Local pro cyclist Mike Sayers takes on the 650-mile Tour of California in what may be his last season
Like every veteran professional cyclist, Mike Sayers knows the sport’s pitfalls. He’s ridden while sick and pedaled for hours in nasty weather. He’s crested snow-covered peaks in rarefied air and he survived a crash in Belgium six years ago in which some onlookers thought he had perished.
But how could Sayers have known that one day last month, while beginning his preparation for the Amgen Tour of California, his entire season—and perhaps his career—might have abruptly ended compliments of a frightened, wayward beaver?
During the convergence of riding for a new team, the recent birth of his first child and his 37th birthday, Sayers was riding alone on the lower stretches of the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail. Like he’d done for years, he was en route to the River Ride, the well-known Saturday-morning journey where locals push each other at high speeds to the Sacramento-Yolo County border and back. As with most cycling accidents, the unexpected occurred suddenly. Sayers swerved to miss a fast-moving blur in front of him on the trail and he crashed—hard.
“I was unsure,” Sayers recently recalled of the bizarre encounter. “When I first landed, I was pretty convinced I had either broken my pelvis or cracked something. I hadn’t felt a shooting pain like that in a long time. I was a little afraid that I had hurt myself pretty badly, and for the next 24 hours I was pretty convinced that I may have jeopardized my season.”
The stunned beaver eventually scampered away; Sayers rode home in severe pain. A couple of days later, when he realized he hadn’t suffered any fractures, Sayers began training again for what could be his last season.
Sayers is the elder statesman of the new BMC Cycling Team. Sponsored by the Swiss bicycle maker, the squad’s staff includes team physicians Dr. Eric Heiden and Dr. Massimo Testa, both formerly of the UC Davis Medical Center. BMC will be among 18 teams of eight riders competing in the second Tour of California.
The eight-day, 650-mile Tour of California begins Sunday in San Francisco. A week’s racing follows via 12 starting and finishing cities including Sausalito, Santa Rosa, Sacramento, Stockton, San Jose, Seaside, San Luis Obispo, Solvang, Santa Barbara, Santa Clarita and Long Beach.
The race got no closer to Sacramento than Martinez in its 2006 inaugural edition, but the second stage next Tuesday will begin in Santa Rosa and end at the Capitol. The 116-mile route will advance through several Sonoma County wineries and quickly arrive at the Trinity Road climb, one of the steepest climbs in the race. Continuing past Lake Berryessa, the stage route will follow the Sacramento River into Sacramento. The field will cross the Tower Bridge, advance through downtown streets and conclude at approximately 2:30 p.m. following three high-speed circuits.
“They’ve added some difficulty to the race,” said Sayers. “The first difficulty is the stage coming to Sacramento. It will include a difficult climb that I’ve been up a million times. I’m not saying it’s going to decide the race or even have an effect on the race because it’s so early. But [Trinity Road] will have a very long and steep climb. It’s early in the year and it’s going to take something out of some guys.”
The Tour of California will include many of the sport’s top international squads, as well as pros who largely compete on the domestic circuit. Italian riders Ivan Basso, the reigning Tour of Italy winner, and Paolo Bettini, the current world and Olympic road titlist, will be in the field—both competing in the United States for the first time. Also riding are George Hincapie of Greenville, S.C., who boasts more Tour de France finishes than any American, and Levi Leipheimer of Santa Rosa, a three-time top-10 overall Tour de France finisher. 2006 Tour of California runner-up Dave Zabriskie of Salt Lake City, the only American to claim stages in the Tour de France, Tour of Italy and Tour of Spain, will be there. So will Fred Rodriguez of Emeryville, a three-time U.S. national champion.
Like the three-week Tour de France, the Tour of California is a stage race. The rider with the lowest cumulative time wins. And although it can be difficult to decipher, stage-race cycling is a team sport sometimes described as a chess match on wheels. Riders who excel at climbing and in stages contested individually vie for the overall title.
Although he’s won races, including events in Davis and Santa Cruz in 2005, Sayers has spent much of his now 13-year career as a domestique. It’s the French word for riders who pedal in support of their respective team leaders. In cycling parlance, Sayers is also known as an “All-Arounder,” a rider strong in multiple disciplines—climbing, sprinting, time-trialing—but who’s not among the best in any single skill.
The last time a professional stage race was held in Sacramento, the Coors Classic 20 years ago, Sayers was a local high-school student who was inspired when three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond rode into town. Now the sport is returning to Sacramento as Sayers’ career is waning. A consummate team rider, Sayers admits he would welcome the opportunity to ride for a stage win in his hometown. He also knows it may be the last time he competes locally before family, friends and fans who’ve followed his long career.
“About 75 percent of me has decided that this will be my last year of racing,” said Sayers. “But, on the other hand, I don’t want to be concerned or focused on that. I’m in a situation now where a lot of good things are happening with a new team and I want to put my energies into helping the team be successful right off the bat. I don’t want the team or myself to be distracted that this may be my final year.”
Sayers is facing the end of his racing career while the sport is in the midst of a global dichotomy. Races like the Tour of California, Tour de Georgia and the inaugural Tour of Missouri (scheduled for September) reflect the growth of cycling and international athletes’ interests in competing in North America. But in Europe, where cycling is among the national pastimes of several countries, the sport is a mess.
Governing organizations, team owners and race directors constantly are jousting with each other. The new president of the Tour de France, the sport’s biggest race, recently said the winner of this July’s three-week journey may be determined before a final decision is announced regarding 2006 winner Floyd Landis.
Landis, now 31, won the inaugural Tour of California and two other weeklong stage races before claiming last year’s Tour de France. But following his dramatic solo victory in the latter race’s 17th stage, Landis tested positive for an illegal testosterone-to-epitestosterone level. Landis’ positive test wasn’t announced until after the Tour de France, but the ramifications sent the event and the sport into a cesspool of accusations and political posturing.
Landis technically remains the race winner, but neither Tour de France nor Tour of California organizers mention him in press conferences or in public-relations materials. Tour de France organizers also say they no longer consider him the event’s winner, but they have not officially elevated the runner-up, Óscar Pereiro of Spain.
Meanwhile, Landis and his legal team continue preparation of their appeal of Landis’ positive test and wait for a court date. In addition to his legal problems, Landis’ former Swiss team, Phonak Hearing Systems, disbanded after the 2006 season. Landis also underwent off-season hip surgery and recently said during an ESPN broadcast that he likely won’t compete this season regardless of his debacle’s outcome.
As such, the Tour of California will be the first prestigious 2007 race that won’t include its 2006 titlist. Last year, Landis took the race lead he never relinquished by winning the third-stage individual time trial in San Jose.
“There will be four great bike races this year that will be missing a great champion this year,” said Tour of California race director Jim Birrell, who said Landis may be a VIP guest of the race. “My hope is that Floyd gets vindicated soon and gets back into racing. He’s good for the sport of cycling.”
Of course, despite Landis’ absence, the Tour of California will commence. It will incorporate 144 riders, including Sayers, who will pedal from San Francisco to Long Beach, with Tuesday afternoon’s arrival in Sacramento as part of the mix.
“I don’t want to go to races thinking it will be my last time in, let’s say, Redlands,” said Sayers, who nonetheless knows that may be the case in Sacramento. “I just don’t want to do something that takes away from the team’s objective.”