An epic day in the mountains has to include epic efforts to arrive at the
start line, epic efforts to stay warm all day while waiting for the teams to
arrive, epic efforts to occupy oneself for nine hours huddled in the car
and....well, you get the idea. With notification that only 100 cars would
be allowed to the parking area at the top of Brasstown Bald, Celia and I were
determined to be one of those one hundred, so we teamed up with two other DP
photographers, Scott Schraffick and Bob Keller, and made our way to the parking area by 8:45 A.M. We parked
our car right in front of the Jumbotron, figuring if all else failed we could
pretend we were at a drive-in movie, although at that early hour the fog was
swirling around so much you couldn't even see the screen 60 feet in front of us.
It was blustery and cold and we all were wondering if we had possibly lost our
senses, but we hunkered down in the car to pass the time. It was cold, and
after last year's super-warm weather, many journalist were caught without proper
warm clothing. I'm pretty sure Wal-Mart did a big business in the fleece
jacket department. The tourist shop at the parking area did have good
souvenirs, which was handy for some of us who had been too busy to purchase
gifts for family. Plus the gift shop gal told us the fog was
supposed to disappear after
noon, which gave us a little hope for clearer skies. I might
mention that we were feeling cold and somewhat miserable, but in the back of my
mind I kept thinking, "Those poor cyclist!"
The hours passed. Temperatures were in the thirties much of the time,
so we'd have to turn on the heater to warm up for a while. Every hour or
so we'd have to get out of the car and walk around to stretch our legs, see what
people were up to, get a hot chocolate, look at our watches to see that it was
only six more hours until the cyclists would arrive. Shuttle buses were
bringing people up the mountain, others were riding their bikes, and still more
were walking, carrying their chairs and blankets and food. The
mountainside began to fill in. More hours passed. We stationed our
chairs just up from the parking area on the last section of the climb, not all
the way to the barriers at the top, but just a bit below there. Let me point out, however,
that there is no flattening out on this climb, and while some sections might be
less steep than others, it's all steep. The wind kept blowing, and the
fans looked like they were bundled up for a day on the ski slopes. One of the
course marshals who was directing traffic would yell "Welcome to Minnesota!" as
the cars pulled into the lot, but personally I was thinking of Wisconsin.
Eventually, maybe after noon, the race coverage began on the big screen, and
part of the time the race radio was broadcast as well. This helped pass
the time more quickly, as we were able to follow along in our race guides to see
just where they cyclists were and what time schedule they were on. There
was virtually no cell service in this area, so we couldn't call anyone to get
an update so much of the time we were figuring things out on our own, as the
race radio didn't always come through with the picture feed. Occasionally the sun would come out, but the wind rarely eased up and the
temperatures never rose. Many of the vendors at the Expo were
minimally operating their booths, as the wind was whipping the awnings around,
and yes, tipping over the port-a-potties.
We finally headed up the hill via foot around 3:30 P.M. We'd somehow
managed to kill over six hours in a car. The crowds were huge, but we had
our spot staked out near our new friends Bryan Henderson, Jake Hester and Stacy
Powell. Turns out I had been near Bryan further down the mountain at last
year's race, but Jake and Stacy were new acquaintances for the 2005 race.
Excitement was building as more and more people made their way up higher on the
mountain. We had a visit from Elvis, who claims he rode up the climb in
this outfit. He'd position himself in the middle of the road, and sing
out "Ain't nothing but a cyclist." Everyone would laugh.
Laughing keeps you warm; we all figured that out. For some reason Jake
decided he needed to run around with no shirt on, so we called him Naked Man.
"Scott, take a picture of Naked Man for my article."
We heard from others below our spot that the cyclist were coming, and we
could hear the helicopter getting closer. Snow flurries began to fall, and
I kid you not I immediately thought of Andy Hampsten riding in the snow in the
Giro! Finally the first two cyclist came through. They were
Levi Leipheimer and Tom Danielson and at this point Levi was in the lead.
The road was very narrow where we stood and we were incredibly close to the
athletes. I kept looking right into their faces as they churned past us,
not using my camera at all, just wanting to be up close to the riders with no
camera in between so I could experience their suffering, their fortitude, their
determination. A few seconds later Lance and Floyd came pedaling through
and Floyd managed an attack right by us. I had just interviewed him a few
days before, and I was yelling at him, "Floyd! You can do this!" I had seen
his family walk up this section earlier in the day, and I wondered if they had
ever seen him race in a mountain stage of the Tour. I wondered what they
were thinking as he rode by them a little further up, with the race slipping
away at the finish line. I thought so many things about him in the few
seconds I was next to him; it felt like time was frozen, and I really felt
honored that I "knew" him.
A few more select riders came through: Bobby Julich, Trent
Lowe, and soon I saw the first Health Net-Maxxis rider coming around the
corner. I knew it was going to be Justin England. He had been having
such a good Tour de Georgia, and a good spring in the California races. I'd just had a
good feeling for his climbing legs that day. He was only three minutes down
from the leaders. I screamed out his name and
so did all the others around me: "Go Justin! You're almost there!"
He looked right at me and almost smiled...or maybe that was a grimace, I'm not
sure which. Later he said he saw us and he remembered where we'd
been on the climb. He rode on higher, and he placed 13th in the stage, the best
finish for Health Net-Maxxis.
Five minutes later Scott Moninger came through, and close behind him Chris
Wherry. I had not seen Scott around much during this race, but I knew he
had raced hard all over California in March and I had seen the incredible work
he'd put in for Wherry in Redlands. He was quietly going about his
business during this tour, but he looked comfortable and within himself.
Wherry looked a little beat, but he was up out of the saddle and cranking hard
on those pedals. We'd scream out "Go Scott!" "Go Chris!" and everyone else
would chime in and ring their cowbells and wave their clappers. It was
more than thirteen minutes later when a group of four Health Net-Maxxis riders
came through, encouraging each other and plodding along, barely making the time
cut but living to ride another day, another stage. Later Greg Henderson
told me during the race his legs didn't hurt, but he just had no power in them.
He said his "mates" kept telling him, "Only 15k more, Hendy." "Only 10k
more." "Only 5k more." Have you seen the last 5k? he marveled at the
All too soon the riders were through and it had all unfolded in less than
thirty minutes. The cyclists had been five hours plus on the bike, and we
had been on top of the climb for over nine hours! Brasstown Bald was in the books.
Once again we'd been to the mountain and it was good!