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Yellow Jersey Tours Diary: Preview #1
By Locutus
Date: 6/23/2004
Yellow Jersey Tours Diary: Preview #1

Training the Old Hams

When I decided to go on the Yellow Jersey Tours trip to France this July, the first thing I thought of was Jan Ullrich. Then I went and stepped on my scale. Luckily, I'm a vegetarian who stays in decent shape, so the news was good: I was close to fighting weight at 163 lbs. With some hard training, that would drop a bit without any real effort (other than the riding). The hard part would be riding myself into Tour shape. With days on the schedule like a 65-mile ride ending with the ascent up Mont Ventoux, I would have to really get in some quality miles to make it through to Paris on my bike (and not in the car).

You see, I'm a cyclist, but I've never been a racer… I just like to go out and suffer a bit on my bike occasionally as a part of my cross-training. I started off riding with friends of mine who were club riders, and occasionally I still go on club rides myself, but I'm not one of the guys you see flying off the front a lot.

During the school year, it was hard for me to get away for rides longer than about 2.5 hours. Fortunately, I live near Griffith Park, which has some nice hard little climbs and a varied terrain without much car traffic. The views of Los Angeles are great, especially up near the observatory where you can see downtown or the Hollywood sign. This was great for building up some base miles, and I hit Griffith Park for 25-35 mile rides (mostly climbing) four days a week starting in late April.

Click for larger image. Photo by Locutus ©2004.

Occasionally, on the weekends, I'd sneak off with my wife to Santa Barbara (about two hours up the coast) and train on the roads there. Santa Barbara is where I discovered cycling as a sport, and where I really began to spend a lot of time on my old road bike. It's also the area where Lance Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Service team have spent many of their spring training camps. I can see why: the terrain has everything from flats to rolling hills to long, steep, painful climbs. There is not a lot of car traffic most places, and the local drivers have tendency to be very aware and tolerant of cyclists. Luckily my wife's family lives there (and they like me), so I have a free place to stay whenever I want to go up and get in some long, hard training miles.

As soon as I turned in my grades last week, I threw my bike in the car and headed up to my sister-in-law Pam's place. I decided to do a little mini-training camp of my own, tackling the hardest climbs I could find and stretching my time on the bike to 4-5 hours per ride. Before I did anything, however, I had to take my bike for a tune-up… that Saeco team-issue Cannondale I won from Mario Cipollini's website in the 2001 Giro contest is awesome, but it needed some major adjustments.

I went to Kenneth Acklin at Bicycle Bob's, where he and his boys dialed up the bike and politely reminded me how to lube my chain, adjust my saddle properly, and treat my bike the way I should. They also threw on some new tires and replaced the bottom bracket, which I thought meant that I must have really been hammering during my training so far. A dear old friend and mechanic of mine set me straight, though, clarifying that a weak hammer like me could never wear out a Campagnolo bottom bracket in just one year, and that the part must have had some defect to break down so quickly (thanks for clarifying that, Noah old buddy!). Still, I was feeling pretty good about myself as I set out for a few hard days on the bike.

On Friday, I met up with DP reader and local club rider/racer Gregor "Leg Buster" Brown. I'd met Gregor in May on a weekend jaunt up to Santa Barbara; he had slowed down enough to chat with me while I tried to avoid puking on my shoes over some nasty climbs above Montecito.

Gregor "Leg Buster" Brown. Does he look like he just rode thirty hard miles?
Fit bastard… Photo by Locutus ©2004.

Today, Gregor was in his Saeco team kit, which actually matched my Saeco team kit (we didn't plan that, really!). He took me out on one of his 2-hour before-work spins, about 30 miles up the coast and back through the foothills before descending back past the Mission to downtown Santa Barbara.

Folks who saw us riding along couldn't have possibly mistaken us for real Saeco riders, and that wasn't because of Gregor: the speed at which I was climbing was a dead giveaway that I wasn't exactly Cunego or Simoni (but instead, much more like Cipollini, who was after all the captain on Saeco when I won the bike). If Gregor hadn't stopped to tap a kidney, I'd have never seen him again on that last steep climb up Las Canoas Road. Gregor is a great guy, and we had a nice long discussion about the big pre-Tour races and what they meant for July. It was a fun ride overall, and when I left him off at his house he looked fresh as a daisy and I was cross-eyed and drooling on myself.

I then rolled over to Farmer Boy, my father-in-law's restaurant on upper State Street, to bum some pancakes and coffee (mmmm… pancakes and coffffeee).

I actually look like a real cyclist here. Almost.
Click for larger image. Photo © by Alice Karleskint.

After the quick refuel, I remounted and headed out for the toughest climb in the area: Gibraltar. When asked at the training camp press conference this year if he had any messages for the locals, Lance Armstrong paused for a beat, thought, and said, "They need to pave Gibraltar. Gibraltar is in terrible shape." The climb to Gibraltar is several miles long (different people measure the climb from different places…the climbing starts by the Mission, and is just around nine miles by my reckoning). It is also painfully steep and relentless, with the gradient changing constantly and few places that actually feel like you get a respite.

When I was younger, I was also a lot stupider, and the climbing gear I rode was very big and manly (a 42x23 for you gearheads). Needless to say, I never made it to the top of Gibraltar until last year, when I used my wiser old man climbing gear (a 39x28) to wind my way up. The beginning of Gibraltar Road itself is painfully steep, putting the burn into your legs from the get-go.

The bottom of the Gibraltar road as seen from the bike.
Click for larger image. Photo © by Locutus

After having my legs already worked over by Gregor, this beginning section was particularly fun. The middle section of the climb is not as steep, but then in the last third of the climb the switchbacks get steeper and harder. As Lance pointed out, the pavement itself is also a big problem on the climb. The pavement isn't so bad near the bottom, but as you climb up it gradually gets worse and worse. Several times on the top half of the climb I felt like I was riding on cobblestones instead of pavement.

The previous year, this was utter agony as I was riding on a regular old titanium Flite saddle. For many of you who are advancing in years like me, you've probably experienced the unique agony of riding a hard flite saddle over very bumpy terrain for a long time. By the time I reached the middle of the climb last year, it felt like I had a titanium flagpole wedged up my bum; by the time I reached the top, it felt like my spine was fused to my seatpost. Thankfully, I invested this year in a new Selle San Marco Aspide Arrowhead Gelaround saddle. It's awesome: it weighs exactly the same as my old Flite saddle (210 g.), has a cutout for those "sensitive male areas," and is lined with very soft and cushy gel. I still get a bit saddle sore after a long ride, but as I climbed Gibraltar this time around, the pain was in my legs, not my bum.

The weather on the climb this particular Friday was humid, cold, and misty. As I suffered through the steepness of the lower slopes, the mist got heavier, the visibility got worse, and the roads got wetter and more slippery (this wasn't a real problem until the descent).

The wet fog envelops the switchbacks of Gibraltar road.
Click for larger image. Photo © by Locutus

On long climbs like this, a lot of things go through your mind. I kept thinking about how cool it was going to be to ride up Alpe d'Huez and watch the time trial from a good spot on the course this year. I also thought about how I am going to get my butt kicked in France by at least one woman every day on the bike, as American pro rider Nikane Xuen Mallea - who rides in Europe for a Spanish team - will be one of our guides.

Eventually, I climbed my way out of the fog and mist and the sun beat down a good 20 degrees hotter. I rolled down my arm warmers, and as I looked up I saw some kind of red and black bird up ahead. It was perched on the side of the road (which had a steep dropoff), and it was obscured a bit in the weeds as the road curved up. I finally got close enough to see that it was a vulture (no joke), and it had taken a keen interest in my slow, wavering progress up this painful section of the mountain.

As I rolled by, it looked me in the eye for a long moment just like I've seen coyotes do so many times, and it sized me up. Now I probably should have started reflecting on my mortality or something profound like that at this point. I mean, I had a vulture mentally carving up my carcass into chops, steaks, and back bacon.

The mist clears to reveal a worse road surface, a steeper slope, and blistering heat.
Photo © by Locutus.

But instead, I just got really pissed off, and started cursing. I cursed my gears, my legs, the crappy road surface, and especially that damned bird. If I had been close enough to it, I'd have probably taken a swing at the thing in some pathetic attempt to reassert the evolutionary hierarchy: hairless apes on top, ugly, scabby, red-skulled birds somewhere below. Luckily, that carrion-eating jerk turned and flew off as I passed it, leaving me feeling like I'd somehow narrowly avoided a situation straight out of a Warner Brothers cartoon.

I wish I'd gotten a picture of the vulture, but I was pulling too hard on my handlebars to reach back for my camera like I had for the other shots you see in this article. Eventually, I made it to the top and thought, I hope this gets easier soon. The descent was hairy as hell, as I had to pick my way through the slick, broken road surface and bad visibility to the point where my fingers were slipping off the wet brake levers and my arms were cramping. I kept it rubber-side down, and rolled into Pam's driveway very tired, but satisfied. I'd ridden a hard 52 miles, sort of kept up with a much better rider for much of it, and tackled the climb that had defeated me so many times in my youth. Not a bad day, but I still have some more work to do before I'm ready for Ventoux.

I didn't exactly open up a can of whupass on the climb, but I reached the top.
Photo © by Locutus

Bonus photo! Me suffering up Old San Marcos Road a couple of days later.
The climb starts in the valley below, which you see in the distance.
Click for larger image. Photo © by Locutus.

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