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Ride like a pro: Attempting to bike a stage of the Tour of California

Some 1150 riders crossed start May 7 for this year's L'Etape du California. | Lori Rackl~Sun-Times

Some 1,150 riders crossed the start on May 7 for this year's L'Etape du California. | Lori Rackl~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 22, 2011 9:52AM



CLAREMONT, Calif. — Anyone who’s into cycling has watched the pros race on TV and wondered, “Could I do that?”

Nearly 1,200 of us had a chance to answer that question earlier this month at L’Etape du California, an event where amateur cyclists try to ride one full stage of the Tour of California bike race.

I guess I have my answer, because my ride ended in the back of an ambulance. More on that later. First, let’s begin where all races do: at the starting line.

Rows of us straddled our road bikes on an early May morning in downtown Claremont, a charming college town 30 miles east of Los Angeles. A giant banner strung between towering trees told us what we already knew: “The Climb Starts Here.”

The route for this year’s L’Etape (the French word for “stage”) happens to be the most difficult of the entire race. Cyclists had to climb a quad-busting 10,500 feet spread over 76 brutal miles, culminating in a mountain-top finish.

We were riding Stage 7, the penultimate stage in this year’s Tour of California. North America’s premier road bike race — attracting some 2 million spectators — started Monday, a day later than scheduled thanks to a spring snowstorm.

When the pros tackle Stage 7 on Saturday, they’ll be greeted the same way we were, with a dozen miles of pedaling up the San Gabriel Mountains straight out of the gate.

You want to be as light as possible when biking a course as hilly as this — a fact my husband pointed out more than once as he carried 7 pounds’ worth of camera equipment for me in his backpack. I have a feeling I’ll be reminded of this favor until death do us part.

Riding at what felt like the pace of an injured turtle, I had plenty of time to admire the mountainous scenery, breathe in the honeysuckle-scented air (and occasional car exhaust) and marvel at pinecones the size of cantaloupes.

My legs and lungs were wide awake by the time we reached the first pit stop after those first dozen miles. Sweaty cyclists were loading up on Clif Bars and filling their water bottles with Herbalife, the herby taste of which was not my cup of tea.

Next up were some welcome downhills. But the descents were hard to enjoy when we knew we’d be riding them again that day — in the opposite direction.

After five hours in the saddle, we were a little over halfway done. By comparison, most of the pros will finish the entire stage in less than four hours.

One of our fellow L’Etape riders was a pro — in a different sport. NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton, 58, was riding a road bike custom-made to fit his 7-foot, 2-inch frame.

Along the way, Walton shook hands, posed for photos and humored my husband as he gloated about the Bulls. But even Walton seemed to be in a less jovial mood after hours of climbing these unforgiving hills.

“Did you play basketball or something?” asked one of the teenage volunteers manning a pit stop stand, where Walton was fueling up on oranges and I was choking back more Herbalife.

Awkward silence.

“No,” Walton finally answered, putting an orange slice in his mouth.

We couldn’t afford to dawdle at the pit stops. The clock was ticking. If we didn’t make it to the base of the final ascent by 4 p.m., we had zero chance of finishing. The course would be closed.

“It’s hard to train for this kind of thing at home, given the lack of mountains in Chicago,” said Wrigleyville resident Michael Alderson, 30, one of several Chicagoans who flew here for L’Etape. “I’m especially nervous about the last five miles.”

Here’s why: Those last few miles up Mt. Baldy consist of climbs as subtle as an Ed Hardy T-shirt. We’re talking inclines up to 15 percent. Switchbacks so steep some trucks can’t drive them.

The good news was we made the time cut off. That was also the bad news. Now, we had to make our way up this beastly ascent, and my legs were spent.

I had to swallow my pride, get off my bike and walk it up a few of the steepest segments.

It took everything I had to push the pedals over the finish line. My time: 9 hours, 56 minutes, 39 seconds.

The race might have been over, but the ride wasn’t. We still had to get off Mt. Baldy and back down to Claremont. Once again, the clock was ticking. The shop where we rented our road bikes closed at 6 p.m.

Since my husband goes down hills way faster than I do, we decided he’d speed ahead and I’d meet him at the bike shop.

Clutching my brakes with a death grip, I gingerly made my way down several hairpin turns and screaming descents.

It was getting later and I was getting colder when Bill Walton whizzed past me.

“You OK?” he shouted.

“Yeah,” I lied, as he disappeared down the hill.

My teeth were chattering. Goosebumps covered every part of my body that wasn’t covered in Spandex. I still had at least eight miles to go. This was officially Not Good.

That’s when I spotted an ambulance in the distance, parked on the side of the road.

Paramedics had been stationed along the course all day in case a cyclist needed medical attention. The ride was over and they were about to call it quits. I pulled up just as they were pulling out.

“I’m really c-c-c-old,” I said. “Could you drive me back to town?”

A paramedic popped open the back door of the ambulance and slid my bike next to the empty stretcher.

“We’ve been watching you guys all day,” he said. “It looked hard. Did you enjoy it?”

“Yeah,” I said. This time, it wasn’t a lie.

Sure, the ride occasionally felt like torture. Every inch of my body ached. But I crossed the finish line. Maybe not the way I wanted to, but I crossed it.

I never thought I’d be happy to get into an ambulance, but I was all smiles as I crawled into the heated truck.

For the second time that day, I had to swallow my pride. And you know what? It tasted better than Herbalife.

Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored by the California Travel and Tourism Commission.



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