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2/21/2007: C6: Hundreds of fans cheer the main group of riders as they reach the top of an arduous climb up Trinity Road east of Kenwood during Stage 2 of the Amgen Tour of California on Tuesday.PC: Hundreds of fans cheer the main group of riders as they reach the top of an arduous climb up Trinity Rd. during the 2nd stage of the Amgen Tour of California on Tuesday, February 20, 2007. photo by John Burgess/The Press Democratsrpsp

Category 2 climb over Mayacmas one of toughest along California course

The pack of cyclists will have plenty of opportunity to pedal past blooming mustard and gnarled grapevines during Stage 2 of the Amgen Tour of California on Tuesday. They will sail south down Sonoma Valley and, a bit later, bisect the heart of Napa Valley.

It would all be quite idyllic if it weren't for what comes between the two valleys: a steep Category 2 climb over the Mayacmas Mountains on Trinity Grade, and an equally sharp plummet down the other side on Oakville Grade.

It isn't exactly the Alps, but it's certainly one of the most challenging sections of road along the 650-mile race that commences today.

"People who haven't been here before and ride in our race, about Mile 30 they hit the bottom and go, 'Holy Christ!' " Bill Oetinger said, referring to the Terrible Two, a Santa Rosa Cycling Club double-century race for which he has been chairman or co-chairman for more than a decade and that includes a climb over the grade.

Trinity isn't quite as daunting as it first appears, as the grade eases off from a calf-igniting 6 to 10 percent to a slightly more forgiving 4 percent. (Oetinger compares it to the Tour de France's famed L'Alpe d'Huez, also steepest at its base.) But with a climb of nearly 1,500 feet over about 3 miles, it's the first major challenge in the Tour of California.

And it has some historical weight. The Trinity/Oakville hop was a regular feature of the Coors Classic, a seminal American cycling event that ran from 1979 to 1987.

"It was an integral part of stage racing in that era," said Scott Moninger, a longtime racer who retired this year to become co-director of the Toyota-United team. "It's nice they brought it back to competition."

The Terrible Two climbs up Trinity Grade, too, though instead of descending Oakville Grade it takes the other eastside option, Dry Creek Road (which, so as not to confuse it with the Sonoma County road of the same name, local riders often refer to as the back side of Trinity).

Oetinger figures he has ridden that mountain "several dozen times," and doesn't believe the world-class riders of the Tour of California will have much trouble with it.

"For them, it's not even a climb," said Oetinger, who watched the race from a spot on the Trinity Grade in 2007. "It's just a bump to go over. They can ride it in their big rings, not even shift down to their climbing rings."

That, Moninger said, may be an exaggeration.

"Some guys will be struggling to stay in contact," he noted. "A pure climber might be comfortable, but a flatlander will be hurting for a little while."

The key for many riders is to stay close enough to make the time cut. Each stage has a predetermined window based on a percentage of the winner's time. If the figure is 10 percent and the stage winner finishes in four hours, or 240 minutes, then a rider must cross the line no more than 24 minutes behind the winner.

"Even though you're not riding as fast as the leaders, you've got to keep going hard," said Nick Reistad, who competes for the Jelly Belly team.

That can be a chore for larger riders like Reistad, who tend to excel in time trials and struggle on mountains.

The apex of the mountain would seem to come as a relief to the riders. But if the uphill crawl is physically demanding, the downhill can be more intense and difficult. And cold. As heart rates climb along with elevation on Trinity Grade, sweat tends to pool on riders' bodies and clothing. When they suddenly reach the pass and speed downward, wind blows through the sweat and creates a chill. In Alpine events, it can actually reach hypothermic conditions.

"You worry about clothing changes," Reistad said. "You want to wear enough to keep warm on the descent, but you don't want to carry any extra weight on the uphill."

In Europe, experienced fans hand out sections of newspaper on mountain passes. The riders stuff the paper down their shirts to block the wind on their way down. Reistad has witnessed some of this in California, but wouldn't mind seeing more.

The road surface is generally pretty good on the Napa side of the mountain, with a few areas of ruts or washboard. Rain can change the dynamic of the descent, however, and after two weeks of glorious weather, there's a 30 percent chance of rain Tuesday.

The Oakville Grade, with its 8.2-percent slope, is tough enough without moisture.

"That's a fast and technical descent," HealthNet rider Rory Sutherland said. "One false move and you'll have a crash."

The Dry Creek Road route is steep but twisty -- Oetinger likens it to a bowl of fettuccine. The Oakville route is straighter, with big, sweeping curves that allow racers to build up tremendous speed.

"For me, a middle-aged plugger, it kind of scares me," Oetinger said. "You can hit 60 mph. If you're turning with lateral G-force and you have a front-wheel blowout, it's going to get ugly."

In fact, there was a crash at the back end of the peloton last year on Oakville Grade. Five riders went down, and Quick Step's Leonardo Scarselli was knocked from the race.

It takes concentration, anticipation and luck to avoid such mishaps. Reistad tries to keep an eye on the riders ahead of him to monitor their changes of direction on the switchbacks.

"You have to watch your speed and trajectory," he said. "And you've got to not only steer, but control your weight and center of gravity. You're going at such high speeds, any slight fluctuation in how your wheel is pointed can lead to a dramatic change of direction."

If the Trinity/Oakville section is one of the more dramatic in the Tour of California, however, riders say it isn't exactly integral to the race. It comes too early in the day -- more than 90 miles from the finish line in Sacramento -- and too early in the overall race. With so much energy to expend later, it's unlikely the top riders will choose to go all out here.

The peripheral riders are another matter. "Some will think: 'This is my opportunity. I've got to get onto the descent,' " Moninger said. "They'll be given a fairly long leash. They'll get to stay out there a couple of hours. It makes the racing more dynamic."

Last year, three racers -- Priority Health's Omer Kem, Colavita/Sutter Home's David McCann and Credit Agricole's Christophe Laurent -- broke from the pack almost immediately out of Santa Rosa and had opened a five-minute gap by the time they hit Napa Valley. Laurent won the King of the Mountain citation for cresting the grades first, at just before 11 a.m., narrowly avoiding a collision with a spectator who ran along the road with a California flag.

The trio maintained its gap for most of the race. But Kem eventually fell back, and the peloton swallowed Laurent and McCann about 20 miles short of the finish line.

In other words, early sprinters (and, significantly, their sponsors) tend to enjoy a brief period of attention, but no long-term gain.

"If you could reverse the course and finish up in Santa Rosa, it would be much more decisive," Moninger said.

Now there's an idea for race organizer AEG to ponder for 2009.

You can reach Staff Writer

Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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