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In Solvang, They Like Lance — a Lot

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SOLVANG, Calif. — The crowd had gathered in a hotel parking lot, bracing themselves in the early morning chill, waiting hopefully in front of the 28 blue bicycles that stood like horses at a hitching post.

Would he show, they all wondered. Would he show?

They carried photos and magazines, bike jerseys and hats. When his teammates walked from the hotel one by one, they scurried over and asked for autographs.

And they waited.

Suddenly there was a commotion and some shouts of "There he is!" The 75 fans then surged toward Lance Armstrong as he made his entrance from the back of the hotel, almost as if he had emerged from a cloud.

"Can you sign this? Please?" Dressed in a blue-and-white jersey, black riding shorts and black leg warmers, Armstrong kept striding forward, even while signing autographs. "Gotta run," he kept saying. "Gotta run."

A team mechanic handed him a helmet, and Armstrong and his teammates pedaled off on a four-hour ride through the hills of the Santa Inez Valley.

The Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team, until this year sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service, had come to train for the racing season that begins next month and climaxes in July with the Tour de France, which Armstrong has won a record six consecutive times.

This is the third straight year Armstrong and his teammates have decamped for 10 days in Solvang, where the mountain roads, semi-isolation and good weather — a week earlier they might have thought differently — make it ideal for training. Armstrong knows the area so well he can tell you which roads should be repaved to make for better riding.

The Discovery team is close enough to touch, with no security and no posse and none of the aloofness and arrogance that so often accompany pro athletes. For cycling fans, and folks in Solvang, it's as if the Babe Ruth Yankees worked out on the local sandlot, or Michael Jordan and the Bulls shot hoops in the school gym.

Solvang residents have gotten used to the multicolored line of cyclists winding its way through town on daily 100-mile rides, past the vineyards and the cattle ranches, through emerald hills dotted with gnarled oaks, up mountains steep enough to make a car engine groan.

Fans follow in cars. A few line the roads, snapping photos, holding signs and yelling encouragement. "Where's Lance?" people often yell, and his teammates obligingly point toward him.

But driving behind the cyclists on a twisting two-lane road, with their silver team car following, doesn't sit well with everyone. Some will yell angrily as they pass, pushing the accelerator to the floor.

"In Europe it's different," said rider Tony Cruz. "They give you respect, even if they have to wait 30 minutes."

Solvang, population 8,300, is more tourist attraction than city, a Santa Barbara County town founded by Danes and outfitted in a Danish theme. There is Copenhagen Drive, the Red Viking Restaurant, Ingeborg's Danish Chocolates. Not to mention Hamlet Square and King Atterbag Court.

It is something of a cycling mecca, home to an annual 100-mile ride that attracts 5,000 riders, which organizers say makes it the largest "century" in the state.

So it seems a good fit for the Discovery team. When not riding, attending meetings or getting massages, team members wander through the lobby of the Royal Scandinavian Inn, talking, playing chess and checking e-mail on their laptops.

All of them, that is, but Armstrong. Some days he rode with the team. On others, he stayed in Santa Barbara with his children and trained alone, with a team masseuse riding along in a car.

The other riders carry on mostly in anonymity. Jose Luis Rubiera, one of Armstrong's tour lieutenants, said that without the Discovery Channel symbols on their fleece, no one would recognize him.

Suddenly, a voice interrupted from the lobby. "Not true, Chechu," said Martha Carver, calling Rubiera by his nickname. "I recognize you."

Carver, a financial manager for UC San Diego, is one of the cycling fanatics who travel to Solvang to get close to their heroes. She drove up Saturday night and left Sunday morning after watching the team head out from the parking lot.

Mark Adkison, a pathologist with the state Department of Fish and Game, drove down from Davis to watch the team. He was holding court in the lobby, showing off his three scrapbooks filled with the photos he took at last year's Tour de France, which he's attended six times, more often than some of the team riders.

The Discovery cyclists, who hail from 15 countries, spend most of their time at the hotel, where they eat together in a banquet room.

There are occasional Lance sightings in restaurants in nearby Los Olivos. Some fans descend on Armstrong, but this is an area where many celebrities live — including singer David Crosby and actors Noah Wylie, Bo Derek, John Forsythe and Matt LeBlanc — so some folks barely notice.

Team members often walk to the Bulldog Cafe, next to the Hans Christian Andersen Museum. A day before they left last year, they gave owner Barbara Meeks an autographed poster of Armstrong. She said she turned down a businessman who had offered $4,000 for it.

Meeks has become something of the team's baker, making them pineapple carrot cakes for their birthdays. "I wouldn't bake these cakes for the president of the United States, but I would for the Discovery Team," she said.

She's guarded about whether Armstrong has visited the cafe. The other day, the cyclists shut the door, and she thought he was coming by.

So that means he has been there?

"I didn't say that," she said.

Others also are protective of the team.

"We get a lot of calls from people asking if the team is here and if Lance is here," said Diane Calderon, sales manager of the Royal Scandinavian. "We pretty much deny it."

Still, anyone who knows anything about cycling knows when Armstrong and Co. are in town. You can't take batting practice against Randy Johnson during spring training, and you can't scrimmage with the Lakers, but you can jump on your bike and try to ride with some of the world's best cyclists.

"Every cyclist in town has ridden with them a little," said Jeff Stevenson.

There is not much the team can do. "The road is for everybody, so we can't say no, although we prefer not," said team director Johan Bruyneel. "One little mistake could be a disaster."

Knowing that cyclists will ride with them, the team tries to keep them at the back. Each day you can see cyclists pulling up the rear, struggling to stay on pace as team members crank up hills without slowing from their 20-mph speed.

Sometimes, though, there are the rides of legend. Stevenson doesn't like to talk much about his encounter with the team on Super Bowl Sunday two years ago, and just a few people have heard about it. But it's a great tale.

Stevenson, then 56, followed the team members from their hotel parking lot as they began a 120-mile ride.

He chatted with some of them. Rubiera, a Spaniard, asked him about the Spanish influence in California. Roberto Heras asked him about Solvang.

Stevenson pulled next to Armstrong at a light. "I appreciated being able to ride with you guys," Stevenson said. Armstrong just nodded.

About halfway through the ride, the team car pulled next to Stevenson. Team director Bruyneel handed him candy bars and water and offered encouragement.

As they headed up the last hill, Stevenson fell back again. Heras reached out, put his hand on Stevenson's back and pushed him up the hill.

"I was pretty dumbfounded by the whole thing," Stevenson said. He said he never tried to ride with the team again.

"How can you top that?" he said, still seemingly in shock.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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