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This 6:00am start is the darkest yet. We begin the day with breakfast for the team, which still includes Chad, our godsend SRAM mechanic, and The Oregonian newspaper’s Stephanie and Laura. Just outside the door, under an awning, Carey crouches over a sticky sandwich operation. On the lid of a Tupperware box, she makes an assembly line of at least a dozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the day ahead. After a brief visit to a coffee shop which, before this tour, some of us living in the northwest avoided as a matter of principle – with time and energy more precious than ever availability trumps gastronomic concerns – we load up the van and press on, headed south for Merced and today’s start. Stage 4 is 121 miles long and gains 8,940ft. The route first heads east into the foothills of the Sierra Mountains then south, through the front-range for the majority of the day. It’s cloudy and looks like getting cloudier still. We may run into bad weather at the higher elevations and it will be colder today.
The impetus to ride the Tour of California was, at least in part, to race. The Rapha Continental is a riding rather than a racing team, so the idea of racing is a novel one. We aim to do our best to ride each stage exactly as the professionals will and when it’s all over, compare our results with theirs. But having ridden just three of the eight stages, an opponent every bit as formidable as the 800-mile course has thrown down the gauntlet – the sun. If the previous stages are any guide, Stage 4 will be yet another race against the onset of evening.
Our first push for the day, through the orchards that surround Merced like an endless English garden maze and into the Sierra Foothills, is steady and without complaint. Except one. As we leave town, one of the couplers holding Hahn’s Ritchey Breakaway bike loosens badly. On closer inspection, it’s clear that some threads are stripped beyond repair. Without a replacement part or access to a shop, Hahn tightens it as much as he can and keeps on riding, though now with a shimmy. Ahead, the route continues to climb on a series of rollers, each long on the face and shorter on the downside. This continues until the pass on Crane Valley Road, seventy miles in and which tops out just below 4,000ft.
When we reach Cathey’s Valley the questions start. They don’t stop until we reach the end of the stage, in Clovis. We meet people in their front yards, on porches or in front of their stores. Some are even on their own bike rides. Locals. Up to this point, the support van and SRAM Volvo seemed unremarkable, certainly compared to the impending pro cavalcade and its procession of color and noise. But to the two old timers, watching the world pass at the Cathey Valley Post Office, we must have looked a sight. Our vehicles, with their racks and spare wheels, the team humming by at 23mph in full kit and a paceline, must look like visitors from a strange land. And of course, they want to know what it’s all about. It’s as though we are an advance party, spreading word of something big to follow. One lady, burning a pile of brush in her front yard on the edge of CA-140, a highway otherwise unpopulated for miles, wants to know the exact date the pros are coming so she can write it down. An older gentlemen and his wife, who we meet in Mariposa, can’t believe bicycles can race for the best part of 800 miles. While Hahn stops once again to fix his bike, at the intersection of CA-140 and CA-49, we meet an au pair, a French one. She tells us that, some years ago, she watched a more celebrated Tour pass along the Champs-Elysées, only blocks away from her apartment. Many folks ask about Lance – one wants to know whether Greg Lemond will be racing.
The delay caused by Hahn’s bike’s malady, combined with the steady elevation gain and first real bad weather of the week, finds us coming out of the mountains in low cloud. By the time we approach Clovis it’s early evening. Less than five miles from the center of town and the official finish, a California Highway Patrol Officer on a motorcycle cautions us about a dangerous road ahead. After confirming that we are loosely associated with the Tour of California, he proceeds to tell us that the city is working to fix the problem before the pros come through. Something about drainage ditches. The team loads the van and changes into everyday clothes, once again in the dirt on the side of the road, once again in near dark. Vance, the CHIP in question, waits patiently so that he can accompany us into town and directly to a brew pub he recommends. This is the first police escort any of us has ever had.