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02.11.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Craig Smith
Mad Men: Fans go wild for Lance in the 2003 San Francisco Grand Prix.

Bike Nuts Prepare to Swarm Santa Cruz

As the Tour of California gears up, we wonder: just how far will obsessive bike fans go to see their favorite sport? Answer: As far as they must.

By Curtis Cartier


For their honeymoon, Will and Melissa Calkins went to France. They didn't go, however, to taste the cuisine or see the art. They went to stand on high mountain roads and celebrate their marriage by cheering their lungs out for five stages of the Tour de France.

That was 2004, a year of complete domination by Lance Armstrong, who became the first person to win six Tours. Since then, the couple have continued cheering and continued riding. And though the extremely pregnant Melissa won't be making the trip from their home in Longmont, Colo., to Santa Cruz for the Stage 2 finish of the Amgen Tour of California this Monday, her husband is coming and so is Lance Armstrong.

"I can't wait," Will says. "I just think the Tour of California is getting better every year. And this year the quality of riders they have is truly world class."

The Calkins are part of a small but hugely dedicated population of pro cycling fans. They travel to watch races and pay for obscure satellite sports channels to see them. They check cycling websites religiously and, perhaps most importantly, they ride bicycles for miles and miles. And with the TOC becoming one of the most popular professional cycling events in America, thousands of these crazy pedalheads are expected to invade the city for a chance to see the peloton pass.

"Cycling is a sport that any body type and any age group can do," says Will. "And fans get crazy. People paint their bodies and run alongside the pack. I saw some guy running along the pack in a Borat thong. I mean, people get really excited about it."

Penny Schmuecker is another fan. Along with her husband, Dan, she's online "constantly," checking up on the latest races and the best racers. She's also out on the road as much as possible. But with frigid winters and few bike lanes, Lincoln, Neb., is not exactly a cyclist's paradise. That's why Schmuecker teaches a spinning class and hits the road when it's "warm enough," i.e, above freezing. She'll be bringing her husband and a friend from the class to Santa Cruz next week, and she's already got her game plan sketched out.

"I'll be watching Mark Cavendish, the sprinter from High Road. Floyd Landis--it'll be interesting to see how he does after his suspension. George Hincapie. And obviously Lance," she says. "Being there is so exciting. You're right on the spot. You could reach out and touch somebody. You shouldn't. But, you know, you could."

Following a sport like professional cycling takes more determination than keeping track of a network-television-sponsored "major" sport like football or baseball. Races are shown on funky stations like Versus and JumpTV and raced in funky places like Termas de Menetue, Chile, and Doha, Qatar.

Watching a race live presents its own problems. Unless it's a closed-circuit track, which the TOC is not, fans must be prepared to defend a single spot along the road. Dedicated supporters might wait for six hours or more along a hill or at the finish line just to catch a few seconds of blazing colorful jerseys whipping past. But these fans make the best of it. With crazy characters like the Tour de France's jumping red devil and the Calkins' friend with the Borat thong, bike fans are every bit as maniacal as body-painted football fans or rainbow-afro-sporting basketball fans.

Rachael and David Hanel of Madison Lake, Minn., are picking the finish line at the corner of Front and Cooper streets as their battle station. They'll be arriving early to mark their territory and plan to unleash their full cheering fury for Lance Armstrong when he "hopefully" blasts through the tape first sometime early Monday afternoon. Like the Schmueckers, the Hanels live in an unforgiving corner of the country where Mother Nature frowns upon anyone caught outside between the months of November and March. But that doesn't stop them from riding when they can, and it certainly doesn't stop them from rooting for their favorite riders from in front of their laptops and television sets.

"Cycling is not something you can do year-round here. You all in California are lucky," says Rachael. "But when we get the roads cleared and it warms up to 30 or 35, you just get bundled up and go out there."

Of course, as one of the most bike-friendly cities in America, Santa Cruz has plenty of its own die-hard cycle nuts. Craig Smith, a wedding photographer by trade and a cycling photographer by passion, has been a part of the cycling and photography world for nearly all of his 55 years. He was on the same French mountainside as the newly wedded Calkins back in 2004.

"I ended up doing photography for Lance's incredible ascent up the Alpes d'Huez. It's this stretch about eight or nine miles long and it's practically straight up. Lance just took off. It was spectacular!" says Smith, who currently has a huge collection of cycling photos on display inside Santa Cruz Council Chambers. "It's just one of those pure sports. And it's a very intelligent sport that makes you consider strategy carefully."

These fans and more will be on hand by the thousands next week, cheering, partying and spending their desperately needed tourism dollars in town. And while police say they expect the crowds to be "well behaved" and "nothing like Halloween or Fourth of July," it is without a doubt going to be a party the likes of which is seldom seen in these parts.


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