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March 1, 2006
By: Bill Oetinger

The Tour of California: Stage Race Realities


Specialized AngelTwo years ago this month--in March of 2004--I wrote a column in this space called Stage Race Fantasies. It was about the dream of having a major stage race in California...something on a par with the Grand Tours in Europe. Although that essay was reprinted at other sites with more of a racing point of view, I have no idea if my vision had anything to do with the eventual emergence of the real Tour of California. In fact, I have not one bit of evidence that anyone associated with the ToC ever read my ramblings. Still, I am happy to be able to say I was out there, off the front, ringing the bell for such an event when it was still just a twinkle in the eye of the movers and shakers who finally made it happen.

But I can't even claim to have been a lonely visionary, crying in the wilderness: it would appear I had plenty of company in my point of view, judging by the massive crowds and the huge waves of publicity that have followed the event through its first, immensely successful edition. I may have had a bully pulpit for expressing my wishes for a California stage race, but somewhere on the order of a million other people shared that enthusiasm as the race traveled through their towns and along their backroads.

If you're a fan of bikes and bike racing, or even if you're simply awake and living in California, you cannot possibly have avoided some notice of this larger-than-life event. It even seems to have transcended the niche market of cycling and penetrated the mainstream news, as only Lance You-Know-Who had been able to do heretofore. I had non-cycling friends from out of state firing off e-mails to me, wondering what all the fuss was about out there in California with that big race. For a brief, shining moment, cycling was mainstream, and for all the right reasons.

Because of all that wonderful and almost uniformly positive exposure in the media, I am going to assume you already know most of the story of the race. So this is not a race recap. Nor is it some insider scoop on behind-the-scenes action during the week in question. It's more of a race fan's Monday-morning rehash. (I am, in fact, writing this on the Monday morning after the race has ended.)

The first, most obvious and most salient fact about the event is that it succeeded beyond the expectations of absolutely everyone. Those involved in the planning, promotion, and day-to-day management of the project can justifiably congratulate themselves on a job well done. But I feel sure they will also admit that beyond all their good work, they were the beneficiaries of an almost perfect storm of favorable circumstances...

The weather. Think about that: the middle of February in Northern California. The week before the event was wickedly cold, with wind, rain, hail, and even snow at some not-very-high elevations. The day before the race begins, the skies clear, the sun beams down, and it stays that way all week. Then, the very day the race ends, the more typical winter weather returns: cold and rainy.

Racers know they must sometimes ride in crappy weather, but it's nice that this first run up and down the Golden State was made under golden conditions, and not just for the sake of sparing the riders some misery. Had it rained even a little, the crowds would not have been nearly what they were, either in size or enthusiasm. Nor would the scenery have looked so good in a dismal, rainy gloom.

(In all my years of following racing, I have never heard or read so much comment about the great scenery along the race routes. Everyone involved--from racers to reporters to promoters--mentioned the scenery again and again. I don't for a minute think that California is any more scenic than the Alps or the Dolomites, or Provence or Tuscany, so what's the deal? Maybe they all thought California was wall to wall malls and freeways and were simply surprised to find it's actually quite spectacular. I don't really have an explanation for their rapture about the landscape, but beautiful weather certainly helped to show it off to its best advantage.)

Big riders and big teams. The organizers do get some of the credit for this. Not only did they convince the UCI to rate the race at a fairly exalted level, they convinced eight very strong Pro Tour teams to come over from Europe for the race. Their powers of persuasion were more than rhetorical in this case: they paid the lion's share of the bills for travel and accommodations for the teams. You'd never see the organizers of the Tour de France doing such a thing, but for a start-up event half-way around the world, it made great sense and was money well spent.

Somehow, they also managed to convince the teams to field very strong rosters of big-name talent. Partly this is due to the general strength of US cycling right now: of the eight Pro Tour teams who participated, seven had at least one US rider--only T-Mobile had none--and on most of those teams, a US rider was team leader. From a marketing point of view, this was Fat City.

Local boy and local interests. This is a subset of the topic above: you could not have scripted things any better than to have local boy Levi Leipheimer ride into his home town in the golden jersey of overall race leader at the end of the first full stage. Levi is our favorite son these days. He is a tireless promoter and praise-maker for Santa Rosa and Sonoma County as a nice place to live and a great place to train. Although he's actually from Montana, we have embraced him as our own, and we often see him out training on the same roads we ride. We even get reports from some of our friends who are strong enough to train with him. He's friendly. He's accessible. He's family.

So when he rode into town in first place, well...it was really quite extraordinary. But I want to tell that part of the story later. For now, I only want to note that it was a most propitious, fortuitous circumstance. It got the tour off on the right foot. The reception in San Francisco and Santa Rosa on the first two days was so overwhelming, so over-the-top, that a rippling shock wave of excitement preceded the peloton all the way down the state. Polite but reserved interest on the part of marginal fans suddenly blossomed into fevered expectation. Doubters became believers.

So that's all good news, but there was a little bad news too. The good news about the bad news is there was very little of it. I'm going to itemize a few little problems here in the hope that by next year, the organizers will have figured out how to get them right. Let's not call it complaining or criticism. Let's just call it helpful suggestions.

No mountaintop finish. This is the single biggest challenge for the race in future. I'll assume you understand race tactics, so won't belabor the obvious too much: without a defining, decisive hill finish, there is simply no way for the riders to create any significant time gaps except in the time trial(s). In theory, a breakaway might have accomplished this, but with the race only a week long and with no hill finishes, the strong teams know better than to let a break succeed, and if the majority of the strong teams don't want a break to succeed, it ain't gonna happen.

So it all comes down to the time trials...to tiny increments in the prologue and bigger bites in the one true time test. Have a good day in the time trial and you're home free. I take nothing away from Floyd Landis. He threw down a monster time trial, with his goofy looking aero bar position. Awesome ride. And he did well all week, to stay in the hunt before the trial and to control things afterward. All credit to him and his good team.

But it pretty well renders the rest of the stage race meaningless with respect to the GC. The racers understand this and it won't take the average fan long to figure it out either. That's not good for building and maintaining interest all through the event.

There are a couple of reasons why addressing this problem will be tricky. One is timing. California is blessed with many, many high passes that would be wonderful for a mountaintop finish. They're the equal of anything in Europe. I refer to a few of them in my Stage Race Fantasies essay and to more in another piece I did called Inyo Face. But almost all of them are still closed by snow in mid-February.

Sierra Road, in the East Bay hills, was the biggest, baddest climb of the tour, but it was positioned almost 20 miles from the finish...too far away. The climb would have had to be longer and harder to be that far from the end and still allow a determined rider to stay away. We watched that climb from about two-thirds of the way up, and all of the major players were still together when they passed us. Three riders ultimately managed to put a few seconds between themselves and the rest of that lead bunch, but it wasn't nearly enough, and it came back together at the end. Ditto for the other Category 1 climb: San Marcos Pass and the long descent to Santa Barbara that followed. It's interesting to note that George Hincapie won both those stages. In neither case was he the first over the summits, but in both cases he was a good enough climber to stay close and had a strong enough team to pull him back to the leaders, and then he had enough left for the small field sprints contested among those few who got over the mountains in good shape.

Had Stage 2 ended at the summit of Sierra Road, things might have been a bit different. The very best climbers might have truly buried themselves to put the biggest possible gap into their rivals. Had it not been the day before the all-important, one-and-only time trial, the same go-for-broke mindset might have been more of a factor as well. Leipheimer was first over both of those big summits but was caught both times before the finish. In his post-tour diary, he didn't exactly complain about this, but he did say they need a hilltop finish to counterbalance the time trial.

There are a few exceptions in California to the snow zone problem, in the more temperate coastal mountains. None of those climbs is as massive and definitive as a true HC climb, but they might be long and steep enough to put some gaps in amongst the leaders. Sierra Road might do the job. Another likely venue--for just one example--might be Gibraltor Road above Santa Barbara. Depending on how the route approached the big ascent, it could be up to ten miles long with up to 3700' of gain, some of it quite steep. That would sort things out. Mount Tamalpais, Mount Hamilton, and Mount Diablo are all worthy candidates in the Bay Area, just to name a few.

There are other gnarly walls up and down the state that might accomplish the same thing, but that leads us to the next part of the problem: as realtors like to say, “Location, location, location!” The race is still in its infancy, and it needs big crowds and big support. For that, it needs cities for its stage finishes. Unfortunately, we don't have any ancient Italian hill villages perched on any of our likely mountaintop finish sites. The best climbs all end in the middle of nowhere. Until the promoters feel confident enough about their ability to draw a big crowd to a remote mountaintop and until they're sure they can properly handle the infrastructure needed for the finish in such a remote spot, it's unlikely to happen. I hope I'm wrong about this, because it's essential to the long-term health of the event to give the climbers the scope they need to do their thing. Otherwise, what's the point?

TV coverage. Okay...enough about the hills. Let's look at the boob tube. Now here, the organizers really laid an egg. Admittedly, this was their first attempt at televising a race, so we'll cut them some slack this time. But they will have to do better--much better--next year. We're just thrilled all to pieces that we had any TV at all. Cutting the deal with ESPN was absolutely golden. But having pulled off that wonderful coup, they didn't do much with the air time they had.

First of all, they need more cameras and better moto work. It was all very rough. (Makes you appreciate just how good those guys are at the Tour de France and Giro, doesn't it?) My biggest gripe though was the lack of on-screen graphics, in particular clocks. The time trial and prologue were pointless wastes of time as spectator entertainment without a running clock to show the relative progress and placement of the riders. Imagine having watched the recent Olympic ski events without on-screen clocks to tell us the split times in positive or negative numbers. And that's for races that are at most two minutes long. Now do it for a race that takes half an hour. Without a clock, a cycling time trial is about as exciting as watching paint dry.

Finally, with several hours to edit their tape before the late-night recap, the show's producers did a rather haphazard job of telling their story. In the prologue, for instance, they had many minutes of screen time for several riders who weren't factors at all--on that day or any other--but coverage of Leipheimer's electrifying run was almost non-existent: a few seconds of him poised in the start house and then maybe the final ten seconds of his dash up to Coit Tower. Nothing in between. Bizarre! They didn't do much better with Landis in the big time trial. Loads of footage of other, less important figures, but only snippets of the big winner making the biggest move of the entire week. What were they thinking?

Champagne and podium girls. All right, I admit this one is a bit frivolous and possibly even politically incorrect. But where were zee podium girls--ooh la la!--and where was the champagne? If the promoters decided the podium girls were an inappropriate relic from a bygone era, and that they trivialize women, etc, etc, then I can understand that thinking. But if they cut out the cuties simply to save a few bucks or because they just didn't want to be bothered with another layer of logistics, then shame on them. They don't need a different set of models in different outfits for the KOM and Sprint jerseys as well as the GC presentation. It's just a little race. We'll settle for one set of podium girls for all occasions.

Specialized Angel Blowing a Kiss to LeviThere were at least the Clif Bar girls, and above all--literally--there was the Specialized Angel. Politically incorrect or not, I found her enchanting and a stroke of minor marketing genius on the part of someone. She did a great job and had people talking all through the week.

As for the bubbly, or lack of bubbly, what's up with that? How can you have a post-race podium bash without popping the top on some sparkly stuff and spewing it all over the crowd? I did see Floyd wrestling with a bottle at the finish in Redondo Beach, but I never saw any champagne on display elsewhere. Could they really not afford six bottles for the six prior stages? I betcha that when Korbel saw the scale of the massive celebration in downtown Santa Rosa, in the very heart of Wine Country, they had to be kicking themselves for not having donated a few bottles to the production. You couldn't buy publicity that good at any price.

Speaking of the finish in Santa Rosa, let me now get back to that. It was--for me, and for many others--the defining moment of the tour. We had watched the racers go by on the biggest hill out on the course, then raced like mad to get to Santa Rosa in time for the finish. But the traffic on the little country roads was too slow and the racers were too fast, and so we missed the sprint finish by about five minutes. But we hung around to check out the jumpin' bike expo that filled all of the main town square, and we were there for the awards ceremony.

Those who claimed to know estimated (ahead of time) that the crowd at the finish might approach 30,000 if the weather was nice. The weather was nicer than nice. It was gorgeous. And the crowd turned out to be more like 50,000. I'm not a big crowd person. I was at Altamont, and I have seen what a crowd can do when it turns ugly. But this was as far from that as it is possible to be. There was a happy, energetic vibe that had everyone smiling, high-fiving, and hugging. For the record, this was by far the largest crowd assembled in Santa Rosa for any event, ever. It was a very big deal.

From what I've heard on the grapevine and read in the local paper, everything went as smoothly as it could possibly have gone, and everyone, at all levels, was ecstatic at the outcome. The mayor was quoted as saying, "It exceeded our greatest expectations by 1000%!" That seemed to be the feeling of everyone...cyclists and non-cyclists alike; promoters, police, downtown merchants, local politicos, the news media, on and on.

LeviBut the real clincher was the awards presentation. It took them awhile to get organized, but eventually they got their show up and running...dragged the winners out of their team buses and up to the podium. They did the minor awards and then did the one for the stage winner, JJ Haedo. I don't think most folks knew that JJ is a local boy too. Yeah, he's from Argentina, but he lives and trains in Santa Rosa now, same as Levi. But regardless, he got a great hand from the huge crowd.

Then Levi came out to accept the golden jersey for overall leader of the tour. If you only saw it on TV, you have no idea what went down. You will have seen only a few seconds of his waving to the crowd. But it was so much more than that. As I sit here typing this, I get goose bumps all over again, remembering what happened next...

50,000 people started to cheer. They cheered and they roared and they cheered some more and they clapped and whistled and howled and banged on anything that would make a noise, and they...would...not...stop. The wave of sound simply swelled up to the sky and kept on and on. I won't attempt to say how long it lasted. The moment was timeless. At one point, the roar seemed to be easing off just bit, but no...it took off again, as if the collective voice of the throng was saying, "No, dammit! We are not done! We are going to holler and hoot and scream our little brains out until sundown or sunup or next week if we want to!" Poor Levi just stood there, utterly transfixed, almost like the proverbial deer in the headlights. If you know him, you know he's a quiet, unassuming guy. He does not live for the limelight. He's had his share of podiums before, but this was something quite special...in his hometown and all. He was totally blown away.

Finally, finally, after what seemed like forever, the noise subsided to a level where the emcee could stick a mike in Levi's face and ask him what he thought of it all. And Levi pulls this classic "aw, shucks" deal, like Gary Cooper channeling Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees. He manages--barely--to say he's too choked up to say anything. And the crowd loves their humble little hero and sets off on another rolling roar that lasts another long while.

I don't know if I'm getting this across. Maybe you had to be there. But it was quite a moment, something I will treasure forever. I felt we were all part of something extraordinary...one of life's tipping points, where you know nothing on the other side of that moment will ever be quite the same as it was before. With all due respect to Levi, I think it was more than just a cheer for him. It was certainly all of that, but it was more, as if Levi were a conduit through which we were all expressing some larger truth, some common angst.

I don't want to make too much of this because I do realize it was just a little bike race in a little town in a small county off on the left coast. I got my reality check that evening when I watched the sports report on the news and they spent one minute on the bike race and ten minutes on whether or not Barry Bonds was going to retire this year or next year. But that perspective notwithstanding, I still felt powerfully moved. I felt like that long, rolling cheer was a huge expression of affirmation and solidarity for all cyclists and most especially for California cyclists and North Bay cyclists. We were cheering for ourselves.

Not only were we excited to be taking our place on the legitimate stage of world-class cycling--with world-class riders in a world-class event on our very own backroads!--we were also, at least for the moment, exorcising the demons of a lifetime of having been treated as second-class citizens in our own land...of having been yelled at and swerved at and flipped off and pelted with garbage; of having been ridiculed and insulted and trivialized and misunderstood. Now, finally, we had arrived. We were center stage...the real deal. We were the representatives and practitioners of something very cool, something that the larger world might respect and find of interest and worth. Instead of being out on the edge, we were the cutting edge.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into the moment, but from what I've picked up in numerous accounts of the event, I am certainly not alone in thinking that something remarkable happened on that February afternoon in Old Courthouse Square. Levi has mentioned it again and again in virtually every interview he's done since then. And while he may be the one most central to it, he's not the only one who noticed. Many others have made similar comments about being blown away by the intensity of the moment...the positive, upbeat power of that happy horde.

So now what? The race is a runaway bestseller. Those in charge have the world by the tail. What they have to do now is not rest on their laurels. They could not possibly have had a better beginning, but for it to continue, they need to work hard on all the big and little details that will grow the race to the point where not having it would be unthinkable. There have been stage races in California before, and they have all vanished almost without a trace. There was a Tour of California in 1971, using many of these same roads. We had world-class fields for the old Coors Classic in the 80's. There was the glorious San Francisco Grand Prix as recently as last fall, but now it's only a bittersweet memory, run out of town in a flurry of finger pointing and petty wrangling.

Compared with the major stage races in Europe, the Tour of California is still very small potatoes. As long as it's a one-week, late-winter event, it always will be. But it has already carved out for itself a significant date on the annual racing calendar. Sponsors and racers and local municipalities will all be looking at it in a new light next time around. With hard work and wise decisions and unwavering integrity, the organizers can nurture this good beginning into something much bigger and better...something of real substance. We look forward to that with the keenest anticipation. And we look backward at what we've just experienced with amazement and delight. Dreams can come true.

Note - no longer used as of 12/10/06. use columns-detail instead. Left this page on server.


Stage Race Fantasies

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