After pedaling over three Southern California mountain ranges in searing
heat, cyclists on the third leg of the Amgen Tour of California could have
easily petered out Tuesday and hit the wall.
Instead, some of the best bicyclists in the world whirled 110 miles from Palmdale to Santa Clarita for a grueling sprint in the most prestigious bike race in the nation.
Peter Sagan, a promising 23-year-old sprinter from Slovakia, edged just ahead of the pack for a field finish win in 4 hours, 20 minutes and 31 seconds. It was nearly 90 degrees.
"Thank you to all of my teammates -- the last three kilometers were crazy," said the beaming Cannondale team finisher afterward. "I am very happy to take this victory."
For the dozens of cyclists who'd just made an epic Stage 2 climb over the San Bernardino Mountains into the desert cauldron of Palm Springs, Tuesday's race proved a feat of sheer two-wheeled endurance.
They repeat the grind on Wednesday day for a Stage 4 jaunt from Santa Clarita to Santa Barbara during the eight-day, 750-mile race to Northern California.
For hundreds of fans who waited hours Tuesday for a split-second glimpse of the peloton, it was a fine day to cheer on Sagan and world-cycling faves.
For the 120 young athletes, it was chance to outclimb years of bicycle doping scandals.
Former cycling champion Lance Armstrong earlier this year confessed to a pattern of lying, bullying and doping in pursuit of fortune and fame.
Of the seven past winners of the California tour, six either admitted to or were implicated or suspected of illegal doping.
Even Amgen, the tour sponsor, has been pulled into the doping draft. The biotech giant based in Thousand Oaks engineered erythropoietin -- the artificial blood booster known as EPO invented to cure anemia. A generation of dirty cyclists turned it to their own purposes, using it to boost their performance.
Armstrong, who told Oprah Winfrey he'd taken banned substances, including EPO, was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles.
A new breed of cyclists vowed to endure the days of grueling competition without doping for advantage.
"I'm very excited," said 90-year-old Ruth Duggan, of Aurora, Colo., whose grandson Timmy Duggan, an American Pro Cycling champ last year who has never faced doping accusations, had taken a spill the day before and hopped back on for the murderous hillclimb. "I guess I've got two wheels in my blood. He's a winner from the very beginning."
The day began at Marie Kerr Park in Palmdale, where more than 150 residents and fans flocked near the starting gate. The sun grew steadily hotter. And giddy racing buffs plunked down up to $40 for a Tour of California T-shirt.
It's also where two beauty pageant winners spoke excitedly of the global prestige brought to the Mojave desert city.
"It's amazing to have a big-time race in our town," said Kelly
Allie, 17, a Miss Rancho Vista who was wearing a tiara. "We're very proud."
Fans pushed close to ogle their stars, including 14-year-old cyclist Sean McElroy, a four-time national champion in junior-age events who'd pedaled in on his 15-pound race bike. "I wish I could race, but I'm not old enough yet," he said. "It humbles you."
Or Daniel Sales, who explained the appeal of watching a blob of bikes whiz past. "As a cyclist, you understand their suffering, multiplied by a hundred" said Sales, 24, of Lancaster. "They're torturing themselves."
After a rousing countdown, the tour was off at 11:20 a.m. "Cool!" cried Madelynn Lackey, 2, of Tehachapi, leashed to a Raggedy Ann backpack. "They go fast -- I like it!"
They hunkered down into a steady headwind for what would be four "king of the mountain" climbs in the hills around Lake Hughes and Bouquet Canyon, and two official sprints, one through cherry-filled Leona Valley.
The peloton of 16 teams surged as one through the San Gabriel Mountains. Heads down, eyes forward. A solid mass of rocking hips, bobbing knees and the incessant whir of nearly 250 feet.
Finally, the pack closed in on Santa Clarita. As hundreds of fans exploded thunder sticks, Sagan led the pack for a 45-mph sprint past the finish line outside Westfield Valencia Town Center.
"You just get to watch it for a second," said Chip Rea, 56, who rode his 20-speed from Simi Valley for the nose-to-nose finish. "But it's a fun short second."
(c)2013 the Daily News (Los Angeles)
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