Hours before the time trial started in historic downtown Folsom, and well before the pros came and began warming up on bikes locked into stationary trainers, the crowds had already assembled at the Amgen Tour of California.
These hardcore fans weren’t looking for their favorite riders; not yet, anyway. They were sizing up the bikes – gawking, geeking out and aiming their camera phones at aerodynamic carbon fiber frames, getting close-ups of chains and cranksets, selfies with disc wheels in the background, and all kinds of shots of electronic shifters, power meters and anything else they could size up and drool over.
Time trials, like the 12.4-mile second stage of this eight-day race, are a vastly different spectator experience. The typical road race stages start en masse and feature strategies centered around the power of the peloton – drafting to preserve energy, tactical collaborations to thwart aggressive moves and, as fans witnessed Sunday, a furious buildup of speed in the final 500 meters until the sprinters pounce toward the finish line.
At the time trial, it’s all about power. The aggression and exciting bursts of speed are replaced by consistent, measured output – get close to your maximum speed, generally at around 30 mph, and hold it to the end.
To do that, riders use special time trial bikes that are more aerodynamic and much more tricked-out with high-tech features to slice through the wind and save precious seconds. The rear disc wheel alone costs about $3,500 and these superbikes generally retail around $15,000, according to Ian Sherburne, a mechanic for BMC, one of the leading pro teams.
Sherburne is bound to find his way onto more than his share of random Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, as scores of fans pointed their phones and took pictures as he readied the bikes for the race.
Freddie Jimenez, an amateur bike racer from Irvine, took time off work to come. He spent much of his morning with his camera, checking out bikes, getting up close for a good look and then taking dozens of photos. He noted he owns a bike similar to the ones the BMC team rides.
Nearby, Robert Gonzalez of San Francisco mingled near the pro team buses, where the riders warmed up for 30 minutes or more prior to their start.
“You get to see all the technical stuff on the bicycles,” said Gonzalez, a longtime fan and amateur racer.
Because the riders go off one at a time, the event had something of a festival atmosphere, with plenty of starstruck fans watching for the arrival of their favorite racers. Riders such as Mark Cavendish, the sprint star who won Stage 1 in Sacramento, Belgian hero Tom Boonen, Jens Voigt of Germany and Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins of England attracted the most attention.
Gonzalez, who was carrying a cycling jersey he had purchased in England, said he was hoping to get Wiggins to sign it.
“I saw him yesterday. His arms were so skinny,” he said with a laugh.
An hour later, Wiggins was a picture of quiet intensity as his lanky frame leaned over his bike and he pedaled steadily for his 25-minute warmup, wiping the sweat from his face before putting his helmet on and heading to the start. Wiggins was a co-favorite along with young American star Taylor Phinney to win the stage.
When Phinney arrived in Old Town wearing a T-shirt, baggy shorts and sneakers, a fan spotted him and promptly asked if he would pose for a selfie. Phinney obliged, stopping for a moment and smiling.
In years past, Phinney had been spotted occasionally training on local roads.
“I dated a girl who lived in Cool,” he said, “so I did come riding in the area.”
Asked about his chances in the time trial, which is considered his specialty, Phinney said, “I’m quietly confident. I’d like to win today and have the jersey for a day.”
Referring to Wiggins, he added, “It would be nice to dethrone him.”
As the stars emerged and fans stood and gawked, early starters began setting the pace, one after another. At the start on Sutter Street, fans lined the street on both sides and, seconds before each rider rolled down the ramp, they began pounding on the placards and shouting encouragement, creating a raucous vibe and deafening crescendo that faded as the racers zoomed around the bend and settled into their low, outstretched time trial position on the bike.
Scores of fans ducked out of the midday sun – temperatures climbed into high 80s – and into Samuel Horne’s Tavern for lunch and a cold beer, content to watch the live feed of the race on a TV above the bar.
But the serious bike fans were there for the racing – and something more. Long-time cycling enthusiasts like Bill Forrest appreciate all the little things that add up to bicycle style – the bar tape, the color combinations, even the decals.
Forrest, who lives in El Dorado Hills and can remember racing as a junior against Phinney’s father, retired pro Davis Phinney, showed up riding an eye-catching custom-made Serotta road bike with a custom pearl-white paint job by legendary frame painter Joe Bell, along with a limited-edition leather Brooks sparrow saddle.
Forrest spent much of the morning sizing up all the equipment and looking for top riders.
“It’s exciting to have all these amazing riders assembled in one place and be so close to us,” he said.
As the afternoon wore on and the favorites hit the streets of Folsom, Wiggins, of Team Sky, blistered the course at an average speed of 32 mph and won handily by 44 seconds over Rohan Dennis of Garmin-Sharp and 52 seconds ahead Phinney. With the victory, Wiggins took over the race lead from Cavendish.
Lost among the fanfare and all the craning and straining to see the equipment and all the racers was arguably the greatest athlete on site, a lean, muscular man in his mid-50s wearing a polo shirt and black track pants.
They don’t cheer for Eric Heiden any longer, and even when he walks through crowds of sports fans, few recognize him as one of the greatest athletes in Olympic history, a speedskating wunderkind who won five gold medals – and every event – at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.
Heiden went on to be a successful professional bike racer, and then became an orthopedic surgeon. For years, he lived in Sacramento and could be spotted riding along the American River bike trail. He moved his practice to Park City, Utah, eight years ago and serves as one of the team doctors for BMC.
“I enjoy coming back to Sacramento because of the ties I have here,” said Heiden, 56, as he stood near the team bus and scores of fans streamed past. “I’ve spent an awful lot of time on that bike trail.”
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.