“The storm is over when the bike race starts, because racing is the easy part.” – Phil Gaimon

It’s no secret this may be Jens Voigt’s last season racing as a professional cyclist. That being the case, I decide to give him a present. Just before his team (Trek Factory Racing) heads out for a training ride near Sacramento, I handed him a signed, archival dye-infused metal print from the 2009 Amgen Tour of California. It’s both scratch-resistant and waterproof. Two qualities I’m sure Jensie will appreciate.

“Those were the good old days, with CSC,” he reminisces. “That was when we had the bikes painted red for the 25th anniversary of American Flyers with Kevin Costner,” he adds. “There was even a press conference where we dressed up in cowboy hats and moustaches. Even Haedo had one.”

A chap carrying media placards walks by and yells, “Hey Jens, how’s it going? We rode together on that sponsor event in Gilroy – remember?”

“Sure, the garlic capital of the world!” Jens replies, beaming with camaraderie.

“That’s amazing,” I tell him. “How do you remember him?”

“I don’t really, just the place – Gilroy. You know I just did the Tour of Romandie and if you want me to name any of the start or finish cities … I can’t tell you. If somebody asks me, ‘do you remember that right turn past the church with a pothole on the side of the road?’ Sorry but no. I just hit the rewind button, and click, clack, choom, I start all over again.”

His energy is effervescent, like champagne bubbling over the lip of a flute. Director Sportif Alain Gallopin motions that they’re ready to do the recon for the time-trial. I climb in the back seat next to Haimar Zubeldia. Matthew Busche politely asks if I need more room before settling in up front.

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The conversation spins from Marcel Kittel’s incredible power numbers to the bizarre ‘endorsement of spectacle’ that certain people voiced in watching last year’s racers plummet on the course to Palm Springs. Galo (as he is affectionately called by the riders) is outraged by their reaction.

Toward the end of the 202.7km ride in 48°C, riders passed out and suffered burns to their skin from the scorching asphalt. The situation was aptly described by Velo News writer, Matthew Beaudin:

“Since no rider will willingly say it, I will: Monday’s stage (of the 2013 Amgen Tour of California) was a ludicrous march through the closest thing to hell on earth for a bike race, and organizers should look at themselves long and hard for not altering the route.”

Today the only danger will be crosswinds as we make the 30-minute drive to Folsom.

The Lifestyle Festival tents greet our arrival as the two sports directors divvy up the riders. Once on their bikes, Galo navigates and I snap pics. We manage a distance of 10km before officer Brady of Folsom’s finest, pulls us over with sirens blaring. Galo jumps out of the car to discuss the offence.

Apparently it’s illegal to stop in the fast lane past an intersection and wait while your cycling prodigy catch up. Alain is serene during the discussion and walks away with nothing more than a polite explanation of driving etiquette.

“Are you from France too?” Brady asks me.

“No sir, just a local,” I reply.

“Galo! Pas une autre infraction!” The accusation on the race radio bellows from Sports Director Luc Meersman. “Not another offence!” We resume our follow, this time with the hazards on.

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Two hours later the boys dismount, satisfied with their efforts. I’m expecting a return drive with heavily perspired bodies and their corresponding odour. But the guys haven’t even broken a sweat. Discussion falls to the riveting subject of shoes. Haimar hands me one with velcro, the other with snap dials. They are uber-light, spotless and, dare I say it, dainty.

“The ones with dials are easier to adjust if you have the shoe covers,” Zubeldia explains.

Like most UCI teams, Trek’s roster at this race reads like a mini-UN. There are guys from Spain, Belgium, Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the USA. I ask Markel Irizar how important it is to have a teammate from his own country here.

“Haimar and I know each other for a long time,” he says. “We know how the other one thinks without talking. He’s a great roommate. We can talk in Basque and that is actually nice for us. But with all the nationalities we have in the team, I also like to share the room with the guys of the other countries and learn something more about how the life is over there. Sometimes we have the image of one country that comes from the media that is not 100% real, so this is a good way to know what’s really true.”

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When the time trial rolls around in the race itself, Irizar touches wheels with Belkin’s Laurens Ten Dam, resulting in a crash for the latter. Tim Vanderjeugd, press officer for TFR elaborates.

“Well, Markel was startled because of this. He would have passed Ten Dam at least 50 metres before the finish had the Belkin car not hindered him in the last turn. But it’s the way it is. Crashes are part of racing.”

At the end of Stage 3 on top of Mt. Diablo, Trek is fourth both in the stage and general classifications. Matthew Busche and Zubeldia finish in 10th and 12th respectively. And three more of their clan (Danny Van Poppel, Jasper Stuyven, & Calvin Watson) sit in the GC top ten for best young rider.

On Wednesday morning we’re on the Monterey Coast and the sun is shining for the onset of Stage 4. Markel and Haimar are watching surf videos, planning their winter training, on longboards.

“My teammates say that I am a little bit like a hippie,” Markel confesses. “I have a van that is called California. It is supposed to be the van of the surfers where you can sleep and stay relaxed on the beach where you like.”

I’m picturing these two nimble Euskadis ripping on some glassy A-frames. Maybe Trek’s next winter camp should include the break in Garrapata.

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In the end, six riders from Continental teams make the early breakaway from Monterey to Cambria a success. Canadian Will Routley (Team Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies) takes the big win. Voigt made several attacks to join the break, only to be reeled back in as if on a Flexi leash.

“I could sense that it could stick today because it’s a rolling stage, always up and down, left and right with some wind,” he said. “I felt it would be a good chance today – but then I had the other teams yelling, ‘no we won’t let you go, not today!’”

There may still be hope for a classic Jensie steal. But on stage 5, all eyes were glued to the 197cm frame of Taylor Phinney as he cascaded down Cliff Drive in glorious Santa Barbara for his first Amgen Tour of California win. The 23-year-old expressed the importance of his victory.

“Winning time trials is nice but you don’t get the same feeling when you win a road stage. You don’t have that moment when you put your hands up with a couple hundred meters to go and really soak up the energy from the crowd. You get goose bumps and this electric shock goes through you. You don’t get that magic when you win a time trial. This is my second road stage win and it feels as good as the first one, that’s for sure.”

TFR’s Jasper Stuyven took fourth in the stage, while Danny Van Poppel experienced his first day in a breakaway since turning pro. Busche and Zubeldia moved up to seventh and 11th respectively in GC.

The decision to ride for Trek was an easy one for 22 year old Stuyven. The young Belgian had already been on a Trek bike for two years riding for Bontrager, and was eager to be part of the Spring Classics team under Dirk Demol’s leadership. When asked what the main difference is riding on US soil as opposed to his native Belgium, he is quick to point out that the fans here are not as knowledgeable about the sport.

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It’s day six of racing. No more ocean vistas, just plenty of climbing — four KOMs to be exact, with one hors catégorie, all in 35°C misery.

“The heat was oppressive,” states Busche. “It made you ‘blah’ – you did not want to eat. The guys did a good job in taking care of me. By the time we got to the last climb I was feeling okay – I think I had taken care to drink and eat enough – but with 3km to go I just did not have anything left in the tank. It could have been the accumulation of heat over the last days, and just hard racing for six days in a row.”

Busche moves from seventh place to 13th in GC, just behind Zubeldia. The shuffleboard of GC standing is part of the game for these racers. I asked Matthew how he deals with the ups and downs.

“There’s definitely a little extra pressure that comes with being in the top 10, but it’s a good pressure. I had a bad day on the stage to Mountain High, which cost me a lot. So dealing with that mentally and physically is probably harder than any of the goods/highs during the race. (Even so) the team’s attitude/mentality throughout the race has been really positive. We haven’t had the best race, but we’ve continued to fight.”

The Angeles Crest Highway overlooking Pasadena would try the legs of the riders for stage 7’s 142km. Once again, Voigt attempted to join the break.

“I tried to go six, seven or eight times. It appears that I am the king of the peloton — the most feared rider — because half of the peloton apparently have been told, ‘whenever Jens goes in a break, you go with him.’ So I have no chance! I have 100 guys on my wheel: 50 guys who don’t want to let me go, and 50 that want to go away with me!”

Danny Van Poppel stayed with the chasing group that would eventually catch the break and land himself a very respectable third place behind Thor Hushovd and Peter Sagan.

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The following day, despite crashing in the high-speed descent on Mulholland Drive and flatting on the subsequent climb, Van Poppel scored nearly an instant replay on the finale of stage 8 — keeping up with the second chase group — catching the breakaway and finally coming in fifth before a cheering crowd of 5,000 spectators.

Voigt, although disappointed that his shot for the break was stymied by unwilling and vocal legs, will definitely celebrate the tremendous efforts shown by the young Trekies. Such as Van Poppel’s show of strength in climbing over three KOMs, with fitness enough to compete against the likes of Sagan and Cavendish in the final sprint (the latter edging out past Giant-Shimano’s John Degenkolb for the win).

Trek would take first place in the Team Classification for the stage, while Zubeldia and Busche held on to their overall GC classifications in 12th and 13th respectively.

Eight days and 1,142km later, I am ready to return home to my family, as are all the integral players of the tour. Apart from the wins and losses, the memories of iconic California will stick hard in my mind. The people I have had the pleasure of meeting and pestering with my endless queries and photos won’t fade nearly as quickly as my suntan and sore muscles.

Final Classification: > - Stage Result

Sunday 18th May 2014

1. gb
WIGGINS Bradley
Team Sky
28:22:05
2. au
DENNIS Rohan
Garmin Sharp
0:30
3. us
CRADDOCK Lawson
Team Giant-Shimano
1:48