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Riding in the team car

February 23, 2009 |  7:14 am

After covering a long event -- a two-week tennis tournament, a three-week Olympics, a three-week event such as the Tour de France or even a nine-day stage race like the Amgen Tour of California --there's a letdown, even for the journalist who didn't compete for anything but beating the massive hordes who surrounded the Astana team bus every day. The fans wanted a glimpse of Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer. We wanted quotes. It was first come, first served, and it was a competitive exercise in trying to locate where the Versus television camera was going to stop and pushing to be close by so your shouted questions to Armstrong might be acknowledged.

That's not the fun part of covering cycling.

I had a chance at the fun part Sunday during Stage 8, the big mountain stage of this race. The gracious owner of Columbia-High Road, the team based in San Luis Obispo, Bob Stapleton, offered me the opportunity to follow the extreme stage in a team car with director Allan Piper.

What a hoot of a trip. Piper, 49, a former Australian racer who now lives in Belgium, gets in a Volkswagen, plugs in some radios, throws a cooler in the back seat and bikes on the roof, and boom, you're in the car peloton.

Each team has two cars in the race caravan. One stays near the front with whatever riders might be challenging for the overall title; one stays farther back to attend to riders who might have certain achievable goals but with formidable obstacles.

Piper's car was going to stay with young sprint star Mark Cavendish, the Columbia-High Road rider who had a chance to finish as the overall points leader but who also wasn't well suited to big climbs. And this final stage offered a big climb, up over 5,100 feet at Palomar Mountain.

It was a learning experience just listening to Piper, who raced for 10 years on the pro circuit. He moved away from his Australian home as a teenager, fleeing a youth made difficult by a father who battled alcohol problems. Toward the end of Piper's racing career, he came across a young Lance Armstrong, who, Piper says, "was a mate. Right away you thought, 'Wow, this guy has all the talent and a mean streak. And he was a cocky you know what. Just like Cavendish."

Indeed, Cavendish, from the Isle of Man, won two stages of the race with a casual arrogance. Cavendish says he is fast and expects to win sprint finishes. Mostly, he does.

While we were keeping track of Cavendish, who was in the trailing group almost from the start, Piper's major concern was making sure the cyclist kept within about 10 to 15 minutes of the peloton. If a group falls too far behind, there is danger of missing a time cut and being eliminated from the race. Such a result would have cost Cavendish his sprint title.

Riding in the car allowed me to see the massive crowds all along the route. Second-place finisher Dave Zabriskie said that, at the top of the Palomar climb, the crowds were so thick and so close to the riders -- people in goofy costumes running alongside, offering pushes and back pats (as for the pair wearing nothing but jock straps and suspenders: Not a good look, guys) -- that it reminded him of the Tour de France mountaintop stops. Except, Zabriskie said, he wasn't sure if the rabid enthusiasm would be as well-timed and innocuous. "I kept my eyes up," Zabriskie said. "Didn't quite trust them."

But Michael Rogers of Columbia-High Road, third-place finisher overall, said more seriously that the crowds all week compared favorably to the Tour de France.

Winner Levi Leipheimer said Sunday the San Diego County mountains felt like July in France. And that's how it seemed, except it was a more multicultural crowd. Armstrong noticed the number of fans out on the Rincon Indian Reservation portion of the route and the Latinos lining the streets of Escondido.

Meanwhile, in the support vehicles, the drivers have duties to perform -- being ready to offer racers vests and checks when it gets cold, sharing water bottles not with only their own team but also with hurting riders. Piper handed off a bottle to an Ag2r team member whose car wasn't close by.

Also, during these four-hour drives, all these team directors and mechanics crammed into careening vehicles must answer the call of nature, twice. With a sudden screech and a cloud of dust, we'd pull over in a line of team vehicles with all the car members lined up like soldiers and doing what it is men do when toilets aren't part of the equation. As the only woman in all these team cars, I could only sit and not watch. The first time, it was startling but, hey, what can you do but stare straight ahead. The second time, it was just, well, unfair. The men weren't the only ones who felt that call. Thank goodness I had opted out of the offer of a cup of Columbia-High Road special-blend coffee.

I'll have other snapshots in my head, though. Of the three horses in a pen in Valley Center racing alongside a fence, keeping pace with the peloton; of the gorgeous Irish wolfhound that stood so still as the race went past; and the three little boys on the Rincon reservation, each holding a sign. We. Love. Lance.

Piper taught me a lot about racing strategy. He'd tell me when Frank Schleck and Vincenzo Nibali were making a downhill break that the peloton wouldn't chase because there was no need and that Schleck would win. He did. He raved about the pace set mostly by Schleck's brother Andy, and kind of wished Rogers and Thomas Lovkvist of his team might take a chance near the end and pull George Hincapie to a sneaky stage win.

And, as Piper hit the gas after one of his pit stops so he could move back into his place in the line of cars, careening around corners as horns were honking and voices were screaming over the radio and Allan carried on a conversation out the window with the mechanics in his other team car, he noticed how I was holding one arm on the door and breaking with one foot. Piper very calmly turned and said, "You have to trust your driver."

So I did. It was a great ride. Cavendish finished in time to get his points jersey. Rogers held on to his third place. The attack Piper wanted didn't happen, but Hincapie did finish third in the stage.

I'm hoping to do more racing this season. It's not a cheap proposition, and it's not the story that can take over our town like Kobe Bryant in the playoffs or Manny Ramirez negotiating a contract, but I want to get back in a car at the Giro d'Italia. Piper says I'm good -- I don't get car sick.

It would be cool to watch Cavendish keep getting faster, though the cyclist says he's really fast and looks quizzical when it is suggested he's a braggart. "I'm a realist," Cavendish said. "If I'm at the finish line, I'm going to win."

The intrigues that will be a part of Astana for the spring classics and grand tours will be the stuff of good gossip. Will Armstrong earn his spot as team leader for the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France, or will he be supplanted by the young gun Alberto Contador? I'm hooked now. Watching Columbia rally the troops to escort Cavendish to the front with just enough meters left to slingshot to the win, that's fun. The development of Lance and whether he means it when he says he'll be happy just to be a worker bee, I'd love to see how that goes for him.

Mostly, I'm sorry there's not a Stage 9 tomorrow. I'll need a racing fix.

-- Diane Pucin