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Tales from the Californian peloton, February 27, 2006

The first Tour of California, from the saddle

In 1971 Velo Sport Bicycles, a shop owned by Peter Rich, along with Raleigh Bicycles and the Bear Valley Resort organized an eight day, ten stage, 885 mile road race called the Tour of California. Laurie Schmidtke's name has probably never been mentioned in any published report on the race, but as he says, "I was there, I rode the whole thing." Here's his story from the saddle.

Laurie Schmidtke with his 'loot' from the the 1971 Tour of California
Photo ©: Laurie Schmidtke
(Click for larger image)

It was my first stage race and I loved it. Here's my belated race diary. I would have sent it in earlier but Cyclingnews hadn't been invented yet.

Saturday, August 28, 1971 - Stage 1: Bear Valley (7000 feet elevation) to Stockton (15 feet elevation), 96 miles

There is no oxygen in Bear Valley. Every time I stand up, I nearly faint. We start rolling, down, down, down towards Stockton. The road is wide with a nice shoulder and smooth pavement and the pack keeps fanning out into the opposing traffic lane, a real NO NO, and when the occasional car comes up, everybody squeezes back into the right lane. It's fan, squeeze, fan, squeeze, coast, coast, coast.

I don't know what the guys at the front were doing, but where I was we were coasting. We coasted fifty miles with our brakes on. A bike length ahead of me two guys bump on one of the squeezes and the inside guy, one of the Germans on the Volvo team (Rad Sport-Gemeinshaft-Frankfurt), goes up in the air, slowly rotates, and comes down on his back and starts sliding. He's sliding next to me. He's still sliding. My understanding of physics is that I can roll downhill on a bicycle faster than someone can slide on a wool jersey, so I think I will eventually pass him. He lived. He came to dinner that night, festooned with bandages, and amazingly, he started the next stage and actually finished the race.


Back to the race. The course levels out and we start pedaling for the first time in two hours and hit a nasty little hill where the field breaks up in to little bits. I'm so tired that as a rider slowly grinds up the grade past me, I look longingly at his seat post and nearly reach out to grab a tow.

I passed a farmer repairing a fence and he looked up said, "Ho, ho, ho! Go crazy legs," and I thought, 'Cycling will never catch on in this country.' Was I wrong? I had to wait 35 years for a second Tour of California.

I overtake a few riders and a few more come from behind and we form a fair-sized chase group. Dannie Nall (Nishiki-Sun Tour-Montrose) convinces everyone that we are twenty minutes down and that it would be futile to waste energy sprinting, so our group just rolls sedately across the finish line. I'm happy.

This is the longest road race I've finished.

Sunday, August 29 - Stage 2: Stockton to Berkeley, 74 miles

Once again, I don't know what the guys in the front were doing. I stayed in the field and minded my own business. At the bottom of the climb of the day, Pinehurst Canyon, one of the Windsor-Mexico riders flatted and it seemed like his whole team stopped to wait. They were stopping to the left, stopping to the right, stopping in front of me. I dodged the Latin Chicane. Sounds like a popular dance. There was considerable discussion in the field about why the Mexicans, who had been hyped to win, were back here with us, struggling on the climbs.

I got into another big group for the finish in downtown Berkeley and stole a page from Dannie Nall's playbook, "We're 20 minutes down, why bother to sprint," and everybody bought it except Stan Swaim (Raleigh-New England) who made a little surge at the line and pipped my little surge. A few years earlier Stan had been a prep school instructor for my college freshman roommate and I never got a chance to say hello during the race, so I'll say it now.

Sunday, August 29 - Stage 3: Berkeley Criterium, 20 miles

Before the start a lot of my friends from Marin came by to say hello and they all thought it was cool that I had made it this far. Our club president thought it was cool that I was asking for spare safety pins for my numbers.

I sat in the whole race and on the corners I could see Francisco Huerta (Windsor-Mexico) ahead of the field, alone, slowly churning a huge gear, lap after lap. Maybe the Mexicans are pretty good.

Monday, August 30 - Stage 4: San Francisco to Santa Rosa, 85 miles

This stage is virtually duplicated by Stage 1 of the Amgen Tour of California. The Amgen ToC skips the neutral start (yeah!) but skips the team time trial (boo!) in the afternoon.

I hate neutral starts, they're always harder than a real start. We rode past the buffalo and the windmill in Golden Gate Park, over the Golden Gate Bridge, and into Sausalito where we stopped for the official restart. The pace on the way there was so high that when my feed bottle bounced out of the cage I was afraid to stop.

I had a secret ambition for this stage. There were mountain points at the Muir Beach Overlook, and since I had lived there for a few years it was my home town, sort of. I knew the climbs and I wanted those points.

Most of us knew John Allis (Raleigh-New-England) as "the guy with all the bike shorts" from a photo of him on laundry day. He took off almost immediately on the first climb out of Tam Valley.

I tried to animate the chase after Allis but nobody was helping so I attacked a familiar downhill to try catch by myself. Pete Rich, squealing the tires on the race Pinto, did a great job of staying out in front of me but when the road straightened out at the bottom I could see Allis a quarter of a mile ahead.

Too far.

The bunch caught me halfway up the hill and I stayed at the front but I didn't bother to sprint for second.

I wanted to win.

I stayed toward the front of the bunch until Valley Ford where I got the bonk, bad, and went straight out the back. Remember the dropped feed bottle? On the outskirts of Santa Rosa, a little girl on a Sting Ray pedaled out of her driveway, up the street, and turned into the next driveway. She was going faster than I was. At the finish, Roland Della Santa and Mike McCue, our Endspurt-Marin team managers, had to feed me Coke and bananas before I could ride to the motel room, and we were already in the motel parking lot.

At dinner that night, my team-mate Alan Trammel complained about my pacesetting on the early climb. I told him that Roland and team-mate Fritz Liedl both told me to ride at the front. Alan said, "Not THAT front!"

I asked Tim Kelly (Velo Sport-Berkeley) why nobody would help me chase Allis and he told me, "We WANTED him off the front." This was my first practical lesson in team tactics.

Monday, August 30 - Stage 5: Santa Rosa Team Time Trial, 12 miles

Another two-stage day. I was riding behind Alex Konstantinoff who is as strong as a horse and I kept yelling at him to swing off so I must have been thoroughly de-bonked. It was raining! What's the deal? Who ever heard of rain in California in August?

Tuesday, August 31: Stage 6: Santa Rosa to Davis, 83 miles

There was a climb early in the stage that broke the field apart. While I was chasing I heard a blowout behind and I just stopped pedaling. Without looking, I knew it was my team-mate, Alan Trammel, so when he got a wheel change we started chasing. Peter Rich in the race Pinto came alongside of us and yelled, "You're going the wrong way!" I screamed, "WHAT!" and Peter said we missed a un-marshalled turn.

Peter had us hang on to the car doors and towed us to the back of the peloton which had come back together.

The last few miles were dead flat and when the race motorbike came by and announced, Ten miles to go, I was riding at the back of the field next to Nikola Farac-Ban (Berkeley Wheelmen). Nik was the ten-mile TT record holder for a nasty course in Marin, so I said to him, Just your distance. He got this dreamy look on his face and started moving to the front.

He's going to try something, I thought, maybe I should move up with him, and then I remembered that I had accepted a tow. Even though it was from the race director, still it could cause problems. Nik did go off the front, alone, and he won the stage.

Wednesday, September 1 - Stage 7: Sacramento (25 feet elevation) to Grass Valley (2411 feet elevation), 88 miles

The first few miles out of town were raced on a two-lane levee road with a strong wind from the right. The guys at the front had a nice echelon across the road and the rest of the field was lined out in the left gutter. This drove the race officials NUTS because the deal with the Highway Patrol was that the race would be contested in the right lane only.

Nobody budged, and nobody seemed to know how to form a second echelon, let alone a third one, so until the wind shifted; it was honking Pintos and deaf bike racers.

That night we stayed in a big room with lots of bunk beds. In a race like this, the riders consume a lot of calories and they all go somewhere. There were numerous complaints about the hazy green atmosphere in the sleeping quarters, most directed at one rider in particular.

Thursday, September 2 - Stage 8: Camptonville (3500 feet elevation) to Squaw Valley (6200 feet elevation), 88 miles

The excitement in today's stage, the first with a serious amount of climbing, was a flat for the race leader. The news was shouted up and down the field and the pace whipped up. The yellow jersey has no friends.

Friday, September 3 - Stage 9: Squaw Valley (6200 feet elevation) to Bear Valley (7073 feet elevation), 100 miles

It was below freezing at the start. John Howard (Midwest-USA) was riding with his hands in his armpits. Scuttlebutt in the pack was that he had frostbite once and if his fingers got too cold he could get it again. There was scenery (Lake Tahoe!) and then Sabas Cervantes (Windsor-Mexico) took off on the descent by Emerald Bay and nobody saw him again until dinner.

I have heard the claim that this stage was as difficult as any in a Grand Tour. We went over Luther Pass (7740 feet) and over Ebbetts Pass (8731 feet), which had a nice coating of gravel dropped on it. The plummet off Ebbetts treated us to asphalt with moguls. I was picking my way down and using a lot a brake when fearless Tim Kelly (Velo Sport-Berkeley) blasted by me. I must have been on a good day to have gotten ahead of him.

The night before, everybody was saying, Oh, you're gonna need a 26 for Pacific Grade Summit (8050), and I said 'Poohbah'. Well, they were right. I even walked a bit of it. I was so tired when I dismounted that I didn't even notice that I wasn't in my low gear. I still had another gear to go! Today, nobody in their right mind would attempt Pacific Grade on only five cogs, but in 1971 that's all there were. I probably did it in a 22. Oof.

At dinner that night, the youngsters on the Mexican team were slapping Cervantes on the back. He looked tired and much older that his 37 years but by the next morning he looked as young and healthy and was as chipper as anyone.

Saturday, September 4 - Stage 10: Bear Valley Criterium, 30 miles

OK, I'm cooked. I don't know how many times I got lapped by yellow jersey Augustine Alcantara (Windsor-Mexico) but he was impressive, like Huerta in the Berkeley crit, slowly churning a huge gear.

My final placing? 32nd on general classification.

And the loot? Not much. I have a poster, the race program, a musette bag stained by in-season peaches.

Oh, and bags-full of good memories, which are probably the best prize of all.

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