It seemed like such a good idea: Ride along in a Team SpiderTech chase car on the queen stage of the Amgen Tour of California. Day seven’s finale to the 6,500-foot parking lot on Mt. Baldy always promised drama, especially as six GC contenders entered the race huddled within 67 seconds of the race lead. And with two SpiderTech riders aspiring to factor in the finish, second-in-mountains-classification David Boily and perennial workhorse and nice guy Lucas Euser, seeing the action up close from the front seat of their team car was bound to deliver some thrills. But while I buckled up expecting the electric fun of a good amusement park ride, what really transpired felt more like the gut churn you get when a carny ride nearly comes off the rails.
With the exception of Joseph Dombrowski, a 20-year-old on the Bontrager Livestrong development team who out-climbed every U.S. favorite to take fourth on the stage, Saturday was not a good day to be an American. As the home team, the U.S. entered the race with odds stacked in its favor, including Tom Danielson, Andrew Talansky, Dave Zabriskie, and Tejay Van Garderen as legitimate threats to win. Even Levi Leipheimer, hobbled by a recently broken leg, and defending champ Chris Horner, who sat nearly three minutes adrift thanks to a sub-par time trial, couldn’t be ruled out. And though Horner lit up the race with an audacious attack in the first 30 minutes that lasted nearly to he finish—nearly!—the gang of Americans folded like a carbon race wheel beneath a three-ton car (more on that in a moment) as Dutchman Robert Gesink rode away with the stage and race on the steep Baldy pitches.
But all that drama had nothing to do with the stomach-sick of my gripping ride. In just three and a half hours in the SpiderTech follow car, I engaged in cycling’s institutionalized cheating, nearly pissed my pants, even more nearly lost my lunch, came desperately close to killing our own cyclist, and almost got stoned to death. It was a strange and wild ride, and I walked away (barely) with a few important lessons.
1. SKIP THE COFFEE. You’re going to be sitting in a car for hours, and though they might tell you it’s okay to make a quick stop if you need, as SpiderTech Directeur Sportif Kevin Fields told me, in the heat of the racing action, when the breaks are going and one of your racers needs a wheel change or a bottle, do you really want to be the reason he gets dropped from the peloton or suffers from debilitating cramps? “Sorry, man. I just couldn’t hold it.” I did not, so I kept my mouth shut, which made for some blind, urethra-squeezing agony in the last hour of the stage.
2. PREPARE TO MULTITASK. The job of Directeur Sportif might seem easy, but these guys juggle tasks better than Wall Street traders. Throughout the stage, Fields was calculating strategy, sending and receiving texts to our second team car, taking calls, paying attention to the barrage of race radio updates, and simultaneously driving in erratic, high-speed traffic with hundreds of cars and bikes dodging and lurching just inches from our vehicle. Given the furious driving conditions, it’s miraculous there aren’t more accidents like the one in the Tour last year that saw Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland mowed down by a TV car.
3. IT'S NO FREE RIDE. Part of the DS’s job—and my job since I was taking up valuable passenger real estate—is to keep track of the running situation on the road from the communications car. If a team member gets in the break, as SpiderTech’s Lucas Euser did on Stage 7, or a racer breaks down, the DS needs to know it and make sure the cars are in position to support. And the constant fusillade of numbers is overwhelming: “Riders 1, 2, 7, 8, 53, 83, 91, 106, 115 in the lead group. Riders 20, 46, and 83 in chase one at 30 seconds.” More than once, I told Kevin that rider 183 was among the leaders only to be graciously ignored. I eventually realized that there were just 158 riders in the race.
4. CLEAN THOSE BOTTLES. Beware the bidon collé, or sticky bottle. It goes like this: A racer gets behind because of a mechanical or fatigue or whatever. He comes back to the team car, ostensibly to get some food or advice. A mechanic holds out a bottle, which the racer grabs, but they bungle the handoff and both racer and mechanic have to keep hanging on for fear of dropping the bottle. Meanwhile the driver guns it, and suddenly the rider is going faster than before. A lot faster. With a little luck, pretty soon he’s caught back on to the race. Magically, the handoff is almost always concluded as soon as a TV cameraman comes into view. Even more extraordinary, handoffs are sure-handed and rapid whenever a race marshal is in sight.
On Stage 7, I witnessed how awry this can go. After the King of the Mountain atop Glendora Ridge, we came upon two SpiderTech riders who had drifted off the pace and were losing ground. In order to regain the back of the race, the boys intermittently latched onto the team car, unhitching at the first sign of race officials. At one such juncture, one of the guys got the release wrong. “Bang!” and he was skipping across the hot pavement like a river rock on a pond. Though he was pretty beat up when we peeled him off the road—he'd definitely need a handful of those flourescent Spiders to ease his aches later—the bodily damage was nothing compared to his carbon wheel.
“We’re pretty tame about this compared to most teams,” Fields told me when we were back on the road, and he was right. I saw every car on the road pushing riders along at one point or another. And from there forward, I went cold with fear of another disaster each time I saw it.
5. CONSIDER XANAX. After the crash, I wished I’d brought some pharmaceuticals or a flask. Given the time we’d just spent with our downed rider, the car was more than 10 kilometers behind the race, and we were getting calls from guys in the main field who needed support. We had to make up time fast, and Fields suddenly went F1. We hurtled down the steep, sinuous descent of the East Fork, leaving rubber at every turn and floating all four tires in tight hairpins. After seeing a speed sign marked 20 mph and noting that we were moving 50 and still accelerating, I vowed to focus on the horizon—and not the guardrail-less bends and thousand-foot exposure.
And it wasn’t just fear for my own wellbeing (though there was plenty of that). We squealed so fast and hard around junctions filled with fans that I was sure we were going to cut loose and topple them like bowling pins. In fairness, Fields drove expertly and seemed totally unperturbed by the speeds. But it was tough not to wonder, What if? The corollary to this lesson: Spectators, Pick Your Positions Carefully, on the safe insides of turns or well off the road. Better still, perhaps just watch from the safety of your living room.
6. BRING A RADIO. We eventually regained the peloton and were in the main field of team cars for the final climb up Baldy. But since we were still behind the race, the only way we knew what was going on was via race radio. It wasn’t until minutes after the finish that we found out that Gesink had overhauled Horner and Colombian John Atapuma for the stage win and jersey. And we didn’t get a full top 10 until an hour later. Though the car ride is great for action, if you want to watch the race TV is the way to go.
7. NEVER LET DOWN YOUR GUARD. After the race, back at the expo where the team vans had set up, I finally emptied my bladder, cracked a Coke, got the results, and started feeling recovered from the day’s strains. Standing beside the SpiderTech bus, we had front-row seats when the Radioshack-Nissan-Trek bus high-centered its rear axle on a dip in the pullout, stalling out halfway across the road and snarling traffic trying to get down from Baldy. At first amusing, things turned treacherous again when the driver gunned it and pelted onlookers with a spray of dust, sticks, smoke from the burning clutch, and gravel. I beelined for the safety of the bus.