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Tour of California: Wild weather adds drama to Stage 2 finish in Santa Cruz

February 17, 2009

Santa Cruz Sentinel

By Karen Kefauver

SANTA CRUZ — Levi Leipheimer described the weather conditions during Monday’s Stage 2 of the Tour of California pro cycling race like this:

“Turn the shower on as cold as it gets, then stand there for four hours,” said two-time tour champion, who claimed the yellow leader’s jersey Monday. “That’s what it was like.”

The sky unleashed hail, driving rain, drizzle and even some sunshine during the race. However, the 130 racers got a warm welcome from an estimated 35,000 fans who gathered at the corner of Cooper and Front streets to watch some of the world’s best racers — including seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong — pedal across a Santa Cruz finish line for the first time in the tour’s four-year history.

In their third day of racing the nine-stage, 750-mile tour, the pack started at 8:30 a.m. in Sausalito, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge — closed to traffic for a sporting event for only the second time — and raced down Highway 1. The riders completed the challenging 115.9-mile ride, part of the biggest professional bike race in the United States, at about 2 p.m. Thomas Peterson of the Garmin-Slipstream team won the race in 5 hours, 6 minutes, 20 seconds, with Leipheimer right behind.

Though the sun peeked out in time for the racers’ arrival, the riders were challenged by the elements all the way to the end.

“I told [tour director] Jim Birrell I was cursing him for making us go the long way around Santa Cruz. Around that final corner there was a massive headwind,” Leipheimer said. “I think I lost 30 seconds in the last 3 [kilometers]. But the people of Santa Cruz deserve a show, right?”

They certainly got one. Armed with umbrellas, raincoats, ponchos and waterproof pants, throngs of people three to five deep were undeterred by Mother Nature’s unpredictable behavior, which included sudden downpours even after the rain had mostly abated.

“It was brutal,” said Wendy Bowers-Gachesa of Watsonville, who was pelted by hail as she watched the race from the side of Bonny Doon Road, the site of the second and final climb of the stage. “We were out there for two hours. It was hailing, drizzling, then hard rain, more hail. For about 10 seconds, there was sun. My car said the temperature was 39 degrees.”

From the racers’ perspective, the conditions were even worse. Leipheimer got so chilled he bundled up in a hat and two jackets for the post-race press conference held at the Santa Cruz Veterans Hall.

“It was hailing in Pescadero and the coldest point was on Skyline,” said Ben Jacques-Maynes, a Bissell Pro Cycling racer who lives in Watsonville with his wife, Goldi, and their two young daughters. “The cold seeps into your legs. The wind and rain wears on everyone.”

Despite the cold, Bowers-Gachesa, a nutrition instructor at West Valley College and an avid cyclist, had no regrets about her Bonny Doon vantage point.

“The vibe was really good up there,” she said. “There were a lot of spectators and it was an exciting race. I just wish they were slower so I could have seen them for longer!”

Stationed at the finish line at the 200 meter mark, Terri Schneider, an endurance athlete and coach who lives in Aptos, said the weather was no big deal.

“I figure the riders are getting hammered and we have nothing to complain about,” she said.

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