Monday, February 23, 2009

Tour of California - 2009 Palomar Stage

Yesterday the fireworks in the Tour of California happened as expected, but I felt a bit disappointed in the actual racing. Now that the race is over, I'll present some thoughts on what I expected from the race in general, and then list some of the things that may or may not have been captured in reports (online as well as TV coverage).

Expectations (2 specific, 1 general):
1. Floyd Landis basically peaks for this race since it's the biggest race OUCH will do. He kicks butt and takes names. He gets a podium.
2. Levi Leipheimer peaks for this race, and with the strongest team in the world behind him, he wins. On the way he wins the TT since he beat Cancellara in the TT by a minute last year.
3. I had no idea what else to expect. A good prologue by Cancellara, sure, some good climbing by Rabobank, and Garmin quietly securing what I thought would be the third podium spot (but not necessarily third place). I don't know Columbia's strengths and weaknesses too well (in a Feb race) so to me they were wildcards. I also didn't think that Rock Racing would do much due to the initial problems the team experienced earlier this year.

What happened:
1. Floyd Landis falters a bit, and though he went down fighting, he wasn't able to either hold a top GC spot or do a long break.
2. Levi Leipheimer wins and never looks under too much difficulty.
3. Rock Racing did fantastic with Mancebo on the first road stage, but after he crashed out they weren't able to recover the lost climbing jersey.
4. Cervelo Test Team showed that they were perfectly capable of handling themselves in a big stage race.
5. Garmin came out fighting - Dave Z can climb (!).
6. Columbia's Cavendish can sprint, and Michael Rogers seems like he's going well.

I hope that they make, in some way, some of the live video coverage available to the general public. They had at least two large screen TVs at the finish area in Escondido, and we watched them for a while (they had one on Cole Grade too, and who knows where else).

Although we missed the first two climbs on that screen (we were driving from the start to the finish), we got there in time to first see the climb up Palomar. Later, at the last turn of the race, we watched them climb up Cole Grade. Of course we hung out after they crested Cole Grade and watched the run in to the finish (we sat on the outside of the last turn). I didn't watch any other day so closely (I relied on the cut and edited Versus coverage) but I noticed a few other things.

A tip - if you are at a big event where the race promoters have a jumbo TV set up, it's a great place to watch the race. You may not get audio but you'll see the raw footage that the announcers see. I find the minute action, usually not mentioned by the announcers, just as fascinating as the breaks. For example, it's much more exciting before the "break of the day" gets away because everyone is trying to get into that one break. Once the break goes it gets boring.


Palomar really blew the race apart. I mean, yeah, that's an obvious thing to state, that a 12 mile climb will shatter the race, but the non-Astana racers really showed some aggressive riding.

For example, Rock Racing wanted to get Tyler up the road to take critical climbing points, and they sent off riders one after another like a machine gun. They sent Tim Johnson, Enrique Guttierrez, and they already had someone up the road (Chadwick?). Then Oscar Sevilla went. He drew out some notable riders like the aforementioned Floyd Landis.

Tyler, though, never attacked. Or did he?

What the reports don't mention is that the field's pace was so high that a lot of attacks were neutralized even as they got started. I would guess that all of Rock Racing's efforts were meant to get Tyler up the road, to earn some critical mountain points (to regain the jersey after Mancebo crashed out). And, in fact, he did attack the field, just as Floyd was bridging to Sevilla, but he never got more than a length clear, and no one mentioned it in their reports. Astana didn't let him go, and he didn't have the punch necessary to break clear. So all that effort to get Tyler into a good break didn't work.

I read the cyclingnews live report and it seemed very sparse with some of its descriptions of the attacks. It seems that they were in a caravan vehicle so they were relying on race radio. But looking at the raw footage on the huge TVs in Escondido, the race was much more chaotic than the live reports make it out to be.

When the four man break hit Cole Grade, Nibali hit out like the finish was at the top of the hill. Only Frank Schleck could follow. Then, after the first two miles of the climb, when the road straightens out a bit (and you're looking at a demoralizing straight bit of road going up for the next mile or so), Nibali finally let Schleck through. Schleck immediately picked up the pace, gapping off Nibali. The reports hint that Nibali chased back, but that wasn't the case - Frank looked back, saw he'd inadvertently gapped Nibali, and virtually sat up. Nibali, already climbing at his limit, simply rode his pace until the two were together again.

Later in the stage, on the descent down Lake Wohlford Road, Nibali went to the front in the tricky bit and started carving some good arcs around the mainly blind curves. Schleck couldn't descend with him and started falling pretty far back. Nibali caught up to the camera bike, had to slow, and then got to one of the straighter bits of the descent. This allowed Schleck to latch back on. I think if the camera bike wasn't there, it would have been a bigger gap, although for purposes of bike racing, not enough to break away to the finish.

I don't think I saw too much else as far as "different flavored" reports go. Overall I was impressed with the race. The organization seemed top notch, the spectators were great, and it made me want to be part of the action.

My final note - I just cannot believe how fast the pros go up climbs. I mean, seriously, it's insane. I budget 35 minutes to go up Cole Grade, and I go "easy" in the 39x25 until I get to some hard-to-see-around right bends with no shoulder. Then I listen for vehicles and go hard for those right bends (the road is narrow and the vehicles going up don't want to slow down and lose momentum). Then I struggle in the 25 up the long, straight section that never ends.

Rory Sutherland, a sprinter (!), did the climb in 9:50, averaging 407 watts for that time. Since I can barely do that for a minute, it's unbelievable that he could do it for ten. Not unbelievable bad, unbelievable like-I-admire-him. Incredible.

I could also compare myself on Palomar since I'd ridden up it the day before. So each area seemed fresh in my memory - the narrow bit after the wide sweeping right curve (where I first got in trouble with my legs), the bit with the steep and gravely dropoff (where the DeWalt tandem guys passed me), the wide turn off where I stopped to remove my cap, etc, etc. I did the whole climb basically in the 39x25, shifting into the 23 occasionally at the bottom and at the top once up into the snow line (where the water ran across the road). I plodded along at about 5 or 6 mph, taking almost 90 minutes to do the climb.

I clocked the pros at less than 32 minutes. Sheesh.

I learned a few things in the last few days:
1. To be a pro you need to be able to ride at 400 watts for some reasonable amount of time (at least 10 minutes).
2. Climbing faster requires less weight or more power.
3. Watch the Jumbo-trons when you don't need to be "part of the race" (i.e. participate by running alongside the riders on Palomar).
4. Bring food and water in a small cooler in a backpack. You barely notice it's there but it's a great thing to have when you can't go anywhere because the sidewalk is jammed full of spectators.
5. It's possible that I could win a stage like Palomar, but only under exceptional circumstances. I calculated that if I want to win the Palomar stage as presented in the 2009 Tour of California, I'd have to attack at the gun and gain about, oh, say, 120-150 minutes lead. Then I'd have a chance at staying away.


As a final note, I'm going on a limb here and picking out two future winners of this event:
1. Peter Stetina
2. Taylor Phinney
Both of these guys, before they start preparing for the Tour, will need to get some shorter events under their belts. I think that they'll both win a future edition of a Tour of California. As long as the race keeps happening anyway.


Charles Cushman said...

I watched the entire tour on the ToC website. They had complete coverage there from gun to finish, multiple camera angle, GPS tracking (when it worked), very limited commercials, and some great interviews with the people that made it happen. They did the same thing last year also. i hope the keep it up.

You are right though, Versus coverage really misses the excitement that goes into forming the break. Stage 7 was incredible as attack after attack occurred.

Anonymous said...

i think i am getting this years t.o.c. dvd since it is the first major race i have attended. im sure the dvd will have the lost footage.