In 2013, Rapha started printing a weekly roundup of what they call “road racing reportage.” I thought the single sheet of paper, with stories and simple graphics on both sides, was a really cool thing to do in this digital age. It’s reproduced online, which, I admit, I have mixed feelings about. Just letting those papers stand as the only record of their own existence would have been an extraordinary thing. No matter: when Rapha got in touch to see if I had any stories about the Tour of California I might want to tell in Doppio I said yes right away — and almost as quickly knew what I wanted to write about. They changed the title to “New Media, New Myths,” or else I forgot to put my original one on when I cleaned up the file and sent it off.
The Tour of California was born the same year as Twitter, a coincidence that happens to be significant because it illustrates how thoroughly and pervasively we have been able to follow the race. It comes to us, and always has, in high-definition streaming TiVo plasma podcast coverage, and in likes and pokes and gifs and bit-torrented vids and hi-res flickers, and an approximately infinite amount of blogs. The riders tell us themselves what they’re thinking right before a stage, and right after, and on the rest days they share the rest. We can know everything about the race, and always have and always will. It is the first great tour of the information age, so thoroughly tagged, tweeted, totaled, transmitted, tumbled, and televised that our collective appreciation of the race is built not on hoary fables but on verifiable facts. Had he been at the crest of Diablo, ten thousand hashtagged instant communiqués would have told us that, actually, Bahamontes hadn’t stopped specifically to get an ice cream but, rather, only because his spokes had broken. There’d have been plenty of six-second videos to prove it, too.
That’s a shame.
The Tour of California deserves some myth. And we – the fans – deserve our tour to have some myth. I’ve meandered along many of those lush wine-country roads, and settled in for hours of pedaling on the coastal stunners, and heroically ascended Palomar and Cole Grade and Foxen Canyon and some of the others – the same as I’ve done in Provence, in the Dolomites, in the Pyrenees, in the Profonde. For sheer riding, I’d take Sierra Grade as well as the Croce d’Aune, except that at the top of the Italian mountain I can stop, and wheel my bike over, and kiss the statuary cheek of Tullio Campagnolo inventing the quick release. On the Tourmalet, I hear ringing in my ears the echoes of Lapize spitting out his famous condemnation of “assassins”. Descending the Portet d’Aspet, I pass the ghost of Vietto giving up his Tour de France by turning around and climbing back up to give his wheel to Magne.
I want such legends for California – not for me, no, I’m long past the time when these stories can at first unsettle my soul then settle deep into my soul. The tales that inspired and enchanted and obsessed me, the ones that forged my vows that I would someday ride the great roads of Europe, those episodes that were created in a different age of the sport and of my own life. But somewhere in California there is a kid who was at the side of the road for yesterday’s stage, or who will be for today’s or tomorrow’s, who stands no taller than the top tubes that hold those strange bronzed lean gods swarming past in a chaos of police sirens and helicopter blades chopping the sky apart and blatting car horns and grown men and women screaming in a way that frightens and delights the child. That kid needs more than the ability to Google the wattage of the winning racer, or to someday take a shot at the Strava segment.
The magic can take years to grow, but it will. Right now, even in such an antiseptic world of information, the myths have been spawned, out of sight, invisible to us, but alive and already immortal.
I offer up one neo-legend, just the bud of a tale that might someday grow grander than its facts and become more full of meaning than any of our computers could ever tell us: Stage 2, 2009, Sausalito to Santa Cruz, a wretched day of driven rain and high winds, frigid, crash-plagued, crossing two climbs that are home roads to an American domestic pro, Ben Jacques-Maynes. He has been telling us all that, on these climbs, he can take on the monsters of the peloton, the Euro pros. “Knowing every inch of every road is pretty key,” he says. “A great trick to pull out of your bag.” And he does it – less than 20 miles into the stage, he gets into a break of ten. They stay away up the first climb, the six-mile Tunitas Creek Road, and summit with a four-minute gap. Maynes is the best-placed rider in the break, 5:06 out of the yellow jersey. Behind him, in the peloton, his twin brother Andy is caught in one of the many crashes and gets taken to the hospital. In front of him is a hailstorm, and the climb up Bonny Doon road – where the break is finally run down by a pack that includes Levi Leipheimer, Lance Armstrong, Michael Rogers, Dave Zabriskie, Frank Schleck, Ivan Basso, Vincenzo Nibali. Maynes pedals on as best as he can, makes it across the line 28th, and is afterward awarded the jersey for Most Courageous ride.
I was there. I want to say that no racer on Bonny Doon got louder screams, more cheers, had more glorious fools running beside him than Ben. But that’s just not the way it was. The mob back then, they were nuts for Leipheimer, Armstrong. That’s how it went. But our myths are made not with facts but with truths. One day, maybe, if kids yet to be born are lucky and inherit the Tour of California, the whole mountain will have been mad for Ben, delirious with shouts and yells and words so devoid of sense they come out as laughs, parting for him like a miraculous river of humanity, pushing him on, and he will almost have hung on, almost have pulled it off, almost have slain the monsters of pro cycling and heard his brother’s voice somewhere there on Bonny Doon along with the whispers of fate that still spoke to cyclists in the days when the magic was alive, back in the good old days, when the riders were legendary, when they were characters instead of machines, and everything was more simple, everything was more pure and also mysterious, and the impossible was just one more thing that might happen in a bike race.
Originally published as an excerpt in Rapha Doppio, Issue 09 and at full length on the Rapha site