Thursday, May 19, 2011


King Of the Mountains!

We finally took our place out on California's roads during a stage of the AMGEN Tour of California! In baseball terms, we came into today 0-2 against superior pitching.

Undaunted, we made a Game Plan, followed it, and were rewarded with an excellent day and a peak experience or two to boot! (forgive me...alliteration is my life!)

After fanning at our chance Tuesday to mine some AMGEN Swag in Auburn, we made our way to Stage 4's Start City, Livermore, CA. I'd spent a few hours pouring over "the internets" researching all the details that could impact our "Day at the Races".

We parked in Livermore's free downtown parking structure right at the appointed opening hour of 10AM, and hoofed it a few blocks into the closed-off Start Area lookin' for swag. Leaving as little to chance as possible, we made our way to the Livermore Chamber of Commerce Office where we bought our AMGEN ToC Cowbells, and the Stage 4 Yellow Bandanas. We went looking for the Hospitality Tents to no avail. Everyone with Official Garb that I asked: "Where are the Team Hospitality Tents"? couldn't give an answer...I guess all the changes of venue, and double-clutching had taken it's toll...besides it was raining again.

Near the Start 1:15 before the starting bell.
We snapped some photos and beat feet back to the car...I didn't want to be too late to the dance, the start was scheduled for 11:45...My plan had us taking the Race Course from Livermore through all but one KOM spots to camp atop Mt Hamilton to watch the racers as they crested the hors catégorie Mt Hamilton Summit. The top of Mt Hamilton is home to UC Berkeley's Lick Observatory where several telescopes scan the night sky for all sorts of astronomical wonders...pure science, and a bonus for photo buffs...iconic views to juxtapose the racers with...woohoo!

We made our way south through Livermore, skirting the downtown until we finally found our way onto Mines Road, the Race Route to Mt Hamilton that winds through tidy vineyards and boutique ranchettes slowly climbing out of the Livermore Valley. Mt Hamilton was obscured by clouds from our vantage point, but I wanted to drive the course in the same direction that the peleton would to better understand just how tough an hors catégorie climb is. I'd looked at the Mt Hamilton webcams just after 0900, and the view was all fog and mist, but no visible raindrops...

We enjoyed an hour and a half of discovering some beautiful country. Mountainside roads gave way to high meadows and valleys that were vivid green from La Niña's lingering winter storms. Seemingly there was water everywhere, even a couple of places where rivulets crossed the road!

1st KOM of the day Catgory 4 1512ft 17.8 miles out.
Lots of avid cyclists were spread all along the way...some already camped along side the route awaiting the peleton, others in their colorful togs riding towards Mt Hamilton.

We soldiered on snapping photos of race signs, race fans, and the countryside.

The Toyota climbed up the road without complaint as we approached the summit some 92Km from the start, the crowds along the road began to grow. Most of the turnouts were already occupied with cars, motorcycles, and fans. A mile from the top we entered the cloud deck...deadly fog...ugggh! Things were looking a little dire for film making and photography.

We crested the summit, but the KOM Flags were MIA. We found them about a quarter mile down from the actual summit in the midst of all the telescope domes and ancillary buildings and scientists homes. Unbelievably, there was one parking spot left with a view of the approaching racers with the big telescope dome towering over the roadway!

The way the big white dome appeared out of the fog was magical. We parked, made lunch and met the neighbors...a nice bunch of real cycle racing fans...decked out in lots of beautiful NIKON DSLR Cameras and lenses...nice.

Mt Hamilton's iconic dome.
Across the road I saw a Hairy Woodpecker land on a telephone pole. As I pointed it out to BajaBabe, more flew into view...there must have been a half dozen in the digger pines and a couple of well-worn cedar trees! These birds came and went several times during the hour or so we awaited the race.

Everyone was worried about the fog...mostly we worried aloud about the TV choppers. The TV Motos relay the LIVE video to helecopters that follow the peleton and breakaways and chase groups. The signal is relayed by the hilos to the TV trucks at each day's finish area, where satellite uplinks feed the LIVE coverage to the world. All this magic is grounded if the clouds or fog are right down on the roads...the clouds had been lifting a bit since we reached the Mt Hamilton Summit, but we had no experience evaluating such minutia.

According to the smartphone users near us there was an early breakaway of eleven riders who's been caught by the peleton on the first kilometers of the Mt Hamilton Climb. Every few minutes, new information was received and shared...then "They're four miles from the top"

From the west, KGO-TV's NewsCopter came into view and vanished to the east.

I started my camcorder rolling. The KGO Bird came back and hovered to our east off the actual summit. Then the AMGEN Relay Chopper came into view! Soon the first Race Vehicles started passing by...then plenty of CHP Cars and Motos with lights blazing...more cars...lots of, medical, TV motos, Moto Commisars...then the peleton!

They blew by at better than 35mph, zipping their jerseys, tossing empty water bottles, and setting their jaws for the steep technical descent into San Jose. I was amazed at how fast they accelerated on the little flat where the telescopes live.

The dropped riders trickled by in twos and threes, and the knowledgeable race fans yelled encouragement to every rider, calling many by name. BajaBabe rattled her AMGEN cowbell and I watched the passing circus via the LCD Screen of my digicam snapping pix like crazy.

Like the first time I saw Formula One Motorcycle racing in person (after years of watching the spectacle on TV) I was struck by the not so subtle violence of the high speed cyclists. Don't misunderstand me, I'm not talking about sharp elbows, brake checks, or flying water bottles, but the pure violent physics of men tearing the air as they hurl down steep mountainsides at high speeds. These Pro Racers are tough, hardened men.

The Sweep Wagons brought up the rear of the procession, we bid our new friends adieu, and pulled onto the road headed back towards Livermore. Heading down the climb I got a better feel for it's steepness...I put the Toyota in 2nd gear, and I was all over the brakes just keeping our speed to "Safe and Sane" This was one serious climb...I now understood the grim faces of the riders as they flew by us towards the final mountaintop finish on Sierra Road in San Jose.

As I drove off Mt Hamilton, we scanned the shoulders for discarded water bottles and other potential swag, but the sweepers really are sweepers.

On our way back to Livermore we saw more beautiful vistas (Now under blue skies) I saw a big Red Tail Hawk, we saw a couple of herons, turkey vultures and just a dozen miles out of Livermore, a Bald Eagle!

Back at the Ancestral Diggins I made Barbecued Chinook Salmon Stakes with rice and steamed broccoli. Rhubarb pie for desert, and the SF Giants vs the LA Dodgers on TV.

This was one great day I won't soon forget.

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