Bike geek dream come true? Last month, the pro cycling team SpiderTech invited me to ride along in its official team car on a stage of the Amgen Tour of California, a bike race so big it’s America’s only real answer to the Tour de France. I cleared my calendar and bought a plane ticket right away. Soon, it was cloudy and cool outside and I was by the ocean riding shotgun in the SpiderTech-mobile, grinning and giddy as a kid.
On the morning of the second stage, we followed Highway 1 south from San Francisco. It was 117 miles to Santa Cruz. I had a notebook and two cameras, ready to take in the action of the race from a literal front seat at the show.
Team vehicles in these kind of events are responsible for tending to flat tires, mechanical breakdowns, handing out water and food resupplies, and for dolling out strategy decisions to a peloton on the move.
Less than five miles into the race we crested a climb and the pack of team cars all bolted ahead. Engines revved and items shifted in the back of the vehicle. A sharp corner came up fast and I thought we’d either roll or careen into the crowd. But my driver, team director Kevin Field, is a pro and we rocketed around the bend and away just fine.
Out my window, surfers bobbed beyond the breakers as we cruised the scenic seaside route. Ahead, the peloton snaked around turns, pro riders making the whole thing look easy. They seemed unconcerned as the breakaway group’s lead grew to nearly 10 minutes.
From the car, the first half of the race seemed slow. Riders were constantly pulled over on the sides of the road. Usually it was for one of two reasons: they’d suffered a flat or they had to pee. Some chose not to stop for urination, but rather tug the bibs down and let it fly off the side of the bike in an awkward but undeniably efficient maneuver.
Flats happen with shocking frequency in these races. Team cars are constantly being called up to the front of the caravan to help riders. On this day, Team SpiderTech had six punctures, two broken wheels, one dead battery (electronic shifting), and two riders involved in crashes. But mechanic Jeff Crombie can wrench a bike leaning out the window of a car at 25 mph when required. A true pro if ever I have seen.
A few times during the race a lone rider would drift back to the team car to collect bottles for the whole team. Loading his jersey with eight or more bottles, he’d lumber back to the peloton and distribute to teammates. Besides being an interesting tactic for resupply, it was pretty comical to watch.
Near the halfway point of the race, something shifted and it began to feel more real. The nonchalance was gone. Teams took turns at the front, tugging the group closer to the break-away pack. Heads were down and cranks were turning to shrink the gap. There were “King of the Mountain” points where strategies were being enacted. SpiderTech’s David Boily was in the K.O.M.’s polka-dot jersey, and he aimed to keep it for the day.
From the team car, it’s difficult to see the action. But the excitement and frantic swings of emotion are very present. The soundtrack of the race became louder as we neared the finish line — a helicopter’s beating blades, radios squawking, horns honking, and fans screaming served to amplify the mood.
On the side of the road, women banged kitchen pans with large spoons, kids waved cardboard signs, young men blared homemade fog-horns and even revved chain-less, smoking chainsaws over their heads as the race swooshed by. Energy was high as the race was hurling into the valley toward Santa Cruz.
My driver fought to keep his position as other team cars tried to out maneuver us on the steep switchbacks. Tires screeched around the mountain corners and items flew around the interior of our car. Our passenger-side mirror smacked sharply against another car’s mirror, and I grinned as we gunned past them and on ahead. For a few seconds, I forgot it was the cyclists who were racing, not the cars.
All breakaways were neutralized by the time we hit the valley, and the tour’s best sprinters were then there battling for the finish line. I didn’t get to see the finish, but the excitement for me had lasted the whole race. I’d been an arm’s length from some of the world’s best pedal-mashers — for a day I was a true part of a professional cycling team.
—T.C. Worley is a contributing editor. On this race, team SpiderTech held onto the King of the Mountain Jersey through the 2nd stage. In the end, Team Rabobank got its man Robert Gesink to the top of the podium as overall tour winner.