Yesterday was the day for epic journeys.
It began in Seaside, a town resembling a coastal Modesto--quiet, laid back and ready to resume normal life the minute the peloton rolls out. The streets near the start, however, were filled with excitement and interest despite the sprinkles of rain.
The riders were courteous enough, but they didn't joke around
with each other or spectatorsas much and many stayed in their cars or RV's until the last minute, probably in an effort to stay as dry as possible. Unfortunately, as I was leaving Seaside 20 minutes before the start, it began to rain steadily. I drove down Highway 1, past Pacific Grove and the official start of the race to watch the peloton come through.
About this time the rain was intermittent--not too hard but never really stopping long enough for anything to dry. After they passed, I drove North to get on US-101 and head for San Luis Obispo. The plan was to cut across some roads further south, from 101 to the coast, and catch the riders coming along Highway 1. That would be my downfall.
The road I took led into Fort Hunter Liggett, a large military base that starts in Lockwood on the edge of the San Antonio Reservoir and covers all the ground to the coast. While the guy at the gate was helpful in trying to give me directions, the roads were minimally marked and I had to double back on myself a couple times while guestimating that I was on the right road based on the topography I got from the map.
It wasn't until I passed the second gate, into the National Forest that makes up the western side of the base, that I realized my gas was getting low. I still had about an eighth of a tank left and decided since I was pretty much stuck in the middle, I might as well continue onward. The road I was following, Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, gradually became less developed as I entered further into the national park
no lines, soft shoulders and barely enough room for two cars to squeak by. That's when I noticed the gas gauge dipping...a lot. Signs indicated I had 14 miles to Highway 1. The gauge continued to move. The roads began to gradually ascend while twisting back and forth like a coiled hairpin. And the gauge continued to move. I started to get worried. The last thing I wanted was to run out of gas over 10 miles from anything in the mild of the woods. I kept driving. The gauge kept dippingliterally, my toaster dial moves slower that that--while my mileage didn't seem to be increasing by much at all. As the road started getting steeper and steeper, I started calculating turnoffs I could roll the car into if it came to that.
When I finally hit the apex of the hills, I shifted into neutral and commenced my coast to the coast. I have rarely been so happy to see the ocean.
The road almost seemed to spin down, it was so winding. The whole trip was like a roller coaster ride, where just for a second on the way up you seriously think "What if I don't make it?" Then you start going down and you realize "I made it! But I'm not out of the woods yet..." Now take that times 10.
At one point, I could see the highway. I was overjoyed. Then I realized I was watching the tail end of the caravan. I had missed the riders. This also meant that unless I wanted to double back through the base, I was going to be bringing up the rear of the caravan. And there was still the problem of finding gas.
As I was winding down, the gas seemed to slosh around the tank enough to fill whatever valves it needed to. My mindset then was "Thank God for this miracle fuel." I hit Highway 1 and was able to make it to the town of Gorda, which was basically a cafe and gas station on the coast, where I paid $5.20 per gallon.
With enough gas to get me to San Luis Obisp, I joined the long line of cars following the riders. That's when I first realized how tough they had it. The winds were coming strong off the cliffs, sometimes head on. When the rain wasn't hitting you smack on one side, it was coming straight down hard.
And while Highway 1 was just breathtaking, there wasn't much a rider could enjoy as he probably fought to stay on out of the wind in the peloton. Heaven help the breakaway.
So there I was, inching along, admiring the view, and wondering what was going on in front of me.
There were some cool scenes along the road. A few cyclists were earning their street cred by riding the route, like these two from Team Highlighter:
Some die hard fans were out as well.
For half the course I rolled along like a participant in the Oregon Trail (hoping I wouldn't die of dysentery). I finally made it to San Luis Obispo around 5:45, in time to watch the broom wagon cross the finish line. I didn't really care though. I was so happy to be there after sitting in the car since 9:30 a.m. When Dominique Rollin, the unlikely Toyota-United rider who took the stage, began weeping as he accepted his jersey, I wanted to go up there and hug him and tell "I know what you've been through. I had my own journey today, too."
Or maybe I just really wanted that enormous bottle of wine. George Hincapie, the second-place rider of the day, looks like he's ready for the Tour de Hotel Room. After a seven-hour, 135-mile slog through Mother Nature's worst, he deserves a rest.
So Levi Leipheimer kept the yellow jersey, with a scant 13-second lead over Fabian Cancellara going into today's time trial in Solvang. I still had two hours of driving to my hotel in Santa Barbara so I hightailed it out of San Luis Obispo. A long day, but a truly memorable one.