Editor’s Note: Writer/photographer Mark Johnson, who reported on his day a Garmin-Slipstream team car during stage 4 of the Tour of California, spent Sunday on Palomar Mountain in San Diego County, waiting for the final stage to come up the road.
It’s 7:45 am at the 5,123-foot Palomar Mountain KOM. Kids are sledding down a snow-covered hill. A young man and his dad are sitting on the side of the road in minivan chairs. It’s 38 degrees. Ethan and Kal Kik got here three days ago to secure a spot and have been sleeping in the van. How has it been at night? “Friday night we had to restart the car three times to warm up.”
Pete Pettis and Naomi Carpenter from Redlands are parked next to the minivan chairs. Their tented race-tracking command center would make NASA envious. Satellite TV plays Versus. A flat-screen computer pulls up the Amgen Tour of California Web site. Pete is consumed by cycling.
“I did 100 hilly ones yesterday. Temecula, De Luz, Fallbrook.” His companion, Naomi, holds her dog Star, who peers through milky cataracts. “We were in Europe last year for the Giro, and we wanted to recreate the scene. When they arrived three days ago, the Palomar Mountain firemen came by. “We expected them to tell us to get off the road. Instead they said come on by and have coffee. They invited us over and we had lasagna. Everyone has been so wonderful.“
Armstrong and Landis are prime motivators. Zack Hogan and his daughter Kaya carved an outdoor living room out of a snowbank. They came out the day before the stage — ”To see Lance. It’s a world-class field. How often do you get a chance to see riders like that in San Diego County?”
A couple of cars down the road, Jeff Shyu stands on top of a flatbed trailer a local real estate agent is using to publicize her services. Shyu’s camera is attached to a camouflaged 600mm birding lens the size of a cannon. “I want to see Lance. It’s a nice thing to do on a Sunday.”
Eileen Fitzgerald stands in a snow bank holding a sign that reads “The real cycling superstars are Phil Paul & Bob!!” She flew from Seattle to Sacramento and followed the race to San Diego. “We went to the Tour de France to see Lance. We watched Lance on top of the Courchevel.” Fitzgerald likes seeing Landis and Hamilton. “I don’t think they were guilty.”
Josh Stosic lives on Palomar Mountain. He trains a mammoth pair of binoculars toward the ocean, where on this spectacular day you can see 70 miles to the Coronado Islands off the Mexican coast. “To have the race here is like a dream come true. I’ve grown up here. I’ve been on this hill my entire life. I’ve never gone to the Tour de France, but now the Tour de France has come to me. It’s like Disneyland.”
Fans worry the dream will end. They implore race organizers to keep the race going, but there is an air of resignation to their voices. A sense that the plummeting economy is going to sink the race when it’s time for sponsors and organizers to re-up. Michael Allen and his seven-year old son Jack wave big American flags. “It’s unbelievable,” says Michael. “I’m so proud to see the Tour of California come here and to see the turnout. I just hope the Tour of California keeps coming. I wanted to give Jack a chance to see the greatest.”
Fans are sophisticated. Sitting in folding chairs a few hunded yards below the KOM, Max Smith and Danielle and Pat Moran came from nearby rural Jamul and camped on the side of the road. Danielle says, “We are so excited! It’s the first time ever on Palomar.” Pat asks where Contador is. Danielle jumps in. “I’ll show you.”
The race is scheduled to summit Palomar at 2:00 PM, but the party switches from morning coffee to morning cocktails about 10:30 AM. While Jolie Ramage fends off the mountain chill with a tiny self-contained campfire, her husband Ray sports an orange Euskatel beanie and mixes bloody marys from Polish vodka and organic celery. Ramage spices the drinks with a pepper mill. A champagne cork pops to cheers across the road. A guy giving away FRS energy drinks from a bike trailer rides past with a Guinness in hand.
Up the hill a group of fans in costumes gather round the blue KOM sign. One woman rests her inflatable, basketball-sized breasts on the top of the sign. They have been on the mountain since 3:30 am. One says, “We need to start making signs. What time is it?” Another, dressed as a Viking Sasquatch with an “Ulrich Fan Club” sign around his neck says “There is no time on the mountain.” A green motorcycle with a sidecar arrives.
The vibe is different here than on Tour and Vuelta mountain tops. More exuberant, flamboyantly celebratory. These fans are not jaded. It’s the first time the cycling greats of Italy and Belgium have granted this mountain their presence, not the 100th. Like revelers at Carnival in Rio, dressed in costumes or stripped down to their skivvies in the snow, the crowd is marking the arrival of something exceptional — sacred because it’s so rare and fleeting.
At 11:30 am arriving cyclists become an upwards torrent. The road closed to cars at 9:00 and riders who started at the bottom are arriving. A guy in a Cal Pools jersey crawls by, dripping sweat. Someone yells at him, “You want snacks? We got snacks!” A man in a cowboy hat walks by banging a foot long cowbell. It sounds like a plumber whacking a cast iron pipe.
Cycling permeates these lives. Around the corner from the KOM, Garmin-Sliptream rider Steven Cozza’s parents Scott and Jeannette changed a county road sign to read “Garmin County.” Diana and Drew Rokerick sit with their dog Lance in front of the Palomar Mountain volunteer fire department, which is selling burgers and hot dogs. “When she got the dog the Tour de France was on and Lance was getting his fifth straight win. So she named him Lance.”
The peloton is due within an hour and the frenzy grows. Shaun Wallace pedals though the throng on a single-speed beach cruiser with a surfboard attached. The two-time British Olympic track cyclist and eight-time Masters world track champion rode up the 12 mile climb. “That was hard.” A guy dressed as a green elf offers him red licorice.
Ted Nugent’s Cat Scratch Fever blasts from a car stereo. The Pope arrives. He walks through the cacophony of cowbells, whistles, and rock with beatific calm, saying nothing but sprinkling spectators with water from a red chalice. The real estate agent with the trailer drives through the crowd in a golf cart.
At 1:41 pm, it starts to rain. At 1:45 PM, the sun comes out. At 1:48 PM, the Antlers-on-football-helmet guy runs runs up the hill. The crowd goes ballistic. Antler man has yellow chalky hand prints on his butt from people pushing him. An air-evac helicopter lands 50 meters from the KOM. Cameras turn to capture the moment and the whomping ‘copter blades add to the sense of feast and mayhem.
Flashing police vehicles come into view on the coiling road below. Spectators surge to the west side of the blacktop, peering at the riders snaking up the climb. The race arrives. Jens Voigt slashes through the raving tunnel of people with Leipheimer in tow. A guy, naked save short green shorts, a red vinyl vest and a whistle around his neck, prances along side.
Local boy Chris Horner comes through. A woman screams, “Chriiiiiis!” The riders leave black tire trails on the veil of yellow chalk dust covering the road. For 20 minutes, stragglers roll through, each gruppetto riding a frenzied wave of support just as large as the one that met the lead mountain goats. Then the broom wagon honks through and it’s over.