The Specialized van was fully loaded and ready to roll at 5:30 am. The photo gear had been checked and rechecked: three bodies; seven lenses; 2 tripods; 1 monopod; 2 magic arms; 60 GB of CF cards; laptop and 2 external backup drives; and enough neutral density filters to completely block out the sun. The Zacuto Marksman rig was ready to capture video even if I wasn't sure the cameraman was. Out of the darkness Specialized's Kathryn Grassl and boyfriend Mike appeared with her bags. Conveniently they live about thirty seconds away on the other side of a small park. After quick goodbyes Mike headed off for a little more sleep and with Kathryn at the wheel we hit the road.
There was the beginning of a faint glow on the Eastern horizon as we pulled into the Specialized parking lot just after six. There was plenty of activity around the vehicles that would become our traveling convoy. Western Spirit outfitters and guides were making their final preparations to feed and care for 35 riders and support staff. A yellow Penske cube truck was filled with rider luggage, and an S-Works van/trailer commanded by Specialized's master mechanic Andy Schiffer had everything necessary to keep all the bikes running true for the next 700 miles.
Inside the cafeteria riders were finishing breakfast and comparing notes (and fears) about the days ahead. The handful who'd completed the ride in years one and two knew what they were in for and understood the next six days would once again test their limits physically and mentally. I shot some video from the hip with the Zacuto, focusing with a SmallHD monitor. I recognized Doug Emerson from University Bicycles in Boulder, Mark Ontiveros from River City Bicycles in Portland and Phil Keoghan of Amazing Race fame. Most paid no attention to me or the camera... which was good. All of them were wearing pink jerseys symbolizing the ride's charitable partnership with the Susan G. Komen foundation and the fight against breast cancer.
Six thirty marked departure time. Ben, Sean, Chris, Bobby and several other Specialized employees were riding with us as far as the top of Mount Hamilton. A local TV station filmed segments with president Mike Sinyard and Global Marketing Chief Ben Capron. I shot a few group pictures, the peloton got final instructions, clipped in and with the women leading the way started its epic journey to interbike and Las Vegas.
Today's objective was the camp ground at Lake McSwain in the Sierra Nevada foothills. To get there the riders had to cover 140 miles and climb about 9,000 feet. They began with an easy ride along the Coyote Creek Trail that Juli and I frequently ride on the weekends, while we sped ahead to set up on Quimby Road. The route over Quimby would save the group about 15 miles, but the 5.1 mile/2100 foot climb features some wicked 15-20% ramps near the top, and that definitely would test the group's legs.
When the group appeared they were all pedaling strong, the first riders chatting and with a little assist from the slope one even managed a short wheelie. The bigger riders were working harder and several acknowledged this was a tough way to start the day. Even the support vehicles were laboring to negotiate the tight hairpins below the summit. Everyone regrouped at the top, refilling bottles and grabbing bars and GUs for the short descent and climb to Mt. Hamilton.
After the ferocity of Quimby the peloton literally cruised up to the summit of Mt. Hamilton on the 6-7% grade. The peleton looked great in the pink/white jerseys and black shorts. They wore this uniform "team" kit on days 1 and 6. Unfortunately in between they wore whatever they liked with the result some of the graphic power of the ride was lost in a muddle of competing colors, but that's the graphic designer in me talking. Next year team kits start to finish.
Though we didn't hear about it till that night, the steep descent of Mount Hamilton claimed one casualty and the rider was taken to hospital for a checkup before being released. He returned to ride the next day. After catching the riders descending on the same stretch of road I staked out for the 2008 Tour of California KOM we spent the next hour or two leapfrogging them on Anderson Valley Road and Del Puerto Canyon Road.
It was my first time on the latter and like Mines Road Del Puerto Canyon was remote, scenic and almost devoid of vehicular traffic. I filmed the group from the back of the van with the Zacuto and got a great shot when Specialized's hardman and irresistible force Chris D'Aluisio shot off the front and sprinted after us. We hit 40 with him comfortably tucked into our slipstream before he shut it down, sat up and waited for the peloton to catch up.
Eventually the canyon spat us out into rolling hill country filled with Almond orchards and small farms past Turlock. It was hot and the riders were going through bottles rapidly in an effort to stay hydrated. At one point I jumped out with bottled water and Rich managed to grab it out my hand going past at 25mph. Back in the van we caught up with riders who hadn't seen support in several miles, we filled bottles and handed them back out the window to keep them going.
Around 4pm we finally arrived at Lake McSwain. Western Spirit had the campsite ready and a dinner of salad, spagetti, and fruit salad in the works. The riders were very tired, some of them sore. Doug, Jean and Troy our massage therapist/drivers set up and got to work loosening up legs, backs and shoulders. The rest of us puzzled over the assembly of the one man tents, inflated the ground pads and rolled out sleeping bags overlooking the lake.
Everyone hit the campsite showers and cleaned up before dinner. Hot water and plenty of it washed away the sweat and grime of a long first day. After dinner there wasn't much talk. Everyone got themselves into their tents and soon the camp was fast asleep under an amazing canopy of stars. I had a camera set up on a tripod just outside my tent door so I could shoot some long exposures. The results were great and though I tried this on successive nights the skies never cooperated in this way again.