ToC is short for the Tour of California, an 8 day bicycle race brought to you by the major biopharmaceutical company Amgen. Among their many fine products which help save lives is Epogen, aka EPO, the cheating cyclist’s best friend. The irony is dripping enough to ease California’s drought.
I like to keep this blog upbeat, so I’m not going to write a lot about performance enhancing drugs and pro cycling. I’ve read many books and articles and investigative reports, and I have come to the conclusion that to follow professional bicycle racing one needs to have a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. That is, enjoy the show and don’t ask too many difficult questions.
And the show is currently close at hand. On Monday the ToC finished in Lodi, practically in my back yard. And yesterday two buddies and I decided to see part of the mountainous course and the race up close and personal.
HC is short for Hors catégorie , a French term used in cycle races to designate a climb that is “beyond categorization”. In bicycle racing, climbs are designated from Category from 1 to 4, with 4 being the easiest. The designation HC is reserved for the toughest of the tough, long and steep and a real challenge for racers and amateurs alike.
There are a couple of HC climbs in this year’s ToC, the closest to home being the east side of Mount Hamilton just outside of San Jose. G Man and Hawk and I decided to drive to Raines Park and ride our bikes 27 miles to the Mount Hamilton summit. To get there we had to start with ‘The Wall’ a very steep part of Del Puerto Canyon Road. ‘The Wall’ is 2 miles long and averages 8.3 %, with brief pitches up to 17%. And there was a raging headwind to add to the fun. Call it a Cat 1.
After the Junction at San Antonio Valley Road we were on the actual race route, and we rode over two short but steep Cat 4 climbs on our way to Isabella Creek, where the HC Mount Hamilton climb starts. 4.3 miles, averaging 8.6%. Steeper (but not as long) than Alpe d’ Huez, the famous climb often seen in the Tour de France. I’ve been on harder climbs, among them the Mortirolo and the Stelvio Pass in Italy, Mont Ventoux in France and Mount Baldy in Southern California, which will be in the ToC later this week. But Mount Hamilton is right up there, literally up, 4,200 feet at the top.
After filling our water bottles and admiring the view, we headed back down the mountain to a prime viewing spot on a hairpin turn. We could see the racers from 3 miles away work their way up the ascent. Which they did, riding roughly twice as fast as our climbing speed. One pro’s Strava showed he did the climb in 22 minutes and change, and I know I was at least 45 minutes and probably more. Hawk and I stopped once because we wanted to regroup with G Man, who is a little slower uphill and had never done this climb. But he made it without walking, and in fine style too.
The race took at least 20 minutes to get past our viewing spot. First came a lone breakaway rider, who eventually won the stage. He was pursued by 3 riders 1 1/2 minutes behind. Later came a small peloton, then the stragglers (called the ‘gruppeto’) of sprinters and lead out riders whose only goal was to make it to the finish before the time cut off and avoid being eliminated from the race. Even they were climbing quite fast by mortal standards.
Finally we were passed by the ‘broom wagon’ (a van for riders abandoning the race), an ambulance, an official ‘end of course’ car and a CHP van at the very back, designating that the road was now open to traffic. We got on our bikes and rode back to the car. By the end of the day we had done 2 Cat 4′s, a Cat 1, and an HC: 54 miles total with 6,300 feet of climbing. The pros had to do something similar the next day, and for several days after that. They are world class athletes and I’m just enthusiastic, but riding the same climb and then watching them go by really emphasizes just how wide that gap is.
When G Man left my house to drive home, Stoker commented that she had seldom seen anyone look so happy. He had good cause; he had never been up Mount Hamilton and before the ride he was a little dubious about being able to make it. But he did, even though it was hard for him (and me too). We may not be pros but we win little victories every time we meet a new challenge, and on this day G Man bagged a big one.