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Today’s ride is effectively a double. Our ‘Prologue’ was followed by an hour’s drive – in full kit, not to mention a suspended state of readiness – to the town of Davis and the start of Stage One. With 100 miles ahead of us, we will need to be cognizant of diminishing daylight. Right now, we’re only an hour or so behind schedule and reckon on arriving into the stage finish, Santa Rosa, with two-hours plus to spare before sunset. The first day is about navigation and not just of the route. It’s about finding a way through all the protocols and procedures planned in an office in Portland, what now seems like years ago. But plans are different to experiences. They apply, as we know all too well, either not entirely or not at all.
Stage One’s route could be a Rapha Continental ride on it’s own measure – in fact, it should be a Continental ride. One hundred miles long, the first 25 miles are a tepid, gradual climb, followed by 50 miles of rolling foothills to the bottom of Howell Mountain Road, the first major climb of the Tour. Most of the roads are quiet and slow, and provide, with very few exceptions, plenty of shoulder. To get a handle on what to expect we started researching the route months in advance. Through a partnership with Bicycling Magazine’s All Over the Map project, and using the Tour’s official website, we were able to build a cue sheet and elevation profile for each stage. During the last two weeks of our preparation, however, the official site went down. When it finally came back online, it was with refined and in some cases with considerably altered routes. Accurately reconciling our original set with their new set in the time we had remaining was impossible. In many cases, the discrepancy was negligible, little more than an updated street name. The thing with maps, however, and we know this from the last two years documenting rides for the Rapha Continental, is that the smallest difference is still enough to waste precious time. It’s not that we expected to get lost for miles on end but that we might lose daylight minutes we couldn’t afford to lose. And after a day in the saddle, that could prove horribly demoralizing.
One hundred miles is a big ride by any standards and the team riding the Tour route is a new configuration of Rapha riders. Professional teams will have spent weeks preparing in training camps and many will have been riding together for years; at the very least for hundreds of very recent hours. Each pro rider will have been chosen and vetted for a particular role. Coaches and directeur sportifs with years of experience will apportion responsibilities and every detail of every hour, of every section of road will have been mapped out and considered. In contrast, we are united by a project that is, in some respects, the antithesis of this organized form of racing. United by an ethos and passion we trust is enough, the team is made up of two riders from the northeast, two from southern California and two from the northwest. Somewhere between Davis and Santa Rosa they form a cohesive and collaborative team.
Our exit from Davis is gracefully shaded by stately black walnuts on a
section of Russell Boulevard named, appropriately enough, Avenue of the Trees. After a steady hour of plum and apple orchards, we cross Putah Creek, which runs parallel to the retired Vaca Valley railroad and into the town of Winters, the last sizeable village for some time. Just past Monticello Dam and Turtle Rock Café, the route climbs into the Lake Berryessa Recreation Area. Twenty miles later, crossing over a long, flat bridge, Pope Canyon Road leaves the treeless, man-made reservoir for the Napa Valley. This is the land of rolling green and cow-mottled hills, scraggly oaks and the artifacts of viticulture. Approaching Santa Rosa, Howell Mountain rises nearly 2,000ft, a section of road dark and steep enough that it is sure to inspire climbers. After a big, straight descent it’s 25 miles of rollers with three spikes – the first is the worst. Then you’re in Santa Rosa, the epicenter of the Napa Valley and done for the day. The total elevation gain for the day is just over 5,100ft.
The total absence of excitement on our Prologue was surely in stark comparison to the Tour. The ride to Santa Rosa, in contrast, was nothing short of gorgeous and along the way the team came together. By 7:00pm we were all in a diner booth across the street from our motel. Eating, resting and discussing tactics, both ours and ‘theirs’.