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Bells, not whistles 

You've got your zinc oxide for your nose and your extra-wide lawn chair for your rear and, water bottle in hand, you've staked out the perfect spot to watch the USA Pro Cycling Challenge riders fly by. That's all you really need to enjoy the upcoming race, but if you'd like to know a bit more about the men, and the traditions, hitting our town, we've done the research (thanks in particular to top cycling websites such as the Tour de France, Bicycling magazine, and cyclingnews.com).

Moo-ving them along

First of all, leave your whistles at home. The noise-maker of choice for cycling races is the cowbell.

Historically used by herders to keep track of their cows, the metal instrument has become a favorite at sports events of all types. No one really knows why.

Theories abound — from the first fans of baseball plucking them from cow pastures (where games were often played), to cyclocross racers wearing them in the early days to help bystanders know where those riders were making paths. Ski fans appreciate their wide handles, which makes them easily held with mittened hands.

Local pro cyclist Alison Dunlap can't explain the history, either, but she can appreciate the noise. "If you're having a great day, you love it. If you're having a bad day, then, yeah, they drive you crazy. ... It just adds to the excitement and the chaos of the moment, and when you hear the cowbell, you know that the fans are paying attention. They're interested. They're excited. It's much better to hear that then to hear nothing."

Of course, she says, laughing, "I just keep thinking of that [Saturday Night Live] skit. 'More cowbell!'"

All decked out

Race organizers tend to look to the Tour de France in setting rules and such, and the Challenge has followed suit with most of its, well, suits. Here are the special jerseys racers can win.

Yellow: Awarded to the rider, according to the Challenge, with the "least amount of elapsed time over the entire race." In other words, the race leader. It's widely accepted that the color comes from the page color of L'Auto, the French magazine that first organized the race.

Though the Tour de France debuted in 1903, it took L'Auto editor Henri Desgrange 16 years to add the distinctive jersey so that spectators could easily find the leader among the peloton. The Challenge has taken the Tour's solid yellow and added a checkerboard design.

Red: Given to the "strongest climber through steep grades," this jersey is also known as the King of the Mountains jersey. Perhaps a little less dignified than the others, this jersey sports polka dots on a solid background — in the Tour, it's white with red dots; here, it'll be red with white dots. Those dots represent a type of candy made by one of the oldest chocolate companies in France, Chocolat Poulain. The title has been awarded since 1933, but the dots weren't added until 1975, when Chocolat Poulain became its sponsor.

Green: Also known as the sprinter's jersey, green goes to the rider who "accumulates the most bonus points, which are given based on sprint line performances as well as finishing the stage in top-15 places." The color links back to the lawn-mower company that first sponsored the title in 1953.

Blue and white: The Tour gives the best young rider a white jersey. The Challenge has updated the look with a blue-and-white argyle print given to the rider, age 22 or younger, who has accumulated the "least amount of time over entire race." This tradition started at the Tour in 1975, and you can add three more years on to still be considered "young" in French eyes.

Orange: While the Tour doesn't award an orange jersey, it does offer the most aggressive rider, or "most combative," different back numbers (white on red, instead of the traditional black on white). The Challenge has chosen to give the rider "who best asserts himself in the peloton and tackles the challenges of the day" an orange-striped jersey, sponsored by Exergy Development Group, a company focused on large-scale renewable energy projects.

Smooches

Now that you know what jerseys the cyclists might win, you should know a little about the way they receive them.

After each stage, winners end up on a podium. According to author Hugh Dauncy in The Tour de France: 1903-2003: "Since the 1920s ... At the photocall for the winner of each stage, there was regularly a kiss from a specially chosen local beauty."

Today the "local beauty" is not typically local, but is often a model vetted by sponsors and hired to kiss the winner on either cheek, and help him don his new jersey. And while it may be tradition, it's also not without controversy in today's world.

"I think it's sexist," Dunlap says. "They're just up there because they've got big boobs and they're beautiful."

She does give some leeway to the Tour de France, with its long history, but she adds, "When I see podium girls at the, like, Tour of California, or the races here in the U.S., it feels very contrived. It just seems silly to me.

"It's like, why do you need this beautiful woman who has nothing to do with cycling, on stage giving you a kiss? And they don't do it for the women [cyclists]. I mean, the women don't have podium boys."

Shiny, happy legs

Post-race, when you're strolling down Tejon Street wanting to wrangle an autograph, the best way to pick the pros out from the crowd is their clean-shaven legs. Why do cyclists take razors from ankle to thigh (or belt)? Answers range from improved aerodynamics to better post-race massage to easier wound care.

Of course, cyclists don't shave their arms, or typically heads and faces, so the most accepted reason seems to be tradition. According to former frame builder and amateur cycling historian Dave Moulton, pro cyclists have been removing leg hair for more than 100 years — "probably longer than ladies have been."

kakens@csindy.com

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