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Tour de Georgia Stage 6: An Epic Day for Epic Riders
 
By Staff
Date: 4/25/2004
Tour de Georgia Stage 6: An Epic Day for Epic Riders
 

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!

Cesar Grajales 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 upward.

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 their way.


"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


Mario Cipollini.

 


George Hincapie.

 


Tough ride for Saeco...

 


The sprint for second - looking at Lance...

 
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