Arguments, encouragement and hope in the Exergy team car

Exergy director Tad Hamilton finds his way through the purgatory between the front of the race and the back

CLOVIS, California (VN) — Over the race radio, two numbers are called out as abandoned on Wednesday. Those numbers are 152 and 155.

Radio Tour, a voice that wafts though every car and motorcycle at the Amgen Tour of California, is impartial, an objective commentary on what’s transpiring during a bike race. In her best English, French and sometimes Italian, Lorrin Rhodes calls out mostly numbers, no names, no details. Just “front wheel change,” “back wheel change,” “feed” and, on this day, a few “abandoned.”

In the Exergy team car, it takes a few seconds to realize that those numbers belong to a couple of the team’s riders, Carlos Alzate and Sam Johnson.

Johnson suffered deeply for his efforts in the breakaway on stage 1 at the Amgen Tour. Alzate won the USA Crits Speed Week title earlier in May, but criteriums made up the bulk of his miles in the past month, hardly ideal training for this year’s edition of the eight-day race, which has seen four very hard stages, including Wednesday’s 210km scorcher in 90-degree heat with six categorized climbs.

It turns out to be a very hard day. Exergy’s director sportif, Tad Hamilton, says he will pass out 100 or more bottles on a day like today. Some of them are cold, some aren’t. The riders always ask for cold, and question the temperature. Such is the life of a team manager on a 95-degree day in a major stage race.

Exergy finds itself in a unique situation on this day. It has riders at the back, clawing for survival, but it also has riders at the front, as Fred Rodriguez took third in the field sprint on stage 1 and sits fourth in the general classification on Wednesday. He won’t stay there for the duration of the race, but “Fast Freddie,” as he’s known, will fight to win a sprint as long as he’s near the front.

So while Hamilton needs to tend to riders yo-yoing off the back, he also needs to stock his riders with bottles for Rodriguez and the others. It’s a sort of bike racing purgatory, this space between the front and the back.

“It’s interesting how cycling can go from peaks to valleys, valleys to peaks,” Hamilton says, just before the finish. A win at the Amgen Tour can make a season for a third-division Continental team. They find themselves up against bigger talents and bigger checkbooks. But they don’t get out of the way.

“When we come to a race like this, every single person gets a number. Every team gets two cars and we come to race,” Hamilton says. “If they think we’re going to move over and say, ‘Oh, we can’t feed in front of a big tour pro team,’… there’s no way that’s going to happen. No way.”

The guys in the team car are busy early on during stage 4. They change a double puncture about 15 minutes into the stage. Joshua Geiszler, the team’s head mechanic, says a good change takes about eight seconds. He’s constantly getting bottles ready, making sure wheels are lined up. Worrying.

There are a host of races within a bike race that viewers, and even those who consume every piece of media on the sport, don’t actually see. The cars are lined up in order, corresponding to the general classification. Exergy sits fourth. Throughout the day, the cars jostle for position while feeding riders and dropping off bottles; there are infinite subjectivities in bike racing, even if there is one thorough rulebook. Cars pace riders back to the group, and racers hold on to bottles a bit longer than they should when that bottle’s attached to a director’s hand.

Somewhere in this scrum, there’s right and wrong, though the line is difficult to see. Cars come near riders all day. On Wednesday, Hamilton lobs a few (unprintable) barbs toward Jonathan Vaughters and a mechanic in the Garmin-Barracuda car after a disagreement over an Exergy rider’s presence between cars in the motorcade. For a few moments, it’s heated, as one boss yells at another.

Soon after, Rodriguez drops back to the car.

“What’s that?” he asks Hamilton, calling attention to a creak.

We stop, and Geiszler jumps out and gives the bike a once over. The bike is good, he says, and he pushes Rodriguez away. Creaky bikes bother everyone.

Logan Loader is having difficulty keeping contact with the main field. While Loader is near the driver’s side window, Hamilton tells him, “I just lost Sam and Carlos today. I can’t lose you.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Loader tells him.

“Get your ass over the top of the climb, you’ll be all right.”

Requests come in for Cokes, for water and for rice cakes. The car doesn’t have any of the latter, and there are moments it’s low on water, before the team’s second car shows up, heroically, with ice and water.

“We’re not a traveling kitchen,” Hamilton says.

The major teams, RadioShack-Nissan, BMC Racing and others have slipped riders into a breakaway on a moderate climb, and RadioShack has gone to the front of the main field, creating difficulty. The move seems odd, and puts Hamilton on high alert. He thinks that defending champ Chris Horner will try to jump across the gap at some point, and wants his guys to chase Horner, if possible. “It’s hard to say what’s actually going on here,” Hamilton says. “There’s a couple of different possibilities.”

Those possibilities never materialize, as the peloton hits the finishing valley together after a natural break. It will again be a day for the sprinters.

I tell him I think it’s going to be Sagan again.

“I’m going with the gut,” Hamilton says. “I’m putting my money on Mr. Rodriguez.”

The cars have to deviate from the route about 800 meters from the finish. They line up and wait.

“A few minutes before it happens, you’re wondering, ‘Can we do it? Can we do it?’ We talk about that every day,” Hamilton says. “Here we go. Sagan, can he go four in a row? We’re going to see if Fred can take him.”

There is a long silence. A very long silence. Twenty seconds of black. A bird chirps.

Radio Tour comes in. “Unofficial top three: first place, rider no. 57, Peter Sagan.”

Jesus,” Hamilton says.

“Unofficial second place, no. 13, Haussler. Third place. Rider no 44, I believe. Standing by.”

Michael Matthews (Rabobank) takes third.

It’s hard, not knowing what happened to Rodriguez for those seconds. It just hangs there in the team car, the thought.

“Who knows?” Hamilton says.

They’ll try again, most likely in Los Angeles.

“Certainly will,” Hamilton says. “Certainly will.”