February 26, 2006 – The work Mark Walters put in yesterday carrying water bottles back into the peloton was for him routine duty. For his teammates in the race, the effort was priceless and absolutely necessary.
Coming in to stage six of the Tour of California Walters had 16 days of racing in his legs this season. He rode the ten stages of Malaysia’s Tour of Langkawi and has been a powerful engine for the Navigators each day in California. On a Continental Pro team with an intensive worldwide race schedule, the end of February over the past few years has always been busy for Walters.
The Navigators Insurance Cycling Team is the only American Continental Pro squad with an international race calendar and an international lineup to match. At the Tour of California the Navs have two Russians, two Aussies, a Ukrainian, the Irish national champion, an American and Canadian Mark Walters at the start. All eight have made it to the finish in Redondo Beach and they are the only Continental Pro team to arrive there intact. Phil Zajicek is the top domestic-based American rider in the race in 15th place.
Walters felt the strain of last week’s transoceanic flight from Kuala Lumpur to San Francisco in the first few stages of this tour. He was flat after the second full day on the road, jetlag his ghost riding roommate in San Jose’s Doubletree hotel. Day by day he held on, growing stronger as the race moved south. His normal responsibility as a general classification rider was adjusted and he sacrificed his personal ambitions for the good of the team, helping Glen Chadwick back in to the peloton after a flat tire sent him to the side of the road to wait for a wheel change.
“It’s pretty hard, but at this point I’m mostly staying in the pack all day, so the effort is more like a long motorpacing session. Hopefully I’ll come out of all this racing with the benefits of so much speedwork. I came back for bottles and Glen happened to have a flat at the same time, so I helped him get back on as well,” said Walters, a six-time Canadian national champion.
The bulk of Walters’ training in the off-season comes on the snow, as the Peterborough, Ontario resident uses cross-country skiing to supplement his cycling. In comparison to his teammates, who in January can put in as many as 3,000 kilometers of base training on their bicycles, Walters instead steps out into the brisk air near his home and spends his time kicking and gliding.
“I probably did 500 kilometers on the bike this January, whereas the other guys do a lot more. But I probably did 500k on the skis also. As long as you do a little bit of pedaling as well, to remind your legs that they are really supposed to go in circles, then it works just fine. When you are doing the base training it’s all about the lungs and the heart anyway. It’s just building the aerobic fitness, it doesn’t matter what you are doing. I have enough years on the bike that it’s not difficult to get used to suddenly doing more hours in the saddle,” said Walters.
The 86 miles from Santa Barbara to Thousand Oaks on Saturday was the final chance for a shakeup in the general classification, but as overall leader Floyd Landis’ Phonak squad was meticulously protecting his golden jersey, there was little hope in a high-placed rider getting away.
Instead the teams rode through enormous crowds lining the roads of Southern California, with just a few ambitious souls flying solo up the road. The Navigators trained down here earlier in the month, memorizing the routes and committing themselves to the teamwork needed for a major stage race. Walters altered his personal G.C. ambitions based on his current fitness and the goals of the team, and kept his teammates secure in the peloton.
“I worked with the guys and tried to keep them out of the wind and near the front. We stayed together and I pulled them up and tried to keep then there as long as I could. If we got separated I went back to the pack and tried to find them and make sure that they were where they needed to be. There was some pretty odd movement in the pack coming up to the one-kilometer-to-go sign, but by then I was behind it and got to watch. I’m pretty glad I was out of it by then. Everyone’s got good bike-handling skills, but I’ve seen some crazy things in the pack where you wonder how no one went down. I’ve been in situations where I’m leaning on guys with my wheels in the air and somehow we managed to stay up. Yesterday was mild by comparison,” said Walters.
The final stage of the Tour of California is a beachfront circuit of seven miles. Race organizers are predicting 100,000 fans along the roadside, and the way this race has gone so far, that estimate might be low. The Navigators will come to the finish this afternoon with all their guns firing, their heads held high after a week of intense and beautiful racing down the sunny coast of California.
1 Olaf Pollack (Ger) T-Mobile Team 3.26.39
2 Riccardo Ricco (Ita) Saunier Duval-Prodir
3 Fred Rodriguez (USA) Davitamon-Lotto
1 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak Hearing Systems
2 David Zabriskie (USA) Team CSC 0.29
3 Bobby Julich (USA) Team CSC 0.34
15 Phil Zajicek (USA) Navigators Insurance 2.32