By Cathy Mehl
Who am I? What am I? Where am I?
Oh yeah, I’m still at the Tour de Georgia for one final stage, but
truthfully, more than once I have looked my photographer pal Celia in the face
and asked her, “What day is it?” Actual days of the week have given way to
Stages and we are both glad and sad that there is only one stage left for the
TdG. I’ve put over 800 miles on my rental car, and I’ve seen more of the state
than my sister has, and she lives here! The final stage is Sunday, and
something tells me it will be a beauty.
But for now, Stage Six to the top of Brasstown Bald is still bouncing around
in my brain, and I need to somehow share the fun and excitement of this day with
DP readers. Celia Cole (you are seeing her images on DP) and I hit the road
early today, as once again we had to explore the back roads of Georgia to get to
the finish line. As we fueled up on the first Starbucks coffee we’d found all
week, there were Michael Creed and Damon Kluck of USPS in front of us in line.
We laughed at them and teased them that we thought they might need some caffeine
today. Mike’s comment was, “It’s gonna be hard!”
It took us over two and a
half hours to get ourselves up to Brasstown Bald, but what a gorgeous section of
Georgia we drove through to get there:lakes, steep winding roads, quaint and
picturesque towns. Absolutely stunning scenery. As we rolled up the mountains,
the crowds were gathering in, staking their spots and settling in for the long
wait before the arrival of the cyclists.
We situated ourselves approximately 1K from the top of the climb on the
steepest section we could find. We wanted to see some suffering! Truthfully we
wanted to be sure the riders were not coming in groups so Celia could capture
great photos. We knew we would see plenty of suffering, as the grade was
probably 12-15% at our spot. It was so steep that I didn’t even want to walk
back up to my car to get stuff once in awhile and it was only 100M away! We
killed time by talking with new friends (and I will share stories of these folks
next time), cheering on regular humans bicycling to the top, painting the
streets (“Allez, y’all”) and just enjoying a “happening scene” with an
ever-growing number of bike crazies.
One of the road monitors wasn’t getting any respect from the rowdies crowding
the street a little ways up from us, so we got him to relocate next to us
because he had a RACE RADIO! It’s amazing how you can be in the thick of things
and not know what is going on. Ray Cipollini of the Navigators called my cell
to give us an update once, but cell service was zilch so we didn’t receive it
until later. So the sudden addition of the race radio from less than 15K out was
thrilling to us.
Eventual stage winner Cesar Grajales. Photo by Celia Cole/www.sportsshooter.com/celiacole.
Soon the helicopter started buzzing above, and the crowd grew
louder and more excited. The state trooper vehicles came flashing through, then
the race motorcycles, next the race marshal, and THEN THE FIRST RIDER!
was suddenly right there amongst us, sweat pouring off his face and legs, his
bike teetering a bit as he struggled to keep it upright. A local team rider was
winning the Queen of all the Stages! Next was Jens Voigt, exerting tremendous
effort. Right behind him was Lance with Chris Horner on his wheel. These riders
were showing amazing strength, stamina, and just pure grit as they pushed
through the climb. The crowd was going wild, screaming for all the riders,
snapping pictures, and taking movies. We were a mutual admiration society for
these fabulous athletes and every rider was encouraged and cheered as they
grimaced their way past us.
Lance Armstrong. Photo by Celia Cole/www.sportsshooter.com/celiacole.
Don’t forget, we were not at the top of the climb, just at a super steep
part, so there was much more pain to contend with beyond us, but from our
section if the rider looked up he could see the tower at the top. They were not
doing a lot of looking up…
After the first “elite” group of riders came through, a small gap ensued, and
then the motorcycle came through yelling that more riders were coming. Ivan
Dominquez came through and I was thrilled to see him. He had suffered alone
from 60K out the prior stage and had actually missed the time cut by 15
seconds. He had been allowed to stay in, a decision perhaps somewhat influenced
by a dedicated crowd. He wore his sprinter's jersey and as he rode past me, I
swear he looked me right in the face and I yelled, “You can do this, Ivan, I
know you can!”
Ivan Dominguez of Colavita Bolla. Photo by Cathy Mehl.
Some of these riders would ride over to the side and yell to the fans, “Push
me! Give me a push!” And the fans jumped right in to give the rider a small
boost, to get them beyond the tough spot, and to reward them for making it that
far and staying upright. It was a cacophony of sound as the yelling continued
and the crowds surged back and forth into the streets as the riders continued
I saw Mike Creed come churning up the mountain, the effects of that early
morning caffeine long gone by now and he looked like a machine, traversing the
hill, winding his way up. And the USA Nationals came through somewhat close to
each other, and as a mom, I can tell you I almost wanted to cry. Here these
young men were bravely conquering this mountain that was causing cars to
overheat on the way up, and yet these young inspirations moved ever upward
toward the top. I called Jonathan Vaughters later on and told him I hoped he
was very proud of his boys, that they weren’t even close to the back, and that
seeing those determined and dedicated fresh faces just made my day.
Mike Creed, US Postal-Berry Floor. Photo by Celia Cole/www.sportsshooter.com/celiacole.
I don’t know how long it took for the riders to come through, I guess not
really very long, but while the event was unfolding it was like being in a time
warp, where sounds and images were pulsating and building, yet repeating
themselves as the next rider came through, suffering just like the one before.
If it was a rider we recognized or had time to look up on the rider list, we
would scream their name, yelling for him to Go, Go, Go! If we were unsure of
the name, we’d just yell the team name so they knew we were sending them on
"Go Jelly Belly!" Photo by Cathy Mehl.
After the riders had passed, and the team cars and the medical vans were
beyond us, we all looked around at each other and just smiled and shouted, “THAT
WAS SO COOL!!” It was an adrenaline fueled high that felt good. We’d just
witnessed an amazing show of strength by the best damned athletes in the world.
After the ride was over, it took awhile to hear any results, and then what we
heard on the mountain was wrong. It was only later, after we descended and I
called the DP did I know Cesar had held onto his lead and Jens and Lance were second
and third. It didn’t occur to me for quite awhile to wonder who had won. All I
could think about was what a beautiful cycling moment I’d just shared with those
around me and how the excitement of the cyclists' accomplishments seemed to seep
under my skin. I felt incredibly privileged to have witnessed such an event of
courage and determination. Brasstown Bald will remain a vivid part of my
memories of the Tour de Georgia for quite some time.
Oh man, one stage to go!
Here comes Mario! Photo by Celia Cole/www.sportsshooter.com/celiacole.
More Stage Six Photos, by Chad Gagnier
Tough ride for Saeco...
The sprint for second - looking at Lance...