There’s a long tradition among amateur cyclists of pre-riding the course of a stage-race. After all, cyclist don’t just watch; they “do.” In 2007, during Stage 2 of The Amgen Tour of California, Curtis Taylor, Scott McKinney and Steve Ward set out to embrace that tradition – along with a few other riders who had the same idea. It turns out one of those riders was professional cyclist Saul Raisin – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
In case you haven’t heard of Saul Raisin, here’s the short version. At 20 years old, Saul was the best young rider in the 2003 Tour de Georgia. He went on to race in Europe for the USA Under 23 developmental squad. His success earned him a position on the Credit Agricole Pro Tour team. According to Dave Shields, author of an upcoming book about the phenom (http://daveshields.com/saul.html), power measurements showed that Saul had the ability to win the Tour de France.
Then, on April 4, 2006 a high-speed racing accident in France put Saul in intensive care. Doctors induced a coma and surgeons operated in attempts to alleviate pressure on the brain after Raisin suffered from a hemorrhage. Thoughts of racing were forgotten as the cycling world prayed for his survival. In February, just 10 months after the accident, Saul is using the entire Amgen Tour of California course for training. He’s also promoting his sponsors and “Raisin Hope”, an organization he founded as a way to raise awareness and support for sufferers of Traumatic Brain Injury and those who support them (http://raisinhope.ning.com/).
Our plan was to give ourselves a two-hour head start from our hotel in Santa Rosa, ride the stage course to the last King of the Mountain (KOM) sprint on top of “Cardiac” hill (just West of the Berryessa Dam) where we could watch the pros climb. After watching the KOM, we thought we might try to race the peloton to Sacramento (albeit by a shorter route) and watch the finishing circuits.
After emptying our bottles on the 5km climb up Trinity Grade between Sonoma and the Napa Valley, we made an impromptu stop to sponge water from Paul, a fan parked along side the road. It turns out Paul is a family friend of the Hincapies and runs a cycling tours company (http://www.blackbearadventures.com/). About that time, Paul yells out “hey Saul” as a rider in full Credit Agricole kit went by in a blur. “Saul?” “As in Raisin?” “Should we try to catch him?” “Yeah right!” With new inspiration, we set off towards Oakville thinking that seeing Saul was cool but that catching him was hardly within our reach.
After Saul sped past us down Oakville Grade, we saddled up and gave a feeble chase. Then, when Steve thought he saw the pro’s green team kit ahead, we hit it for real — three amateurs vs. one pro. When we caught Saul in Oakville we learned A) he was just spinning easy while we were working hard and B) he was thankful for the company. It seams Saul spent the previous day on the Stage 1 route, a lonely, 97-mile ride from Sausalito to Santa Rosa into a head wind, climbing 6000 feet and burning nearly 6000 calories.
Riding with a Pro Tour rider is inspiring on many levels. Saul’s personal support vehicle offered almost constant support (Water? Gu? gu2O? Lube? Legs?). Saul’s father and his GU sponsor covered our rear on blind corners, and kept Cycle Folsom topped up too.
Riding with Saul was both humorous and educational. Saul’s junior racing buddy was known as “Harry” — a strong surprise despite the hair on his legs. Saul soon dubbed Curt, “Hairy Curt” because of his similar stylings. Being the strongest of the Cycle Folsom group (i.e the only one who could hang out in the front for an hour), Curt spent most of the time side-by-side with Saul even up hills. As it turns out, shorn legs aren’t required to ride well. After falling behind on one hill, Scott absolutely buried himself to catch back on — this is not a ride to miss because you’re “tired.”
Chatting with Saul for 30 miles provided nonstop insight into the Pro Tour. How intense is it? The first hour and a half is hard, the next three are casual, then the final hour is intense. Just sitting in the pack may require 350 watts — but for a man who can produce 550 watts with ample room before hitting lactic threshold, that’s just spinning. What happens when your support car can’t reach you? While on a break in one race the feed bag held a 5lb sausage and a dirty magazine. Neither kept him in the break-away. Meanwhile, his team director thought the joke to be quite amusing.
There goes the support vehicle again. Steve hands over a bottle which was returned full in about 5 minutes. Saul says that in Europe, those who ride with their own support vehicle have made the big time. We say that’s true in California too. One could certainly get accustomed to this kind of support.
Along the ride, Saul took the opportunity to endorse his sponsors: Oakley (These new lenses are smudge proof, sweat proof, even impervious to marker. They just wipe clean.), Gu (here, have one), and PowerTap (it’s bad juju to use them in the rain).
On the last decent before the KOM, Saul explained that the ability to pee on the roll is a good bike handling skill to have. Scott and Steve backed off the pace to allow nature to take its course. Then we hit it hard — setting a quick-turning pace line (did we mention we were riding with Saul Raisin?) on the approach to the final KOM. Some of the most noticeable things about riding with this pro were quite simple. There are no stops. Riding is tight — elbow to elbow — even while descending on sketchy roads at high speed. And of course, unlike riding with most anyone else, there’s not much chance that he will get dropped.
In the final 500 meters to the KOM, Saul threw down a unique challenge. “If you donate $50 to my charity I’ll let you out sprint me in front of all those people.” Curt, I think you “won” that sprint.
At the top, someone on the sideline says, “That looks like Saul Raisin.” We looked at them, smiled and said “It was!”…and we just road with him for the last 30 miles.”
Epilogue:After our surreal, 30-mile saga with Saul and watching the pros ride Cardiac, we felt the need for speed. So, we took advantage of a strong tail wind and hammered all the way to West Sac (via the Causeway) averaging about 21 MPH (in spite of obeying most of the traffic laws). Because of our shortened route, we were able to beat the peloton to the turn in West Sac by about 40 seconds. After the team cars passed us, we jumped in behind the last motorcycle cops in the escort and rode a closed road across the Tower bridge into downtown just in time to see the final circuits around the State Capital, snap pictures with the Specialized Angel (http://www.pezcyclingnews.com/?pg=fullstory&id=4709&status=True), and compare notes with our rider friends (who had some epic adventures of their own).
By: Curtis Taylor, Scott McKinney and Steve Ward