Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Re cycling

My family is pretty big on traditions.  We like them so much, we're very open to creating new ones.  For example, after moving to Illinois, we started the tradition of taking a family hike on Thanksgiving before dinner.  We recently modified a Minnesota-era tradition of listening to Black Nativity and eating appetizers on Christmas Eve with a modernized version that keeps Black Nativity, nixes the appetizers, and includes a modicum of effort from the kids.  My personal attitude is that, if something happens twice, and is good both times, then it's worth making a tradition out of it.

That being said, I'm pleased to say that 2009 was the second entry in my dad's traditional visit to watch the Tour of California.  As previously noted in these pages, I've enjoyed following the Tour since it started, but my pleasure has multiplied since getting the opportunity to share it.  It's always great to spend time with Dad, and he's also more knowledgeable about professional racing than I am, so I win on both the familial and the sporting ends of that connection. 

I think we both managed to be more relaxed about it this time around than we were last year.  Having done it once, we both had a better idea of what to expect (even though they change the route every year, the overall feel stays the same), plus I think there was less pressure now to do everything just right.  In much the same way that later family trips to Florida were less packed than the first one, we could just relax and enjoy it.

Not to say that there wasn't planning!  I come from a very research-oriented gene pool, so we did spend some time tossing ideas back and forth and mapping out a game plan for the trip.  I tend to be happiest when I have a framework to play inside of, ideally with a bit of adaptability to respond to unexpected opportunities or obstacles.

Dad had originally planned to arrive on Thursday, but scheduling forces and Southwest fare changes prompted an eventual rescheduling to Friday.  Which is just as well... I'll never encourage someone to NOT spend a day in California, but this ended up being a rare (especially for this drought-ridden year) rainy week, and most of the days were spent under water.  Good news for us natives, bad news for visitors.

So, the arrival on Friday happened smoothly.  All connections at SFO and BART were carried out properly, and before long he was walking down the lovely (SARCASM ALERT) streets of SOMA towards my current place of employment.  I got to show him around our super sweet office, then we had a very tasty and pleasant lunch at AK Subs.  That ended up being even more fun than I had thought, just because it was nice to show off the space where we generally order lunch from.  It's one thing to see what your son's experience is like; it's another to taste it.

Dad explored the city on foot for the rest of the day.  Amazingly, he had fit everything for his 5-day visit into a single backpack, and stubbornly insisted on carrying it.  We briefly went over some potential outings, and I went back to being a software engineer while he took the grand tour.  I later learned that he got a great hike in, walking through SOMA up to the Bay, along the Embarcadero, into Chinatown, then down past Union Square and back up to the Ferry Building before dropping down into the train station.  We touched base there and headed home, ending up in the same car as Truc, and eventually landed in my apartment at my standard arrival time of around 7:30 PM.

First night's dinner was leftovers.  I cooked up some brown rice, then over that served some nuked New Mexico pork chili.  On the side we had some leftover cheesy broccoli and rice casserole, as well as pomelo.  This was his first time eating it.  Pomelo is kind of entertaining to eat... it takes much more effort than the typical fruit.  And I always enjoy exposing people to new fruit.

Saturday was the first race day.  I actually hadn't made this connection before, but Dad correctly pointed out that this is the first year that the Tour has started on a Saturday; previously, the first day has always been Sunday.  I had initially been mildly irate to hear that Sacramento was hosting the Prologue, which in the previous three years has belonged to a Bay Area city.  Once I calmed down, though, I realized that there was nothing wrong with that at all.  There's a train line -the Capitol Corridor - that provides good service between San Jose and Sacramento, so I wouldn't need to make that deity-forsaken drive.  Plus, Sacramento is only truly horrible during the summer.  And who knew when Dad (or, for that matter, I) would be back to Sacramento again?  All in all, it was a perfectly fine venue to kick things off.

That morning we had muesli with sliced almonds, raisins, and mangoes.  We drove up to Diridon, hung around outside our train for five or ten minutes, then got on when the doors open.  We swiftly seized the best spot.  Hundreds of commuting hours have primed me to swiftly and decisively claim what I want: a seat on the top car, far away from the engine, facing in the direction of travel.  We got it in spades.

The train ride itself is fairly long, about three hours in both directions.  I am amazed to think that some people actually commute between Sacramento and San Jose.  Still, I was more than happy to do it... we both brought books, Dad had an iPod and a crossword book, I had my MacBook.  It didn't take much longer than the drive would have, and certainly was far more pleasant.

Upon arriving in Sacramento, we ambled down through the Westfield Mall and onto the race route.  As with the Prologue in Palo Alto last year, we walked along the entire race route before it started, scouting out lunch locations (verdict: there are not many) and just getting the feel of the route.  We eventually grabbed some turkey sandwiches from a little window-front cafe after I threw a mini temper tantrum.  Then we plopped down on the curb and awaited the race.

Oh, and did I mention it was cold?

It was cold.

REALLY cold.

I fully admit that I've become a wimp during my time in California, but even the Chicagoan by my side was having trouble.  The temperature itself wasn't that bad, and when the sun shone it actually felt kind of nice.  The sun didn't often shine, though.  What we DID get plenty of was wind.  We'd stumbled across a Severe Weather Advisory the night before, warning that a storm system from Alaska would be producing winds with gusts from 40-80 MPH.  Still, we'd both focused on the raw temperature numbers and failed to plan accordingly.  It wasn't actually painful, but we were both kicking ourselves for leaving some warmer gear behind.

My self-pity was interrupted almost precisely once every 60 seconds, though, when a racer went by.  In a major improvement over last year's prologue, this time the motorcycle rider preceding each of the time-trial racers was displaying that racer's name on their windscreen.  In each of the previous three years, it's been almost impossible to know who you're watching at any given time unless you're standing by the start or finish line where the announcers are.  This really brought everyone along the entire race track into the day, and led to a lot more excitement and cheering.

Speaking of which, I think that Tour of California fans just may be the best fans of any sport.  I know everyone says that about their favorite event, but seriously!  Most people are pretty well educated about what's going on, and those who don't are eager to learn.  Everyone was super nice, from the volunteer marshals to the people taking pictures to the hard-core race fans to folks out with their kids.  Even in the chilly weather - social death to sun-soaked Californians - people were lining the streets as far as I could see in all directions.  And people cheer for everyone... the least-known racer can't go by without receiving claps, cheers, cowbells, and much love. 

For the week or so prior, every piece of material advertising the Tour boldly proclaimed LANCE ARMSTRONG RETURNS!  Lance is bar none the biggest thing to ever happen to American cycling, so of course it makes sense that they would tie their fortunes to his.  There was a lot of excitement around Lance, and his foundation was heavily promoted... both officially, through people carrying printed signs and fans, and in a guerrilla manner, with people scrawling yellow chalk messages for LIVESTRONG.

When Lance eventually came by, near the end of the program, he received probably the largest cheers of the day.  Not only that, he had absolutely the largest entourage of the day.  Most racers had a single support car behind them, with some meriting a mobile camera or a race official on motorcycle.  (Team OUCH, impressively, rode solo.)  Lance had a good five or six vehicles trailing in his wake, which was simultaneously amusing and bemusing.

I had been curious what kind of reception Floyd Landis would receive - he was really beloved in the previous Tour, but it's entirely accurate to describe his current state as "disgraced."  Either most folks didn't follow the news, or they didn't care: he got ecstatic cheers as well, and I didn't hear a single "boo".

Last of the group, but certainly not least, came Levi Leipheimer, triumphantly wearing jersey #1.  Year after year, Levi has been the favorite racer in the Tour.  He seemed to explode from out of nowhere in the first year, and clearly pours his all into it.  He's also a local boy, which people certainly notice and appreciate.  Plus he's just a really classy-seeming guy.  After the Astana debacle, it was wonderful to see him back in a country which loved and respected him.

We swung by the reviewing stand after the race finished.  We couldn't figure out how to get in front of the stage, but got quite close on the side, and so witnessed Governor Schwarzenegger.  He bestowed awards upon the victors, and gave a really passionate and totally incomprehensible speech about California.  I think he's in favor of it.

From there, the evening wound down pleasantly and calmly.  We returned to the Sacramento Amtrak station with plenty of time to spare, and enjoyed the heated benches in their very nice waiting room, home of the World's Slowest Free Wi-Fi.  Then, a mere three hours later, we were back in San Jose!

Sunday marked the first full stage of the Tour.  Although the route has changed from previous years, it still ends in Santa Rosa, which is Levi Leipheimer's home town and also home to arguably the most enthusiastic race enthusiasts anywhere.  We knew before heading up that it would be an even worse day for weather: the cold would not lift, and we would get plenty of rain as well.  We drove up 880 in an almost constant downpour, which became torrential once we reached the north bay.

An advantage of tradition: we had spent nearly an hour the previous year trying to find the magical mystery parking spot in Santa Rosa, so this time we could head directly there without needing to search.  I'm still a bit baffled by Santa Rosa... they're obviously extremely committed to the Tour, and I don't want to slight them, but they have the least helpful city Tour web page of the bunch.  If we hadn't been there before, we wouldn't have known where or how to reach the Fairgrounds; as it was, we needed to get directions from a young woman parking for another event in order to find the spot, which has no signs visible from the road.  It works, but barely.

This time, we got downtown in time to catch most of the Women's Criterium.  Dad had explained to me how this type of race, which he helps marshal back home, works.  It's run on a fairly short circuit of a mile or so, usually with lots of turns and curves.  The race starts with a timed portion with the riders making lots of laps.  After the time expires, it switches over to counting laps, and the prize goes to whoever finishes their laps first.  As a result, you get a ton of action at the end, with lots of jockeying for position and flat-out speed.

We grabbed a great spot to watch - I think that by now we've acquired a good eye for finding these.  The race was pretty thrilling to watch, and we were just close enough to the finish line to catch the announcer's thrilled exclamations.  The race went to Emilia Fahlin, a very young Swedish national.  We cheered and clapped, then went to look for a place indoors to eat.

Last year we had stumbled across a spot called Kabab & Curry which served up really tasty south Asian cuisine.  We couldn't remember the name, and ended up ducking into a sports bar instead.  It was still warm, as was the food... I got a chili burger and salad while Dad got a bowl of chili and french fries.

The riders weren't scheduled to arrive in Santa Rosa until at least 4pm, so after we had finished at the bar, we went in search of a coffee shop.  We found a Peet's, which is pretty common out here but apparently doesn't do free-standing shops in Chicago.  They were doing gangbuster business on this day... who wants to stand outside in the cold damp rain when you could be warming your hands around the beverage of your choice?  Dad braved the amazingly long line while I held down the fort, then we took our time with the drinks while following the Tour progress on my iPhone.  I was stunned to read that Fabian Cancellara, the Tour leader, had abandoned the race.  Evidently he had come down with a fever.  This is the second year in a row that the leader has abandoned; the previous year, it was due to food poisoning.

We left Peet's with plenty of time to walk around and find a viewing spot.  We saw more of the course than we had last year, but ended up pretty close to where we had watched last time, across the street from an electric car storefront. 

I was absolutely amazed at the turnout.  Even at the Criterium, the streets were packed with spectators.  The Tour's circuit was longer and so more spread out, but even so, there were a ton of people outside, shivering in their jackets, gloves, and umbrellas.  You can't ask for more from Californians.  As before, people were totally into it, chatting excitedly with one another and cheering loudly when the advance cars started coming through.

We would later learn that the organizers had shortened the race, but as far as we could tell at the time, it was going great.  We all yelled our hearts out when the riders zipped past.  The breakaway group in front held an incredible lead over the peleton, one that we quickly realized had no chance of defeat in the mere four laps they had in Santa Rosa.  We watched them go around and around, then smiled at the far-off screams of the announcer: "MANCEBO!"  It was over.

We took Rosie the Trolley back down to the fairgrounds, then headed south.  Our Santa Rosa journey covered mainly the same ground as last year's, but in the opposite direction: instead of going up the Peninsula, through Sausalito, then back up to Santa Rosa and eventually down the East Bay, we did it in reverse. 

The main reason for our San Francisco return was for a west-coast mini King Family Reunion.  My cousin Paul and his wife live in the city, while my cousin Jennifer and her family live in the peninsula.  We had arranged to meet at Baker Street Bistro, a neighborhood French restaurant, to reconnect with everyone.

We first met with Paul and Alison at their apartment.  It's an absolutely wonderful San Francisco flat, with an old-fashioned yet extremely comfortable look to it.  Alison has lived there for close to a decade and has done a gorgeous job at decorating it.  We chatted for a little while, then walked the block and a half to the Bistro.

Jen, Jose, and Izzy were already waiting for us.  It was great to chat with everyone... I've really enjoyed getting to see them more since moving out here, but still don't meet with them as often as I should.  Paul and Alison filled us in on their recent trip to a healthy, relaxing resort in Mexico.  I talked a bit about the cell phone applications I've worked on.  Jen and Jose told us about their Facebook experiences and recent movies, and Dad shared the story of taking Paul to see Star Wars when he was 10 years old.

The restaurant itself was great.  It was a cozy place, with the wine racks right next to the tables, and an exposed kitchen where you could see the cook.  A single waiter ran the whole place.  I started with a tomato bisque soup and had a wonderful Bourride Provençale (sort of a fish stew) as an entree.  As a bonus, it came with a really interesting risotto dish on the side.  Everything that I saw looked really good, and it was possible the most reasonably-priced French food that I've seen on the West Coast.

After dinner, we retired to Paul and Alison's.  Paul's birthday was the next day, so we celebrated with some hot beverages and home-made cupcakes.  We remained there chatting for a good long while before everyone said their goodbyes and headed out.

I chose to return on 280 instead of 101.   Take that, Google Maps!

President's Day dawned with more of the same weather: cold, cloudy, wet.  I had reluctantly but unequivocally abandoned my original viewing location ideal, the spot where they would drop out of the mountains in front of San Gregario and take a hard left onto Highway 1.  We decided that the trees in the mountains would provide at least a little cover, and so headed to the first KOM at Tunitas Creek and Skyline.  We'd eyeballed the racer's arrival at around 10:30AM, so we left my apartment a bit after 8 in order to get there with enough time for a good spot.

On our way up, we were amazed by the number of cyclists who were riding.  Just for a moment, forget the miserable weather.  They were ascending incredible gradients, pounding their way up slopes that would stop me flat.  Best of all, everyone was really cool.  The motorists gave the cyclists plenty of space, and the cyclists kept to the right and waved people around blind turns when it was safe.

I have a hard time judging distances, and the whole way up I was trying to estimate where I would be just short of Skyline.  I'm glad I kept on going, because eventually we got to a spot that was both perfectly obvious (with lots of other cars parked) and perfectly situated (plenty of room to parallel park) and perfectly located (probably less than a quarter mile from the summit).

Up on Skyline, we saw that some people had erected booths and were giving out free coffee and pancakes.  Wow!  That's amazing.  We milled around for a little while, then headed down Tunitas Creek for a few dozen yards past the official KOM signs.  People were already filling in, so we staked out a good position where we could see the riders come up and around a bend, navigate an S around an outcrop, then pass us to hit the KOM.

As on previous days, people were great to watch.  There were a few low-grade jerks who stood in the middle of the road or bothered others, but even they quickly passed, and the vast majority of folks were just happy to be there, rain and all.  I was amused to see how many people were obsessing over their cameras.  It shouldn't amuse me - I've definitely done so myself in previous years - but this time I just wanted to enjoy and actually watch the riders.  Not to mention that the rain meant that no matter how hard you tried, you wouldn't be able to get a beautiful picture.

It felt like a pretty long wait, but we kept our spirits up.  Finally the police cars started to move through and people moved at least a little back from the pavement.  Eventually the five-man breakaway crested, the crowd went nuts, vehicles roared by, more bikes came, more cheering, and so on.  This part of the road was so incredibly narrow that everything was all jumbled together, with cars driving within the peleton, riders moving back and forth beside them. 

And lo, a sign appeared to us: a sign of sun!  Almost at the moment the first riders came by, we got our first break in the clouds in two days.  It warmed our faces and our hearts.

We clapped clapped clapped, then swiftly walked back towards our car.  I had originally thought of this as a single-spot day, but with San Gregario gone, we'd realized that we would have time to drop into Santa Cruz for the finish.  We spun around, shot down 280, dropped through 85, then hit the summit on 17.  The rain up here was as bad as ever, and we slowed down for a section as a lane closed to deal with a mudslide.  Eventually we reached the city, with plenty of time to spare.

In start contrast to Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz has an EXCELLENT city web page for the Tour, and in just a few minutes the night before I knew exactly where I wanted to park, where the shuttle would take us, and roughly what the route would look like.  The rain had mostly given up in the city, so we gladly put away our umbrellas and walked the streets like real human beings.

The spot near the finish line proper was absolutely packed, so we walked further in.  We eventually settled on a sweet corner, Walnut and Center.  Corners are great because the riders need to slow down to take them, and as a result you can see them for longer.  Plus, I suppose that we all have a dormant NASCAR gene that's wondering if a rider will slam into the wall and explode.

We had a pretty short wait here, and because the sun was out it could have been much longer without us minding.  Dad struck up a conversation with a gentleman next to us, and found out that he was from the South Side of Chicago and still had family in the western suburbs.  We had a really nice long chat about Santa Cruz and other topics of small talk.

The race had gotten seriously shaken up in the mountains.  The five-man breakaway had vanished, and we saw just two riders pounding their way past.  One was Levi, and we would later learn that the other was a 22-year-old who ended up winning the stage.

The rest of the race was just a little weird... not bad at all, but the mountains and rain had done some serious damage, and so the riders were much more broken up than one would expect at this stage of the Tour.  Everyone got plenty of cheering.  I'm quite surprised that my voice isn't at all hoarse after three days of this!

The race finally over, we resolved to enjoy the remaining sun and the Santa Cruz atmosphere.  We found a great casual falafel shop - this one was Syrian, so it spelled things a little differently, but was still utterly delicious.  Dad got the veggie combo plate, which came with all sorts of good stuff like baba ganoush, hummus, and falafels.  I got the chicken shawarma sandwich, which was also amazingly tasty.  Anything tastes good if you're having lunch after 2 in the afternoon, but this would have been good regardless.

The rest of the afternoon we just wandered.  First down Pacific, then up the San Lorenzo river, then through some side streets.  Most of the roads downtown were closed, making this picturesque city even more pleasant to visit.  We dropped into Books Santa Cruz for a bit to browse, Dad grabbed some coffee at Peet's, and we eventually took the shuttle back to the car and called it a race.

Monday night we ran down the trip very peacefully.  Well, it was peaceful after we dominated some songs on Rock Band - Dad complained, but did a great job on both drums and guitar.  We cooked up a new recipe for me, Skillet Penne with Broccoli and Sun-Dried Tomatoes, which came out quite well, and served it with some Pink Lady apples and sweet potatoes.  The rest of the night we watched some IT Crowd and Flight of the Conchords before giving in to slumber.

Dad had originally planned to come into the city with me on Tuesday, but we agreed that after the last few days, he had more than earned a break from the rain.  And so ended the Tour of California 2009 - at least, the part that matters!  Given how rotten the weather was, it'll be interesting to see if this continues to be a tradition, either for myself or for California itself.  I'm quite adaptable, though, so even if the Tour as such isn't as big a draw in the future, I'm confident we can find another excuse to have family visit.


  1. OK, so I might dispute some of the particulars, but I'm the old guy with the slipping memory :~)
    But the more important thing is ... this was a BLAST!

  2. Cool, I had fun too! Please do present any alternative narratives about the trip here... after all, we can't have any factual inaccuracies on the internet!