Tour of California: Pro-cycling race, California-style

Credit: Jamie McDonald/AFP/Getty Images
Call it a travelogue on two wheels, a pro cycling race that begins one week from today in San Francisco and finishes eight days later just south of Los Angeles at Redondo Beach.

Part scenic postcard. Part intense competition. Part pileup waiting to happen.

The Amgen Tour of California's 600-mile route takes in everything from the vineyards of Sonoma County to the suburbs of Silicon Valley to the inspirational vistas of Big Sur. At one level, it's a test of individual skill for 128 of the world's top cyclists. But it's also a test of a different sort:

  • Can a sport whose premier event through the French countryside captures the public's imagination every July find remotely similar success closer to home in February?
  • Can it be done without Lance Armstrong, the retired king of many mountains, who broadened the appeal of what had been a niche sport?
  • Can it be done with minimal disruption to homes and businesses along the route?

The right time, the right place

Organizers, who say they will spend $35 million over the next five years trying to establish California as a major stop on the international cycling calendar, say the answer to those questions is yes.

"This is the right place and the right time to do this," said Bob Colarossi, the former head of USA Gymnastics hired by the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) as the race's managing director. "I was blown away by the traction cycling has in California."

The state, which has assigned California Highway Patrol officers to create a rolling roadblock to keep inevitable traffic headaches to a minimum, seems to agree. So do cities along the route -- including San Jose, the finish line for the race's third day and site of its only time trials -- that are contributing resources and hope to reap economic benefits.

Competitors understand the context.

"Cycling is very much in an elevated status right now compared to what it was three or four or six years ago," said Tom Danielson, a Discovery Channel teammate of Armstrong's last season.

For one thing, he said, Discovery Channel cyclists now get recognized in airports -- even without you-know-who.

"It's up to us to see that it continues," Danielson said, noting that the Tour of California could be a significant showcase. "This race goes through a lot of neighborhoods, and if we can make one person on each street a fan of cycling, it'll have a big impact."

A different kind of sport

For many Californians, the race will be their first chance to take a close look at a competition that -- at most -- they've intermittently followed on TV.

What they'll see is a sport that's a polar opposite of others:

  • There are no tickets to buy. Fans just stake out a spot anywhere along the route and wait for the athletes to arrive.
  • Cycling doesn't hide from its doping problems. Amgen, the race's title sponsor, manufactures EPO -- a banned performance-enhancing drug. The company hopes to educate people about EPO's proper use in treating anemia. Health festivals will be set up at the finish line of each stage.
  • It's a team sport that glorifies individual accomplishment. Few know -- or care -- which team won the 2005 Tour de France. Everybody knows Lance and his seven consecutive victories. It's as if it doesn't matter whether the Los Angeles Lakers win another NBA game as long as Kobe Bryant gets his 50 points every night.
Yet the supporting cast is important. Just as Bryant couldn't get those points without teammates pulling down rebounds and setting screens, Armstrong could not have won without teammates who pedaled just ahead of him, creating the draft that allowed him to maintain speed while conserving energy.

The Tour of California is a stage race, and the scoring system can be arcane. Basically, the winner is the cyclist with the best cumulative time -- no matter how many, or how few, individual stages he wins.

Sixteen teams will compete, eight from the elite European circuit that rides in the Tour de France. Their presence -- and that of top cyclists Levi Leipheimer, Bobby Julich, George Hincapie, Floyd Landis, David Zabriskie and Danielson -- gives the Tour of California instant credibility.

"California will have an unprecedented starting field," said Chris Aronhalt, president of Medalist Sports, the company hired by AEG to manage the event.

Medalist also runs the Tour de Georgia, the top stage race in the United States the past three years. Georgia has never attracted more than six European teams, but cycling sources say comparisons between the two are premature.

Yet at least one official sees California becoming the more prestigious race. "It's the course ... and the fact you're in California," said Jim Ochowicz, president of USA Cycling and a two-time Olympian who moved to Palo Alto from Milwaukee five years ago.

The other eight teams in the Tour of California compete only in United States events. The talent gap between the two groups is significant. That said, a domestic racer could win a stage next week. In part, that's because U.S. and European teams may see the event differently.

"For us, it's become our most important race," said Robin Zellner, director sportif, or coach, of Nevada, a Northern California-based domestic team. "But it's February. The European teams could see this as purely a training race because guys are gearing up for the Tour de France."

The route

Jim Burrell, a partner of Aronhalt's at Medalist Sports, established the route. "We had overall objectives -- we knew we had to start in the Bay Area and finish in Los Angeles," he said. "We knew we were constrained by the number of days."

The California tourism board, he added, couldn't be happier with the final route:

  • A short, 1.9-mile prologue in San Francisco. A stage through redwoods from Sausalito to Santa Rosa. Another through the East Bay foothills from Martinez to San Jose, where individual time trials will be held the next day.
  • A 130-mile ride on Highway 1 from Monterey to San Luis Obispo. Two more stages, from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara, then down to Thousand Oaks. A final-day finish with 10 laps on a 7.65-mile circuit in Redondo Beach.
The San Jose segments could play a significant role in the race's outcome.

"You aren't going to win the race in San Jose," said Dave Towle, the voice of the tour. "But you can lose it going through here."

Mountains and time trials separate the peloton, or pack. The race's steepest stretch is the 3.8-mile climb up Sierra Road off Piedmont Road in East San Jose and the only time trials -- where individual skill is all that matters -- are those in Coyote Valley.

Any outdoor event near the California coast in February is a weather risk, but a jammed cycling calendar left little choice. Rain isn't likely to stop the race, but it could thin out the crowds that AEG hopes will total a million people. Still, the cycling community sees this as a great time to get things rolling.

A social thing

"There is definitely the momentum that Lance created," said USA Cycling's Ochowicz. "It still exists today. Events like this are going to allow that to find new forms."

Even if the tour doesn't convert thousands to cycling, some see the event as a potential party waiting to happen.

"I've been to two Tours de France, I've been to the tour in Italy and it's a social thing," said Scott Nichols of Santa Rosa, owner of Ibis Bicycles and a Medalist advisor. "People here don't understand how you spend three or four hours waiting around just to see the peloton go by," he added. "But the thing is, you're drinking this guy's homemade grappa, and his wife has made a frittata. It's like this great tailgate party."

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