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In the van, the riders are still wet from this morning’s time trial as we drive south. Along the coast on HWY 101, en route to Santa Clarita for the start of Stage 7, the weather is changeable. During our drive the sun breaks through in tractor beam-shaped columns of light, heating large areas of sea to our right. To the left, mountain tops periodically tear through the cloud before being reclaimed by vapors once more.
In Santa Clarita, the indicators of southern California are immediately apparent. We start from a coffee shop in a mall the size of an international airport, which is located just down the road from the amusement park, Magic Mountain. The ride out of town takes us through intersections the size of municipal airports, before giving way to small ranches and farms. Fifites-era trailer parks, period correct and picture perfect, rub shoulders with the fringes of suburbia. As we pick up Vasquez Canyon Road and begin the first major effort of the day, our group splits in two, just as it had on the time trial course. Although a puncture among the lead group allows for a momentary regrouping, the team quickly splits again.
On big climbing days in the Grand Tours of Europe, it’s the job of the autobus or ‘gruppetto’ to sweep up those domestiques and sprinters whose shot at glory must wait for another day. Unconcerned with position, they ride simply to survive, to finish before the cut-off. Today, Hahn and Cole are our own version of the autobus. Today they ride for fun, to talk and to enjoy simply the act of riding over a mountain together.
Ben has a different agenda. He lives in Alta Dena, a small town to the northeast of Pasadena, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. It lies on the far side of the very mountains we’re ascending now and Ben doesn’t so much suggest his familiarity with these roads and canyons, as radiate it. On Millcreek Summit, at 4,906ft the second highest climb yet included in the Tour, he pushes and drives off the front. The rest of the lead group is never far behind and every hundred feet or so we climb, the temperature drops and the air thickens with moisture, with cloud. The grade is constant and classic, not particularly steep but certainly relentless. The switchbacks are grand and sweeping; looking ahead, you can see the head and shoulders of a rider where it doesn’t seem possible to do so: Is that the same road? Is that guy even on the same ride? The route is mostly hidden, slowly revealing itself in a series of ambitious zig-zags that climb ever higher. After a brief pause on the summit of Angeles Forest Road, the lead group, the tete de course, descends briefly before pushing on for the final climb of Stage 7 and the junction with Angeles Crest Highway. Hahn and Cole are nowhere in sight, teetering, quite happily to the best of our knowledge, on the edge of the cut time.
Again, the lead group pauses before the final 20-mile descent into Pasadena’s Rose Bowl. The front range of the San Gabriels is socked in and nearly dark. With every hundred feet we drop, the temperature goes down with us, the visibility diminishing further still. Instead of appearing out of the bottom of the bad weather, we seem only to plunge deeper into its core. It starts raining, making the remainder of the descent miserable and wet. At the bottom of the descent and after what feels like hours, after Ryan flats and fixes it, after Jeremy flats and rides it out— because Ryan used the last tube—we decide to pack it in, less than 10 miles short of the finish.
We make contact with the ‘autobus’. Thinking that our lead pack didn’t make the cut-off time, and Cole and Hahn are a half hour behind us, that they would want to pack it in. It is now almost completely dark and it’s still raining. But Cole wants to push on, so they do – until they get lost. There’s some irony in the fact that Cole actually lives in Pasadena. The riders are collected one-by-one, stuffed in the back of the van, cramped and shivering. On the face of it, things don’t look great. Our descent has been ruined by fog, rain, chill winds and two flats and a third of the team is unaccounted for. In the end, it works out okay. The mood is surprisingly good among the purple-lipped, near-frozen riders. Stage 7 has done its best to crush our spirits but it has failed. We are winning.