is complex, making it very hard to predict the winner.
(A group of bike racers is called a "Peloton," French for "platoon.")
The next day was the second race, 68 miles with huge climbs and descents. This circuit was a tortuous loop that went from Heavenly, out through the South Shore, up over Luther Pass at 7740 feet, down through Hope Valley and then down to Carson Valley at 4700 feet of elevation. The racers then climbed up Kingsbury Grade, a 2,800-foot ascent to Daggett Pass, rode back down to Lake Tahoe, and then back up the final ascent to Heavenly.

The first racers coming down from Luther Pass toward Hope Valley. How fast were they going?
I don't know, but it was FAST. 50 mph? 60 mph?

The curve they were approaching wasn't sharp (just to the left of this photo). But their speed required them to lean hard into the turn.

A few hours ago as I write this on Friday, May 12th, I was at the finish line at Heavenly Resort as the second race was nearing the finish. 

The announcer was getting race reports in his headset and was passing the information on to the crowd. He spoke loudly into the microphone, his excitement contagious as he relayed the information that Anna van der Breggen, the second place finisher from the day before, was in the lead. But it turned out that another racer, an American named Katie Hall was coming up from behind. Known as a hill climber without equal, Katie Hall had apparently demolished the crowd on the Kingsbury Grade ascent. However, she is apparently not as fast as some racers on the level and on the descents. As they came down the lake side of Kingsbury and headed toward the final climb, Anna had taken a strong lead.

The announcer's words were something like, "The latest report is that Katie Hall is launching an attack on Anna van der Breggen's lead. Katie's approaching from behind. If she can narrow Anna's lead just enough, then Katie can possibly catch her when they get to the final ascent, which is Katie's specialty." 

"Anna van der Breggen knows she has to maintain a good lead in order to win. If she doesn't have enough distance on Katie Hall, Hall might power past her on the climb."

"Now Katie has caught up to Anna van der Breggen!  They are just two K out, on the final climb to the finish. Anna is an amazing racer. But Katie Hall, who races for UnitedHealthcare Professional Cycling Team, is known for being a climber. She has an astonishing ability to power up mountains."

The announcer was now shouting. 

"Now Katie Hall has pulled ahead of Anna van der Breggen. Katie Hall is the lead! Nothing can stop this woman! She is a climbing star! Okay folks, she's now five seconds ahead of Anna. She's moving faster. Increasing her lead. Wait, I've just been told she's opened her lead to ten seconds. These women have already climbed and descended six thousand feet in this race. Luther Pass. Kingsbury Grade. The climb up to Heavenly. Kingsbury alone is almost three thousand feet of vertical rise in just seven miles. Hold on, everybody. Katie Hall's lead has increased to fifteen seconds! This is amazing! She will be coming into view any moment. Folks, this is one of the most amazing finishes in Amgen California Tour history!"

At that moment, down where the final stretch turns into the Heavenly finish lane, the crowd saw a patrol car appear, light bar flashing. Next to it was an official car and a race-official on a motorcycle. The flashing lights got brighter, then pulled off to give the entire lane to Katie.

"There she is!" The announcer shouted. "Katie Hall's lead is still increasing! She's now ahead twenty seconds, so much that she could possibly pull into the overall tour lead and earn the coveted yellow jersey!"

We all squinted against the sun, which reflected off the vehicles and the distant snow-capped mountains. Mt. Tallac loomed over the western side of Lake Tahoe, its jagged cliffs and brilliant snowfields demanding attention. Behind Tallac, the Sierra Crest ridge line was a row of 10,000-foot saw teeth. In front of that spectacular view, heat waves off the pavement made the patrol car shimmer. The red and blue flashes danced, rising a step, wavering to the side, then coming back into position like a mirage that couldn't be trusted.

We stared. The crowd hushed.

Through the mirage, a tiny figure gradually emerged.

"Folks, Katie Hall is coming down the stretch! She seems to be accelerating. She's still increasing her lead!"

As the racer approached, wearing a blue jersey, we sensed the rapid pulse of her legs and feet churning into a circular blur. The crowd started cheering.

Katie Hall coming first over the finish line. An attending motorcycle follows her because she is all alone out front of the group.

There seemed to be a kind of group surprise about the image taking shape down the stretch, an awareness that this person who was winning the race was so small as to be shocking. The racer approaching at high speed was nothing like the conquering, muscular athlete we'd imagined. She was closer to a diminutive Nike, a small, winged goddess of victory.

There is a kind of disconnect in these situations. When we see a victor like Katie Hall, we tend to categorize her into the dancer or gymnast box, a tiny athlete who can do amazing things. But then, when we reconsider what she's done... when we realize that, but for a few elite male bike racers, she can blow every male bike racer wannabe off the road, we get a sense of the enormity of her accomplishment.

(Hey, male bike riders, feel good about your accomplishments. Be proud that you're in shape. Bask in the joy of getting out and pointing your bicycle up the mountains while your friends are sitting in front of the TV. But the next time you see a tiny woman out on her two-wheeler, working up a sweat, don't ever, ever think that she's "pretty good for a girl." And never dare suggest a challenge to her about who could ride up the next hill first. Because if you do, and if anyone's around to witness, they'll engrave "Here Lies a Fool" on your gravestone.)

The crowd roared as Katie flashed by.

Katie Hall has won a ton of races. She's in the top tier of women racers worldwide. Today, she did it again. She took on a grueling race, climbing up mountains at high altitude, and she crushed the competition and was all alone as she came through through the finish. Anna, pedaling very fast, appeared down the finish lane and came in second, repeating her standing in the previous day's race.

Katie's win was so pronounced that her combined times for two days of racing put her in the overall lead, winning the coveted yellow jersey.

When she took the podium and received her award, the cheering began again. We all knew we had witnessed something we'd be talking about it for years.

Katie Hall's combined times for two days of racing earn her the number one position and the coveted yellow jersey.

As this blog "goes to press," the Stage 3 race just concluded in Sacramento. The overall rankings have Katie Hall, Anna van der Breggen, and Megan Guarnier in first, second, and third place, with only ONE SECOND separating Katie and Anna! Sunday's 4th stage will tell who wins the overall First Place! Check out the lastest on the Amgen Tour of California website here.