Ten days after riding the May 7 L’Etape du California — the organized, mass-participation ride covering the stage 7 route of this year’s Amgen Tour of California — I’m still trying to wrap my head around the difficulty of the final 5km climb to the Mount Baldy Ski Area, where the stage finishes.
To call it hard would be an understatement. Let’s just say it’s harder than hard.
Trying to put into perspective how nuts the final climb really was, I recalled a bad haircut I’d had during my post-undergrad days in Santa Cruz, California, living in a house full of surfers, cyclists and triathletes. To avoid spending $15 a month at a hair salon we often gave each other haircuts with a communal set of electric clippers. One fateful haircut was near completion when I took off the blade’s guard, and asked a housemate to “clean up my neckline.” He misunderstood and dragged the clippers up my neckline, rather than down, scorching a two-inch bald spot straight up the back of my head.
Panic set in, and before I knew it, the entire household, plus a few peripheral friends, gathered around, having a laugh and tossing out suggestions on how best to correct it. Finally, a housemate stepped in, trying to put my concern at ease.
“It’s really not so bad. It’s actually a pretty good haircut. Until you get to right there,” he said, pointing to my exposed scalp. “And then it’s the worst haircut I’ve ever seen.”
His description almost exactly summarizes my view of the Claremont to Mount Baldy stage. For 70 of the stage’s 75.6 miles, it’s a hilly, enjoyable ride across scenic ridges and along narrow and winding roads. Until you get to the climb from Baldy Village to the ski area. And then panic sets in, and it’s one of the worst climbs you will ever ride.
A true mountaintop finish
For the last five years, the general classification of the Amgen Tour has been decided by its time trial stage, and the race progressively fell under more and more criticism for not providing a true summit finish. Bringing the peloton into areas that would have otherwise been covered in snow was a big part of what led to the 2009 calendar move, from February to May.
Last year was the race’s first attempt at a summit finish, with the 135-mile stage from Palmdale to Big Bear. Though there were seven categorized climbs and a massive 12,000 feet in elevation gain, the final 10 miles were essentially flat. The uphill battle race fans hoped for never materialized, and sprinter Peter Sagan (Liquigas) won the bunch sprint ahead of Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare) and HTC’s overall race-winner Michael Rogers.
This year’s route offers two summit finishes. The first, atop Sierra Road, has never been used as a finish but was tackled by the race’s peloton in 2006, ’07 and ’08, when it was a KOM summit on the way to a finish in downtown San Jose, 18 miles away. It’s a steep 3.6-mile climb, with 1,791 feet of elevation gain, an average gradient of 9.5-percent and maximum gradient of 15-percent. I’ve never ridden Sierra Road, but I’ve been up it in a car several times, and it’s plenty nasty.
The second summit finish of this year’s race is at the Mount Baldy Ski Area. (It’s officially named San Antonio Peak, but is known to locals as Mount Baldy because of the absence of trees.) It’s the first true mountaintop finish in the Amgen Tour’s history, finishing at 6,419 feet above sea level. It’s 4.6 miles long, with 2,110 feet of elevation gain, an average of 8.6-percent and a maximum gradient of 15-percent.
The average gradient isn’t quite as steep as Sierra Road, but the climb is a mile longer, finishes nearly 4,000 feet higher, and comes after a previous elevation gain of 9,000 feet on the day. And its average gradient is a bit misleading, as the climb starts off easily and gets steeper as it goes. The last three miles include many grueling switchbacks, averaging 10-percent, so steep some vehicles can’t make the drive, with the last half mile an unrelenting 12- to 16-percent.
“Some of you might not make it”
I came to L’Etape with seemingly everything in my favor: I live in Colorado and spend a lot of time riding in the mountains; I’d gotten serious this spring about training and racing; I was coming from altitude to sea level; the loaner bike I borrowed had a compact crankset. I was feeling confident about whatever the course might throw my way, even during the mandatory pre-ride orientation as we were warned about the difficulty of the final climb, and the cumulative effect of 11,000 feet of climbing in under 80 miles.
“Some of you might not make it to the top,” event guide Bruce Hildenbrand said, adding that the starting area, and thus the post-ride meal, was only a U-turn and a 10-mile descent down the mountain from the start of the climb to the ski area.
“It can’t be that hard,” I told my 63-year-old father Steve Rogers, a lifelong runner with five years of riding experience, who was ambitious but concerned about the task ahead.
And, in some ways, I was right. The 75.6-mile course itself isn’t so hard. It’s the final 5km or so that are cruel and unusual.
There were a few notables among the 1,500 riders at the start line in the charming college town of Claremont: David Zabriskie (Garmin-Cervélo), Caleb Fairly (HTC-Highroad) and Tim Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) as well as former NBA great Bill Walton, Shimano USA’s former national champion Wayne Stetina, mountain bike veteran David “Tinker” Juarez, and Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports, which owns and operates the Amgen Tour.
I’d flown in to ride the course with my father, who lives in San Diego, and former VeloNews editor Kip Mikler, who lives in Newport Beach. We were blessed with perfect weather, with temperatures hovering in the upper 60s and light winds.
My dad is a decent rider, but he’s no racer, and he doesn’t spend much time riding in a bunch. Still fresh on the early eight-mile grind up Mt. Baldy Road to Baldy Village, the large group set a steady pace, which saw us slowly drifting backwards before ultimately coming to a complete stop after my dad accidentally shifted his chain over the top of his cassette and into the spokes.
Fortunately that happened just 20 feet away from one of the two SRAM Neutral Race Support vehicles on course, and NRS team leader Chad Contreras quickly identified, and adjusted, a bent derailleur hanger on my dad’s Cervélo RS. (This totally saved the day, thanks again SRAM NRS.)
After reaching Glendora Ridge Road, with its stunning panoramic views, we pedaled along narrow and winding roads to the first rest stop, and then bombed a technical 10-mile descent down the backside of Glendora Mountain Road, painfully aware that all the elevation we’d gained we’d since given away — and would have to earn back. The only real flat section of the course was into a light headwind on Highway 39 and San Gabriel Canyon Road, along Morris Reservoir.
We rode at a leisurely pace, stopping at every aid station and regrouping at the top of every climb. The scenery was amazing, the weather was perfect, and the ride was well organized, with stocked feed stations, friendly volunteers, and police-marshaled intersections. In fact, I didn’t see or hear of even one crash or injury.
There were two chip-timed KOM/QOM climbs: the first was a gradual 8.5-mile climb up Glendora Mountain Road, sections of which had been used as an uphill time trial for the San Dimas Stage Race; the second was from Mount Baldy Village to the finish line at the ski area, miles 70 to 75 on the course. I’d told my riding partners I’d pedal whatever speed they wanted anywhere but on the timed climbs, where all bets were off and it was every man for himself.
Like “Everest in a storm”
After the 11-mile rolling climb back along Glendora Ridge Road, we reached the last rest stop before the final climb. While throwing his leg over his saddle to dismount, my dad cramped up; a sign of things to come for a number of riders. I was worried about how the finish might treat him, but we’d ridden 69 of 75 miles and there was no talk of turning down the mountain.
At least he wasn’t in as bad of shape as the guy next to me in the water line, who bumped into several people, mistook a tube of sunscreen for his water bottle, and apologized to no one in particular more than once that he was “a little out of it.” We ate, hydrated and stretched in anticipation of the last push, which would rise 2,000 feet in elevation in less than six miles.
After a fast one-mile descent back to Mount Baldy Road and into the village, we reached the start of the second timed KOM. Once we hit the timing mat, I bid my dad adieu and upped the pace. I slowly reeled in riders ahead, and was feeling good until I reached the first of 10 switchbacks. The smell of burning gearboxes emanated from cars driving down the hill, fresh new blacktop radiated the mid-day sun, and the sound of suffering was everywhere.
The last 5km was ridiculous — just stupid hard. I saw dozens of riders off their bikes, cramping, walking, huddled in the shade, encouraging and/or consoling each other. I worried that, behind, my dad might be in the same state.
Also on the mountain was RadioShack’s Chris Horner, who’d spent the day on a recon ride. He hadn’t known about the organized event, and he’d opted to ride the Glendora Mountain Road loop the opposite direction of the gran fondo before tackling the final climb. Afterward we swapped stories of riding up upon the tail end of L’Etape.
“Every 50 meters there was a guy cramping on the side of the road,” he said. “I’d ride another 50 meters, and there’d be another guy cramping. Another time, I saw one guy walking and another guy riding, only they were going the same speed. After I got to the top and turned around, I saw two guys riding up the hill, side by side. One of them started cramping and crashed the guy next to him. When you crash the guy next to you, going uphill, you know it must be steep.
“On the way down I must have seen 20 or 30 guys cramping. And they’re not on the side of road; they’re right in the middle of the road, still straddled over their bikes. And they can’t move. They can’t get a leg over their bike, or they’ll cramp up. I felt bad; there wasn’t anything I could do. It was like going up Mount Everest in a storm, the guy next to you is dying, but there’s nothing you can do. You can’t stop, because there’s 20 more of them up ahead. I could stop and help that guy, but what are you going to do about the next 20?”
Dismounting was never a concern of mine, although I did spend a lot of time in my easiest gear, 36×25, and I’ll admit I had to traverse the 15-percent ramp on the final half-mile before the finish — a challenge that truly was mental as much as it was physical. The final 500m was relatively flat, and I can honestly say shifting down a cassette has never felt so good. The climb took me 40:09; the fastest ride on the day was 30:26.
I found a fold-up chair at the finish and waited for my dad. Around me, people were in a state of shock, some lying on the ground, others shoveling whatever calories they could into their mouths. Nearby I overheard a group of friends conceding that it had been the hardest physical challenge they’d ever accomplished.
I began preparing my consolation speech for my dad, fearing he’d been unable to complete the climb. A retired Lt. Colonel in the Marine Corps, he would only give up, I knew, if he absolutely was unable to keep pedaling. But I’d also seen enough of that on the way up to know it wasn’t out of the question. A short while later, he crossed the finish line; he’d had to get off the bike and fight off cramps more than once, but he’d done it.
Heading back down the descent, my heart again went out to the many participants I saw struggling, unable to keep pedaling, opting to instead walk in cycling shoes, from as far as four miles from the top. I wanted to tell them “if you’re walking now, just forget it. It will take you another hour, or more, to walk to the top,” but I never did.
Though I’d embraced the challenge and the firsthand experience of seeing the Amgen Tour stage firsthand, I was conflicted. It will no doubt be a great stage for the pro race, and I fully embrace the concept of organized events for amateurs to ride the same stage as the pros. But I felt sad for the hundreds of riders who had paid to do the ride, trained for it, and were forced to turn back just 2-3 miles from the finish line.
A Tremendous Accomplishment
Back at the start village I ran into Messick, the president of AEG Sports, the organization that runs the Amgen Tour. You’re a sick bastard, I told him. He laughed. No, seriously, I said, it was like a war zone out there. Hundreds of riders weren’t able to finish. It’s a great course for the pro racers, and I love the fact that amateurs can ride the same course as the pros, but I sympathized with the scores of riders unable to finish the journey.
A few days later we spoke by phone. “I give people high marks for gutting it out,” Messick said, adding that the finish rate was around 75 percent, though, from registration numbers and finishing results the event provided, I’d estimated it was closer to 65 percent. (Not everyone who’d registered actually started, Messick explained.)
But what about all of those people I saw moaning and cramping on the side of the road?
“I was moaning and cramping on the side of road, too,” said Messick, who finished in a respectable 6 hours, 5 minutes. “What we wanted to provide people with was a stage worthy of a grand tour, and to have almost 1,000 people hump it all the way up to the ski area is commendable. Many people said it was the hardest day on the bike they’d ever had, and now they know what it’s like to ride a super-hard stage of the Amgen Tour of California.”
Messick struck a defiant tone in his defense of the Baldy climb, telling me, “We’re not apologizing to anybody on whether or not the Claremont to Baldy course is a true mountaintop finish in the traditional style. We think it’s going to be a great stage.”
He added that Walton, the former NBA great, was one of the last finishers on the day, crossing the line in just over 10 hours. “From 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. he rode his bike. He had a great day on the queen stage of a great race, and he finished. And two weeks from that day, watching the pros tackle it on TV, he’ll be able to say, ‘This is what it’s like, because I did it.’ And so will everyone else who cramped five times, or walked the finish. It’s a tremendous accomplishment.”
No doubt. It will be a tremendous accomplishment for the stage winner atop Mount Baldy, who will likely also be the overall winner of this year’s Amgen Tour of California.