tour of california virgin: what it’s like to watch a cycling race

May 24, 2010

I don’t usually write long, rambling entries about what I did over the weekend (I prefer to remove myself at least once from what I’m writing about), but I feel compelled to share. Yesterday, I drove up to Malibu Family Winery and cheered on professional cyclists as they sped over the King of the Mountain line atop Mulholland Hwy during the final stage of the 2010 Amgen Tour of California. Though “attending” a road cycling race is not what we normally think of as conventional fandom, for the first time in my life, I went to a sporting event that I actually give a shit about and as a bonus, it was in the Santa Monica Mountains—a location with particular significance to me.

The beauty of cycling is that it’s conducted in the real world, on streets usually being driven and ridden on for transit not competition. So what is a desolate-windy stretch of the mountain range’s most notorious pathway for most of the year, for 6 hours becomes lined with crowds that (according to one announcer) rivaled the very best in Europe. The reason I use “attending” in quotes is that watching a bike race is sort of a free for all. The road gets shut down earlier in the day, but if you drive up in the morning or are riding your bike anywhere along the 30-mile route, the empty roadside is yours for the claiming. There are no tickets, barricades or cones—only dirt turnouts full of cars and tents and lawn chairs and people lining the road as far as the eye can see down both sides of the mountain. Without any scolding from the official judges standing by, I took a spot inside the road, next to the blue diamond “KOM” sign which marks for the cyclists the “top” of the first of four strenuous climbs.

Men in mascot-worthy sumo wrestling outfits mingled with bike shop owners and their lycra’d-out children, all anxiously staring down the street, as if waiting for the first breakaway group was like waiting for the bus.  An Amgen official with a whistle and an orange vest gave the cell phone service-deprived spectators crucial racing information. They are at mile 11 and we are posted at mile 13. There is a 2.30 second lead on the peleton (eventually, a car would lead the convoy with a high school kid in the passenger seat rattling off up-to-date race facts that were then blared through a surround sound speaker system mounted on top of the car). Many families made signs, others brought chalk to write encouraging messages in the street. There were more cowbells than a Montana farm, ringing at the sides in their owners’ in anticipation. Two motorcycle cops rounded the bend followed by a Highway Patrolman who announced that the riders were right behind them, but for minutes, there were only two photographers on mopeds that zoomed by without taking any photos.

Finally, they appeared, the vision of their helmeted heads at first warped by the heat from the pavement as they crested the steepness. The leading seven chugchugchuged up the hill, crossed the bright orange KOM line and the crowd went wild. Even though we were not in a stadium–hell, we weren’t even watching the whole race–the energy flowed from the athletes into the cheering fans and then up the road like a sonic version of “the wave.” Some cheered for their favorite team (Radio Shack and HTC were the heavies to watch out for) as recognizable colored jerseys zoomed by while others spotted their favorite rider and ran alongside them until they couldn’t keep up. With the pink cast on my right hand, I decided to fist pump for everyone going by, telling even the last guy in the race (a Nordic-looking man from Team Jelly Belly) to “GOGOGOGOGOGOGOGO!!!”

The team’s cars followed the riders–each equipped with extra bikes and tires for milli-second swapouts–as did a broom lady in a minivan (?) and medical backup. By the time the CHP tahoe announced that his car was the end of the convoy, the crowd had already dispersed back to their folding chairs/tents/cars/wineries to wait until the next lap. Just as wildly as the cyclists had shook through the mountains, they were gone, and as they probably crossed back over the 101 (those fast bastards), I was left feeling like this wasn’t a sporting event at all, but some torturous parade that speeds by you before you can actually process that it’s been there. Because this stage was a circuit race, this process of waiting (cheering at those early convoy members, building up the actual riders, keeping it going through all three groups of riders ((slow, medium and fast, basically)) and winding down as you wave to the final team cars) was repeated three times, each with more wine imbibement and, therefore, more intensity until I was finally able to steal some Amgen thundersticks, nab a Newbury Park Bike Shop swag shirt and move my car out of the road-apple pasture I paid $30 to park it in. The meandering drive home through the brush-filled Valley backroads (23 to PCH to Malibu Canyon to Mulholland Dr. to Stunt Road back to Mullholland to Old Topanga Canyon to the 101) was a wonderful way to cool down my facial sunburn and put into perspective the two-wheeled epiphany that had undoubtedly occurred during the day.

Even on the professional level, cycling is unlike other sports in that it is of the people. Fans may kick around a soccer ball or play a pick up game at their local basketball court, but when they go to the Staples Center or the Rose Bowl, they are there to watch athletes. Because of the venue alone, these people are automatically on a pedestal, above mortal humans who merely enjoy the sport from their couch. But with road races, the venue is your town and the athletes are riding through your mall parking lot, your downtown streets and along the route you take to school or work. Because most major sports venues are so inaccessible to the general public for free play (ie. you can’t go practice ice skating at the Arrowhead Pond), an aspect of intimacy is lost for the fan. But with cycling, if you’re not already riding these roads, all you need is a bike with gears to start taking the exact same route as your favorite athletes. I might sound old fashioned, but most American sports experiences have been condensed into a beer-filled man-product and cycling is the last-standing remnant of the anything-can-happen, European-sports mentality that builds a community (which literally includes all ages, races, bike types, skill levels and classes) that embraces and trusts its fans, however psychotic we may be.

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