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Tales from the peloton, February 20, 2008

Sierra Grade: The beast of San Jose

The Tour of California's third stage will head up and over the Sierra Grade, a climb famous with the local riders for its steep, relentless incline. On the Saturday before the professionals tackle this beast, nearly 300 amateurs tested their legs in a time trial from the base to the top. Cyclingnews' Laura Weislo was one of them.

The first switchback.
Photo ©: Emory Ball
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When I was preparing to come out to California, I got in touch with a friend and former club-mate who moved to the Bay Area, Webcor's James Badia. James is the best kind of friend - the one who will let you know if you've got a tag sticking out of your sweater or an unsightly boogie in your nose. He's also the type of pal who can convince you to sign up for a grueling 3.7 mile hill climb time trial in February, when your fitness is questionable and you haven't gone over anything more than a highway overpass in months. And, he'll convince you that it's going to be fun.

So I happily signed on for the Webcor San Jose King of the Mountains event, not even questioning the logic until I was on my way from Mountain View to San Jose, sitting behind James and his shockingly lean and sinewy calves. As he and his team-mate Matt Beebe spun out a nice 40km/h pace, they carried on a constant conversation, not once giving an indication that they were working hard at all. Meanwhile, my heart rate was climbing steadily, and I knew I was going to be in trouble.

The actual event started from downtown San Jose, and after that vigorous 45 minute commute into town, we had a chance to grab some food and drinks, and get good and cooled down before the start. Of the 300 registrants, probably a quarter of them were from the Webcor club, Alto Velo, which hosted the event in support of Fit for Learning (fitforlearning.org), a program which aims to fight childhood obesity. The rest were various amateur racers, recreational riders and local dignitaries, including Cupertino's mayor, Dolly Sandoval.

Looking around at the riders, and my competition, I knew right away that my fortune cookie from the previous night's Chinese dinner was going to be way off the mark. "You will receive high rewards and accolades". Not likely since former US champion Christine Thorburn was in my group, along with Canadian champion Alex Wrubleski.

"I began to resign myself to the pain ahead, my mind distracted by the increasingly beautiful views.".

When it finally came time to line up, I joined the Webcor squad near the front, trying to find a sunny spot to get some warmth into my body and to stop my teeth from chattering from the cold. I had stowed much of my cold weather gear in the car which would go ahead to the top, and was regretting giving up my gloves and vest.

Sleepy cows aren't interested
Photo ©: Emory Ball
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The peloton was led through town by a squadron of motorcycle policemen, giving the event the air of a professional bike race - sans the thousands of adoring fans, of course. As we rolled out, much of the talk was centered on the first 200 meters of the course. "It's steep, you'll see," one rider said. "Ridiculously steep," said another. "It's not a pretty way to start," said a third. "You get to the start and it's straight up," was the ominous warning.

Sure enough, after heading through the town on pancake flat roads at a pace barely suited for warming up, we could see the hills getting closer and closer. The road up was visible from below, snaking its way through farms and small neighborhoods and disappearing around the side of the brilliant green hillside. I began to resign myself to the pain ahead, my mind distracted by the increasingly beautiful views as the sun burned through the thick morning layer of low clouds.

Without warning, we were led around a right hand turn onto Sierra Road, and there it was: the beast. The organizers were kind enough to bring the group to a halt ahead of the start line to let us stare our foe in the face and contemplate just how much this was going to hurt, and also to set up the timing pad and to make sure all the riders had their chips in place. There it was - a wall of asphalt waiting to turn the screws on us.

One of the many steep pitches
Photo ©: Emory Ball
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While the Tour of California riders will rocket around that right hand bend and have a little momentum heading into the immediate 15% grade, we were getting all of 25 metres of relatively flat roads to get going and then heading straight up. The officials started the race with a rather anti-climactic "ready, set, go!", and the Webcor and Specialized racers took off like it was a bunch sprint. I, on the other hand, was keen to keep my heart rate from hitting 200 beats per minute. I put it in my 34x25 and tried to spin up the first part of the climb, which wasn't too bad for about 20 seconds.

As streams of riders flowed past me, I was humbled by many a recreational rider with hairy legs, and began thinking "this sucks". It's not the first time those words would enter my mind. I told myself that they'd blow up, that I'd pass them again as they used up all that nervous energy. I was wrong... "Almost there" someone had written on the road in chalk... followed by "NOT!!!". Great.

After the initial steep bit, which quickly sent up a flood of lactic acid into my legs and lungs, the grade eased ever so slightly, allowing me to put myself into a more reasonable rhythm, but my heart rate was still dangerously high. The break lasted all of a minute before the next torturous upturn. I was passed by another legion of riders, some wearing camelbacks, the extra kilogram of water not seeming to cause them much trouble, as I began a mental inventory of things I might be able to jettison to help ease my suffering. Cell phone? Might need that. Granola bar? Maybe, it's unlikely I could eat without choking. Water? I might want that if I can get my breathing to slow down enough that I can swallow.

Every agonizing pitch was followed by a bit of relief, and by relief, I mean 10% grades, which seems pretty nice after 15%. But each slackening was quickly followed by another wall, another flood of lactic acid, and my breakfast working its way further up my esophagus.

Mid-way through the climb, we passed by a herd of cows, most of which paid no attention to the stream of colourful jerseys flowing past, but one beast, a big, dark colored bovine with white a white face, let out a raucous bellow as I came past, and I swear if cows can laugh, that is what she was doing.

This bovine is not amused.
Photo ©: Emory Ball
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Slightly insulted, I got up out of the saddle to pick up my pace. "No cow laughs at me and gets away with it! I'll have a nice steak tonight, that'll show her!," I thought, but looking up ahead, I spied what looked like another killer pitch. I stayed out of the saddle, giving a bit more effort only to find that the slope was deceiving. It wasn't too bad, that is, until I rounded the right hand bend and encountered yet another wall, this time substantially longer than the previous ones.

The agony was made worthwhile as the road came out of the trees and rounded a shoulder of the mountain, skirting the edge and providing stunning views of the valley floor. The town of San Jose looked mighty far away, shrouded in a fine mist while low clouds hugged the lower slopes of the hills in the distance.

I briefly entertained stopping to take a photo with my cell phone, but the racer in me wasn't willing to give up the time, even though my rewards and accolades had long since vanished up the road in the form of Thorburn and several other fit, diminutive ladies from Alto Velo and Team Tibco.

Rounding a left hand bend, I was joined by two women who came up from behind, and imagine my surprise when the road flattened out and started going slightly down hill! One of the women accelerated into the wonderful little break from the relentless torture of the past twenty minutes, and again, the racer in me took over and I jumped on her wheel and popped the chain up into the big ring.

Nearing the end, the sky becomes visible.
Photo ©: Emory Ball
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That fun lasted all of a few seconds, and my companion proceeded to drop me like a hot rock as the road kicked back up. I did a quick check of the computer, and started doing some mental trickery. "Just five more minutes, you can do that. It's no longer than the average television commercial break." The thought that I should spend less time watching TV and more time on my bike occurred to me. The road tilted up even more, "this sucks" repeated itself, I tried to push it away. "OK, maybe six more minutes. But that's OK, it's almost over." Then the words of one of the other riders came into my mind, like a little devil on my shoulder. "When you think you see the top, that's not the end, There's still more."

I rounded a right hand bend, and started to see sky, and the crest of the ridge ahead. Indeed, as I made my way up to what looked like the edge of the world, the road curved again to the left and continued to rise. "This sucks!" But then, joy of joys, there it was! Straight up ahead, the finish line and the end of just over 30 minutes of pain.

The final meters of the Sierra Grade
Photo ©: Emory Ball
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I took the last of my energy and poured it into passing a guy who was twice my size in the finishing chute, trying to make it look like I had actually gone fast or something. It was a vain and pointless maneuver, but appearance is everything. At the top, I was rewarded by a flood of endorphins and simply indescribably gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside. Then I was punished by a sharp accumulation of lactic acid as we came to a dead stop just beyond the finish.

After a few minutes of standing around and comparing times (James, a sprinter, had put in his personal best time, more than six minutes quicker than my time), and the suffering of the past half hour started to seem fun. Thanks to those endorphins, I began to delusionally think that riding up that hill was actually something I'd do again - was I out of my mind?

Making the ride all the more worthwhile was the trip down the other side and the long, fun descent. The road surface was mostly smooth, except for a couple rough patches, and the grades far gentler than the route up the mountain. With only a few twists and turns, the trip down would be easy on the nerves of even the most chicken descenders. I'm usually white-knuckled coming off a mountain, but this trip had a high "whee!" factor, and by the time I got to the bottom I had a big perma-grin on my face.

Low clouds hug the hills.
Photo ©: Emory Ball
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My 100th place overall put me just above the 50th percentile, which is my personal cutoff for success, so I was pleased with that. My host was in 20th, at 24 minutes 29 seconds, a full three minutes and 15 seconds slower than the crazy-fast time set by his club-mate Ted Huang, who had the winning time. He also rode half of the climb on a slowly deflating tire. The top riders should be able to make the trip up Sierra Grade in 20 minutes, which is pretty amazing when you've been there.

The climb, while painful, was a solid indicator that I clearly need to lay off the cookies and get my butt into shape. It also showed me in a very personal way how much the Tour of California peloton will be suffering, especially since they'll hit the slopes of Sierra Grade with the Hors Categorie Mt. Hamilton having already put the pain into their legs. Look for the peloton to come completely unglued, and Mario Cipollini to be hanging out in the autobus, just trying to stay inside the time cut. It will be the day for the GC men for sure. Will anyone be able to stop Levi Leipheimer?

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Images by Emory Ball/Cyclingnews.com

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