I was invited by Champion Systems’ Troy Angwin to join a select group of his guests to ride the L’Etape du California on the upcoming Tour of California’s stage 8, from Ontario to the top of nearby Mt. Baldy. For those of you unfamiliar with the Champion Systems – you should take note: in just 6 short years they’ve grown into one of the leading custom cycling kit makers around, and this year have stepped up their commitment to cycling by sponsoring the first pro level team registered in China, but racing in a lot of places near you.
For those of you unfamiliar with this year’s Tour of California’s “Queen Stage” – it’s a brute. Even at just 88 miles, there’s so much climbing that things could change dramatically come race day, and for the rest of us – only the fit need aaply to ride this one.
Unlike other events I’ve seen where the guest list is riders, or media types, this group of about 20 was better described by the characters we might play in real life – the journo, the actor, the wine guy, the Campy guy, the ex-Tour winner, the Olympians,… the host. While were are all cyclists, our connections to the sport varied so much that we’re easier to describe as “friends of Troy” – at least that’s what he called us.
In reality I was humbled to be amongst esteemed cyclists like Tom Kattus of Campagnolo, Floyd Landis, Mari Holden & Nelson Vails, Kevin Bening of Malibu Family Wines, Mark-Paul Gosselaar (watch for him on tv’s Franklin & Bash), Andy Levine of Du Vine Adventures, and a few others.
Whatever our raison d’кtre – this was my kinda ride (on paper at least). Add in that I was flying to the same time zone in sunny and warm southern California from the still cool and wet northwest, and I was primed for a fine day on the bike. Sure my fitness was still early season, I’d done no climbing all year, and the ride was 88 miles and 11,000 vertical feet, but I could get through that… right?
Since Troy was taking care of the details of getting us entered, lodged, fed, and of course clothed in some cool one-off designs from Champion Systems, I’d sort of neglected to look too closely at the course details.
While an educated glance at the course profile revealed a tough day ahead, the course itself is pretty spectacular – set mostly in the Angeles National Forest and in keeping with the “Etappe” tradition of allowing non-pro riders the chance to experience a world class stage from the top level of cycling, this one was not for the faint of heart. Although the profile made it look like there were only two longish climbs, in reality the profile called for three serious tests against gravity, (note: actual testing may vary according to individual fitness.)
From the start in Ontario, the almost instant and impossible to hide on long climb up to Glendora Ridge rewards with one of the most technically fun roads I’ve ridden in North America, which leads to a fantastically long and twisting descent into a deep valley that eventually spits you out at the town of Glendora, where begins long climb #2, leading back up to the Ridge road (repeated in reverse) before dropping down slightly to start the climb to Mt. Baldy – a slope that would be at home in any Grand Tour with it’s 9.5 mile gain to 6500ft, with the final 4miles averaging 9% but with several much steeper pitches.
Maybe it was those 7:00 AM tee off times that made me give up golf, but I’ve learned in cycling that anything before about 8 – 8:30 is the earliest I really start to feel normal. Regardless, the sun was up, the day was already warm and promised to get a even downright hot when we lined up at Ontario’s Convention Center.
Long-time cycling scribe Bruce Hildebrand had his motor running as MC for the day, and even did me the courtesy of a shout and nice plug to the captive audience. Thank you very much Bruce!
Starting an event with so many people is always unpredictable, and while we had police escorts for most of the route, we somehow lost sight of the lead car within 100 yards of the start, and turned right en mass. Further embarrassment was saved by a race official frantically waving his arms from across the oddly busy (for 7:00AM) intersection.
It’s a lot easier to smile at the beginning of the day.
We flowed back onto the course like a lycra-clad school of fish, and with the pre-race nerves now calmed, settled into a conversational pace suitable for any Saturday morning ride.
At this point I was feeling pretty good. The bike on loan from Cynergy Cycles was working well, in spite of having been only tested in the parking lot the day before.
Our group featured some notable personalities like Olympian Nelson vails.
I had time to say hello to old PEZ-Pal Mark-Paul Gosselaar (the actor), who later admitted it was “Definitely the hardest ride I have ever done.” (And this from a guy who finished 41st on the day!)
Still just a few miles in, we were already on a gentle, but long climb towards the mountains that form the northern boarder of the sounds-better-than-it-is “Inland Empire.” Having no idea how my body would respond after a week of 4-5 hours per night sleeps, and a recent lack of training miles, I pedaled on at my normal pace, somewhere not too far from the front. Gotta represent, I say.
I did notice that my ability to converse abandoned me somewhere before 10 miles in, and as we crested a small plateau I was ‘inspired’ to pull over and toss the extra clothes into our support vehicle. I discovered Troy already in the van – fiddling with a cleat, and as the group disappeared up the road, I carried on my way, knowing it was a long day ahead and “I’ll catch up.”
Off in the distance and to the left is Ontario – this shot looks back down the valley, a few meters short of the day’s first summit.
It wasn’t long before things began to go awry – the legs felt heavier than usual, a passing rider pointed out that my back brake was rubbing, and a short while later I decided the SRAM support car was a great place to stop and get some air in my suspiciously spongy tires (a convenient stop from a somewhat overindulged climb). By now I reckoned the slope was 7 – 8 – 9%, a wind blowing in my face and already grinding it out in my lowest gear (curse those Ultegra compacts.)
This was a hard climb. Period. Forward motion was a serious workout, and the sun cresting over the peaks to my right warmed me to the point of much sweat – too much for 8 o’clock in the morning.
This musta been where I burned off a bunch of matches just to look good for the camera.
I remained unfazed. I’ve been on enough rides to know that the longer the ride, the more patches I go through, good, bad, ugly… good again. But I was surprised to be riding through this bad patch so early on… Never mind – I’d feel better later.
By the time I crested the first climb to the summit of Glendora Ridge, it was 8:45AM. Yeah – I’d been climbing for the better part of two hours. Two… Hours. Climbing. Then I remembered I hadn’t done more than a 20minute climb since last season.
At the feed stop I checked in with our van support and was told I was not too far behind the group. I pedaled off along the Glendora Ridge road, which by all accounts should favor a breakaway – it’s too narrow and twisting for a large group to handle at speed – someone will go away here for sure – but whether they make to the end is another story completely.
Looking back along the Glendora Ridge Road – a pretty nice place to ride.
Around a bend I spot Troy off his bike and waiting, so we join up and settle back to a chatting pace which was just fine for both of us. We stayed together through the long and technical decent that leads down to the San Gabriel reservoir, where swirling winds called for more effort on this ‘flat’ section than I cared to summon.
Somewhere Troy and I got separated again, but there were still plenty of riders dotted along the route. Small groups formed, then would split on a small rise or headwind, with new smaller groups reforming. I got mixed in with a few guys who just didn’t seem acquainted with proper group riding etiquette, and after some annoying miles I decided to strike out alone for the next group – who I could see a few hundred meters up the road. I guess I was feeling good – or more accurately I wasn’t feeling as bad as I had been so far.
The road turned downhill for the final run to Glendora, and I was able to catch my way up to a bigger group ahead. Sure I burned off a few more matches bridging the gap, but I was convinced my legs were back on the up.
Olympian and all-round personality Mari Holden was along for the ride: “man that took waaaay too long to ride 88 miles…”
Sadly, those sensations quickly turned to somewhere between bad and ugly as I rolled out of the Glendora feed, and was informed of the approaching 9 mile climb up the Glendora Mountain Road. Now, taken on its own, this would be a lovely stretch of climb – a perfect training route for a midweek ride – it’s curves and 5-6% grade gradually leading back up the mountain.
But by now the sun was high, it was somewhere between 10- 11:00 AM, and had turned into a warm day. I was back into my by-now-very-familiar bottom gear – churning that 36×28 over like some outta shape sloth. I adjusted my position on the bike – wishfully thinking that might alleviate the growing pain in my lower back (it didn’t).
Floyd Landis provided some good laughs along the way.
On I went, occasionally passing another rider. By now I was not alone in my misery. The slow pace was ideal to talk to other riders, but none of us wanted to. A brief “how you doing” was met with a grunt, a “been better”, or nothing at all. If misery loves company, I wondered why none of this was making me feel any better.
After climbing for about 45 minutes the next rest stop appeared. I settled into a chair next to a guy who had both shoes off and his feet up on another chair. Now, I’d never do that… but today I did. And it felt good. The even sadder reality was that it wouldn’t end until I got ‘er done, so I rolled back out, and continued the uphill slog, (which by now had become more of a grovel) back to the ridge road. I didn’t really notice how much elevation we’d lost on our first pass through here this morning, but retracing the route now, this was a veritable uphill section – that went on, and on, and on.
Eventually I came upon the Cynergy Cycles support van, who were waiting to make sure none of us had missed a turn and plummeted back down the long descent to the reservoir – don’t laugh – I saw a few guys do it while I chatted with our support crew. I asked about Troy, and discovered he’d passed me again in the van (I was getting envious), only to miss this very turn and ride some 2-3 miles down the valley before the support guys rescued him.
The plentiful aid stations were well stocked with pb&j… I ate of 40 of these.
By now I was some 5+ hours into this thing, and every turn of the pedals was a scrape along the bottom of my barrel. This was the longest ‘heavy-gear’ workout I’d ever done – and my body had given up long ago. My mind over-ruled and pressed me on, though what damage was being done remained a mystery for now.
Sometime during the course of the last hour I had that dreaded realization that I might not actually make it to the end. At first it was a thought, then denial, then a slow acceptance, and finally relief and rejoicing knowing I’d soon enough be climbing into the van, and not subjecting myself to another agonizing hour of the climb to Mt. Baldy.
Don’t believe Troy’s smile – let’s just say it’s not an accurate representation of how he feels at this point.
I hate to admit it – geez I haven’t had one of these days in years. But there was no escaping the reality.
Around the next bend I came upon Troy again – again off his bike, but this time looking even worse than I was. His spirit was broken, and I found some solace in extending enough encouragement to get him back on his bike. We both knew our fate in the van was certain, but for now we were resigned to either pedaling on ahead, or simply waiting like two broken souls on the side of the road. My pride over-ruled my body – riding even at a snail’s pace was somehow better than standing still.
We tried calling for the van “Pickup in aisle 7, please!”… but no cell signal. We stopped in some shade and greeted riders coming up behind us.
“You go on ahead.” Said Troy.
“No, no, we go together.” I countered.
We saddled up and soldered on.
From behind we heard the sound of a horn blowing – the support van rounded a corner. It had been 6 + hours since we started at 7:00 AM. Troy and I threw up our hands in… shared glory… relief… ‘hey we’re over here!’
And we climbed into the van.
• Big thanks to Troy Angwin and Champions Systems for hosting this truly memorable day. See their website at Champ-Sys.com
• Also thanks to Nate Napierala for some fantastic photos – see more of his work at NNapierla.com