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We wake up in a motor lodge in Visalia. It’s misty and there is some light rain. Today’s route leaves from the center of town, which is easily rideable, so we meet over breakfast in room 115.
We roll into town and commence with the too-many lefts and too-many rights that make up the start of Stage 5. Like the Prologue three days before, this portion of the day’s ride is a dull formality. This same setting, with fans, will serve as a much needed boost for the long day ahead when the pros come through. For us, however, it’s the start that never really comes, a hurried procession through a misty ghost town. As it turns out, it’s an appropriate beginning for Stage 5. A 130-mile plus route that runs from Visalia to Paso Robles, it includes some of the more uninspiring terrain of the tour. Today is about hard work and nothing more.
Less than an hour into the morning it decides to rain. And then some. Surrounded by hundreds of millions of acres of industrial agriculture, the landscape is bleak and formless. We pass pick-up trucks, irrigation canals and driveways that vanish on the horizon before revealing their destination. All the while, telephone poles keep time like a metronome. There is nothing else but alfalfa fields and fruit trees, all in varying stages of their seasonal rotation. Almond, apple, cherry and chestnut, or fig, kiwi fruit, loquat and nectarine. Alluvial deposits from nearby rivers such as the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced make this area rich with soil and silt. Over the next few hours and helped by the continuing rain, so are we.
Two hours in, Jeremy is forced off his bike and into the van by his IT-band. Shortly after, Hahn is forced into the van by his failing bike. With most of the day still to go and two riders down, the rest of the team continues on without complaint and with little option. We ride for hours on end, rotating, pace lining and motor pacing where possible until, eventually, we make it out of the rain and into muted but welcome sunshine. In the warmth of California’s chaparral country, we slowly begin to dry, to strip down to our jerseys and crack our bodies and bikes free from the mud. The roads, though still straight and endless, are now busy and rolling. The Pacific Coast Range kicks up before Cholame, home to Polonio Pass, the site of the James Dean memorial, and Cholame Pass after that. Unlike the climbs we encountered earlier in the week, these are long and drawn out and demand a different rhythm and tempo. Rising steadily and coming at 70 miles, they arrive roughly halfway into a long, hard day. Hahn and Chad leave early in the SRAM Volvo, for a bicycle shop in San Louis Obispo that has a replacement coupler to fix Hahn’s Breakaway frame.
The remaining four riders make it through the wine country surrounding Paso Robles and arrive into town at 5:00pm, with an hour’s daylight to spare. But the day isn’t over. We have an appointment in Solvang, a two–hour drive away, with Alex Diaz, a masseur with professional race support experience. We’re booked in for 7:00pm and we make it just in time. The team rotates in, two at a time, to see Alex for some much needed muscle salvation. He is confident he can help get Jeremy back on the road - and keep him there. Jeremy isn’t the only one hurting. Both he and Cole require what Alex refers to as ‘the Chinese’. It’s a form of treatment the details of which Alex won’t divulge. What he does say is that he only breaks it out when the damage is bad.