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This is terrible!" people were crying at the finish line. "Somebody's going to get killed!" The official with the bullhorn went so far as to say, though not through the bullhorn, "I think it's hopeless."
A gaily colored, clench-teethed tangle of sprinting cyclists was expected any minute, and there seemed to be no room for them. The third stage of the seven-day, 475-mile Tahoe Donner Tour of the Sierra, the second-longest bicycle race ever held in the United States, seemed to be on a collision course with the busy afternoon traffic in front of the Nevada State Legislature Building, The Carson Transmission Exchange, La Table Franchise, the Y Not Bar and The Capital City Mortuary, all right there in the heart of Carson City.
At this moment Announcer Vic Black drove up in his official vehicle to begin advising anybody inclined to listen, "This is the finish of a 108.5-mile bicycle race. These riders have gone up 5,000 feet of elevation, and now they're coming into town at 30 miles an hour!" It turned out someone had alerted the police; a patrol car showed up to block traffic just in time, and here came the pack—otherwise known as the peloton, or bunch—with a whirring, clicking, cloud-of-locusts sound, and it looked as though the Tour of the Sierra might survive one more day without an outright cataclysm.
But then the smartly dressed lady carrying the big straw hat appeared out of nowhere. Intent on whatever mission brought her to the State Legislature Building, she walked straight in front of the oncoming pack.
The foremost riders braked slightly, and a cycling enthusiast who had anticipated that something unlikely probably would happen jumped out and dragged lady and hat out of the way just as Mike Neel, with his jut-jawed, near-snarling all-out expression, sped past on his 21-pound $800 bike with the titanium spindle and cluster (the five gears on the back wheel). Neel, who by Sunday would be overall Tour champion, was first in that day's finish, followed closely by the only vaguely daunted peloton.
The lady was unapologetic. "The government's falling apart," she said, "and here are all these damn bicycles." Whatever it was, her point was not well taken. There may well be a crisis of American values at this point in history, but those bicycles traversing almost 500 variously breathtaking miles of Nevada and California proved that wild, woolly and unbought intrepidity is not dead across the land.
In Europe and Mexico road racing is a lot more orderly. The Tour de France, which is now in progress, is one of the world's biggest sports events by any measure. For it, the roads are closed to all traffic and the crowds of spectators along the route cheer both lustily and with great respect. That must be pretty boring, compared to the Tour of the Sierra.
Eighty riders, including longhairs, shorthairs, a geophysicist and a man who "stripes parking lots" for a living, began the Tour. Sixty-five finished all eight of the stages (a team time trial, five road races, a criterium—which is a race over a short, closed course—and an individual time trial) held during the seven days. Dan Nail of Santa Cruz, Calif. was knocked down by a truck. Jack Janelle of Littleton, Colo, tried to hold position on the inside of two big cattle trucks and was forced off a 30-ft. embankment. Nick Farac of San Francisco, at 41 the second oldest man in the race, was awarded a "Mystery Prime" prize of a free session at Nevada's legal Moonlight Ranch sporting house. All three men finished the Tour going strong.
Bicycle racers are not among this nation's most pampered athletes. The Tour participants paid their own travel expenses and even room and board at places like the sponsoring resort lodge, Tahoe Donner, in Truckee, Calif. Most of them said they got started in the sport by riding around the countryside on their 10-speeds and encountering racers by chance. European riders are trained by long-standing, highly structured organizations. American cyclists tend to be individualists, unschooled in team tactics and not always ready for the challenges they take on. From 1920 to 1974 only one racer was killed in this country, but so far this year three have died after their lightly helmeted heads hit the asphalt. The statistic is partly a reflection of the sport's growth: in 1962 60 competitive riders were registered in Northern California; today there are more than 1,000.
In no other sport do athletes go hard for five solid hours, as they did in the longer stages through the Sierra, and then race again and again every day for a week. The ordeal is relieved somewhat by the fact that the riders tend to travel in packs, whose members take turns pulling the pace, or breaking the wind, as the others ride behind in the slipstream, "sucking wheels." In footraces the strongest runner tends to win. The bicycle, many riders point out, is a great equalizer, allowing canny wheel suckers to take advantage of others' might.