Tour of Utah 2012 – Stage 1 (A View from the Rear)

“Boring boring boring … Chaos! Chaos! Chaos!”

This was how Competitive Cycling Racing Team director Gord Fraser described what can be a typical day in team car behind the professional peloton; especially on a long, hot, hilly day, like today’s first stage of the 2012 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, presented by Zion’s Bank.

The stage started (and ultimately finished) on Ogden’s Historic 25th Street, before embarking on a 131.7 journey through Weber and Morgan Counties, taking in 5 major climbs (although only 4 were classified for the King of the Mountains competition) totaling 8,939 feet of vertical ascent.

The field only remained together for about 10 miles, before the first break of the day took off, including Ben Jacques-Maynes (Bissell Pro Cycling), David Williams (Competitive Cyclist Racing Team), Caleb Fairly (Spidertech p/b C10) and Eduard Beltran (EPM-UNE), who were joined by William Clarke (Champion Systems) after the first KOM on Trapper’s Loop.

Gord sent the second team car up to the break, while we remained behind the, judging from the number of riders taking multiple “natural breaks”, very well-hydrated peloton. As predicted, things were pretty uneventful until shortly before feeding was opened when Taylor Sheldon got a rear flat towards the bottom of the Trapper’s Loop descent into Morgan Country, changed in about 13 seconds by Competitive Cycling’s mechanic Doug.

This flat turned out to be timely because almost immediately after the road flattened out, the commissaires opened up feeding from the team car. Since Taylor was still negotiating his way through the caravan to rejoin the peloton, Gord took the opportunity to load him up with bottles.

Gord Fraser and Taylor Sheldon demonstrating the “sticky bottle” exchange.

I definitely noticed some movement amongst the various team cars in the caravan, but I was little prepared for the careening that was to come … but more on that later.

I raced for a couple of years in the 1990s; but quite frankly, I sucked. Never really developed great pack skills, never developed any speed. At one point, I had great endurance … I could ride for 8 hours, as long as I was only going about 15 miles per hour. Ramp the speed upwards of 20 mph, however, and I would very quickly find myself dropping the field off the front.

I have been following the sport of cycling for nearly 25 years; I’ve watched every race that I could, first through the World Cycling Productions videos, then bootlegged videos of races televised on Eurosport, pretty much every cycling event that’s ever been televised in the US from the old hour-long recaps of the entire 3-week Tour de France on ABC’s Wide World of Sports through the current daily live coverage of the Tour available both online and on TV. I have also read countless books on bike racing. I thought I had a pretty good understanding of team tactics … perhaps I do, but there are definitely nuances that can only come from actively participating in the sport for decades.

When the break extended its lead to over 12 minutes, only 50 km (30 miles) into the stage, the Garmin-Sharp and Radio Shack-Nissan-Trek teams moved to the front and started working to shut down the break. Gord radioed up to the 2nd car to tell his rider in the break (David Williams) to try to get the break to ease up so that the gap back to the peloton started to close quickly. The reasoning behind this was that the big squads have an interest in holding the break to a certain advantage; if the gap starts to close down too quickly, then the teams riding tempo on the front of the field will also ease up because they don’t want to shut the break down completely, and then have to chase the inevitable counterattacks.

During this rather uneventful (from the team caravan perspective) section of the race, Gord and Doug took the opportunity to enjoy their seemingly bottomless lunch sacks.

Hilton Clarke (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team) loading up with bottles for the team.
Hilton Clarke (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team) loading up with bottles for the team.

As the day wore on, however, things did become more eventful. As more riders called for feeds from the caravan, the weaving interplay began to be displayed in full-force, with cars shooting gaps between motorefs and other team cars with barely inches to spare to a near mass-car pile-up when an Argos-Shimano rider signaled for a feed, by raising his left arm, instead of signaling for service by raising his right arm, causing those of us behind to slam on the brakes to avoid ploughing into the rear of the car in front of us when Argos suddenly stopped to swap out a rear wheel.

On the second descent of Trapper’s Loop, on the return leg, one of the EPM-UNE riders, racing downhill at speeds in excess of 50 mph slammed his arm into his team car to avoid caroming off the door and crashing while taking on bottles.

We saw one team car ahead of us driving for a couple miles with their left turn signal blinking, prompting the driver of that car to declare “I’m old!” when Gord pulled up next to him for a little good-natured ribbing; followed by “… but not that old” as we both passed the other car from that same team stopped on the left side of the road, trying to untangle a couple tree branches from the bikes and rack on the roof.

Then, as the field came back together, and ultimately exploded on the final climb of the day up North Ogden Divide, careening through the caravan and what was about 2/3 of the original peloton in ones and twos trying to get everyone fed and watered before the commissaires closed feeding from the team cars again at the final KOM.

Finally, a white-knuckle, squealing tires descent down the Divide back into Ogden for the finish which, being behind the peloton, we did not get to see. Sometimes, not getting to see the finish of the race really doesn’t matter. An exhilarating experience like this one is one of those times.

Quote of the day? When we drove past Jens Voigt on the final climb up North Ogden Divide, Gord asked him out the window how he was doing. Jensie’s reply? “I think I should have trained after the Tour de France!”

It’s Jens! It even says so right on his helmet, on the little decal on the back … see?

Many, many thanks to Gord Fraser and the Competitive Cyclist Racing Team for their hospitality and for really making me feel welcome. This was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I hope to experience again … sooner, rather than later.

More images viewable on Cycling Utah.