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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tour of California Explained: Norse Gods and Mountain Goats

Posted By on Tue, Feb 17, 2009 at 6:12 PM

click to enlarge bicyclerace.jpg

Part II of our explainer of California's new favorite bike race. For Part I, click here.

Q: What could beat seeing ballerina-thin American demi-gods Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer prance weightlessly up mountain passes in pursuit of victory in a week-long endurance contest?

A: Seeing an actual muscle-bound Norwegian God storm toward the finish line at 40mph, while hacking at his rivals with his elbows, in pursuit of a sprint-finish victory likely to be measured in miliseconds.

In bicycle stage races such as the Tour of California two genres of specialists make up the sport's elite.

Leipheimer and Armstrong are what is known as "GC" riders, a designation that's short for "general classification", which is the overall finishing time given to riders at the end of many days worth of racing over mountain passes. They willfully starve themselves, train tens of thousands of miles per year, and take special care to reduce the amount of muscle in their upper body, so as to eliminate unproductive weight that would have to be lugged uphill.

Thor Hushovd, winner of Tuesday's 104-mile stage from San Jose to Modesto, is what's known as a sprinter. Blessed with meaty thighs filled with fast-twitch muscle, and the extraordinary courage required to win sprints that usually devolve into ultra-high-speed shoving matches, these are the flashy Apollo Creeds of the cycling world. Hushovd, a chiseled Nordic blonde, outstretched three-time world champion Oscar Freire of Spain, likewise a brilliant multimillionaire sprinter, and a full-lipped, blonde, housewive's favorite.

Q: But wait a minute -- how can you call these guys "sprinters." They just finished racing up the legendary Sierra Road climb, 1,930 feet of elevation gain just outside San Jose, and again wrenched their bikes up Patterson Pass, itself a grueling, 10-mile-long climb, then came out in front after racing 104 miles?

A: Think of cycling as a sporting version of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon. In the radio humorist's imaginary world all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average. In cycling's real world, all the marathoners are lightning fast, all the sprinters possess endless endurance, and every athlete surpasses the standards of ordinary sport.

Because cycling doesn't involve brutish imacts to joints, tendons and muscles, athletes can train vastly more sans injury than can athletes in injury-prone sports such as track and field, football, or basketball. The result is a sort of lifting of physical limits. So a sprinter such as Hushovd mixes thousands of miles of roadwork with his grueling sprint training. An endurance specialist such as Leipheimer, meanwhile, suffers through so much specialized speed training during the off season that he's able to take second place in Saturday's prologue time trial of less than two miles -- yet still be the favorite to win the 750-mile Tour  of California overall.

Confused by the Tour of California, which runs Feb. 14-22 from Sacramento to L.A.? Address questions to Matthew.Smith@SFWeekly.com, and we'll answer them promptly.

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Matt Smith

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