The Cycle Life: Your Own Private Tour of California

"Old Man" Chris Horner decimates the field atop Sierra Road. via Flickr

The 2011 Amgen Tour of California was one for the old men, and I’m not only talking about the GC. Yes, 39-year-old Chris Horner ran away with the race by beating up on riders young enough to be his son. And yes, older racers dominated the podium (2nd place Levi Leipheimer, 37; 3rd place Tom Danielson, 33; and 4th place Christian Vande Velde, 35). What many people missed, however, was a Masters Class ride called the Carmichael Training Systems ATOC Race Experience that ran concurrently with the Tour.

Organized by pro-racer-turned-coach Chris Carmichael, this event saw 21 amateur cyclists, age 41 to 71, take on the entire 765-mile Tour of California, riding each stage just a few hours before the peloton roared through. I tagged along with the group for the final stages,  and the riding I saw was as impressive as the pros—perhaps more so considering that these CTS riders are doctors, financiers, lawyers, and businessman who still managed to train for such a demanding event.

The ATOC Race Experience stems from Carmichael’s personal bucket list. Last year, in the run-up to his 50th birthday, Carmichael decided he wanted to celebrate by doing La Ruta de Conquistadores, the treacherous, four-day mountain bike stage race in Costa Rica. He mentioned it to a few friends and clients, and before he knew it 15 people had signed up to train and compete alongside him. “It made me realize that there are a lot of guys like me out there who want to do something big and challenging,” Carmichael says. To address those aspirations, CTS has launched the Epic Endurance Bucket List, a series of high-commitment, big-ticket adventures, and the Tour of California Race Experience was the centerpiece of the 2011 schedule.

The ATOC Experience wasn't for the casual rider. Since they were riding the same stages as the pros on the same days, the CTS crew had to start early and ride hard or risk being unceremoniously yanked off the course by the official pre-race sweep. That sometimes meant 4:30 a.m. breakfasts, long transfers to and from the start, and hard miles in the saddle with few, brief nature stops. “The goal was to give these guys a real taste of what it’s like to be a professional racer,” said Carmichael, whose palmarès includes a spot on the 1984 US Olympic team and a trip to the Tour de France in 1986 with the 7-Eleven squad. “This has been a week of hard, fast-paced riding with plenty of stress and bad weather. It’s been tough, but that’s what makes it rewarding.”

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