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.
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