Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Saving The Yellow Jersey

By Cathy Mehl

We all have our priorities. Whether you write them down on a list or keep them private in your head, you have a mental list of what is important to you in your life. It might be something really broad like happiness and world peace, or it might be more personal like good health and to live a long life. Or it might be something simple like a yellow jersey. Well, maybe not so simple: a yellow jersey personalized by the 2007 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador. It is July, after all, and for many years now just like for many of you my life in July has revolved around a yellow jersey. This year is a little different of course with Team Astana being excluded from the big show, but I recently found myself dealing with a situation involving a yellow jersey anyway.

I live in the mountains above Santa Barbara, California and in the 23 years I have resided in these gorgeous mountains I have been evacuated for wildfires twice and prepared to leave one other time. That’s an average of dealing with fire every seven-and-a-half years and truthfully that’s a little too often for my personal preferences. People often ask Californians why do we choose to live with earthquakes, mudslides and wildfires to which we answer: “So we don’t have to deal with floods, tornadoes and hurricanes.” And then we smile and add, “Besides, we have the beach.” I agree that wildfires are tough to deal with, but I also admit that it’s a risk I willingly take. Living in the mountains above Santa Barbara, waking up each morning to look down to the city and across the ocean to the Channel Islands is incredibly valuable to me.

But last Tuesday night a wildfire started in the same mountains where I live, probably about six miles from my home. The strong winds were blowing the fire away from my community of Painted Cave, but anyone who has lived in a fire environment knows the winds are fickle, and safe one moment does not mean safe the next. Tuesday night we slept at home, not too worried about the fire danger at that point. Wednesday night’s wind direction had us a little more concerned, concerned enough to start “The List.” That’s the abbreviated name for “The List of Stuff to Take in Case of a Fire.” I started the list for my husband and myself, right in the same notebook I use for race reports. My first entry at the top of the list was "yellow jersey." Not photos, not valuable art work, not important papers, not jewelry. Two simple words: yellow jersey.

I bought this particular yellow jersey at the Nike store on the Champs-Élysées in Paris on the Monday after last year’s Tour. All the celebrating was over but I had a free day to shop and wander around before flying home and finally came across the Nike store where they had only one adult-size yellow jersey left in stock after the Tour’s conclusion the day before. I bought it. I decided I’d have Alberto sign it at Discovery camp in January 2008, so I tucked it away in my suitcase and brought it home. A few weeks later came the devastating announcement that the team was disbanding and one of my first thoughts was, “Crap! Now I can’t get my yellow jersey signed!” Soon enough the team announced they would be racing in the Tour of Missouri with Alberto on the roster and I figured it was my last chance to get him to sign it, not knowing at the time that there would be more chances with Team Astana in 2008. I took it to US Pro and handed it off to Jared for safe keeping. He took it to the race and had it signed for me. A few weeks later it arrived back in my prized yellow jersey.

Our evacuation order came Thursday night and lasted for three days before being downgraded to an evacuation warning. We hauled our important possessions to our son’s apartment in downtown Santa Barbara, and I must admit we looked a little like the Joad family from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath as we arrived in the late evening with two dogs, the cat "Eddy Merckx" and lots of boxes in tow. We managed to still celebrate America’s birthday on the 4th as the airplanes continued to fight the fire around the clock. By Saturday the fire had moved some to the west and our home was a little more secure so we snuck back home to sleep in our own beds. The following day the order was lifted and people started returning to the neighborhood. The fire still burns and we continue to lose electricity for awhile every day, but for now things look better. For now we can stay in our home.

We haven’t brought back our possessions yet. It’s a little too early to feel comfortable with that just yet. My yellow jersey is still in a plastic bag tucked safely away. I need to have it framed. I think I figured I would always have plenty of time to do it and now this wildfire has reminded me that there are many things in life we have no control over. Team Astana's non-invite to the Tour was just such a situation, where no one could really do anything about a stupid decision. But I can do something about framing my yellow jersey, and I've vowed to finally take care of it and include a photo I had taken with Alberto at the end-of-Tour celebration. In the photo he looks super-skinny after three weeks of racing and when I look at us in the photo I remember he had just shown me how his cell phone had blown up from receiving too many messages of congratulations. It’s time for the yellow jersey to go into a frame because it’s one of my top priorities.

And next time I have to evacuate I will take the framed yellow jersey off the wall along with the other artwork because it will always be at the top of The List.

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