Beginning Sunday, February 19, the excitement of a bicycling stage race will zip 600 miles through California from north to south. Much in the style of the very famous race that covers France each summer and is usually won by an American, the Amgen Tour of California will be divided into eight leg-busting days, or stages. The race begins in San Francisco, leads north into the wine country, circles back and onto Highway 1 for a southward coast run, and finally terminates in Redondo Beach on February 26. Santa Barbara lies smack in the path of the riders. Stage 5 ends just west of Stearns Wharf on Friday, February 24, and Stage 6 begins the following morning. To celebrate the event, a festival will be held at the Stage 5 finish line as the riders come into town. Cycling, both recreational and competitive, is a growing sport in the United States, and local promoters expect as many as 10,000 people to attend the one-day Santa Barbara festival. “The goal is to eventually rival the Tour de France in spectatorship and the level of the competition,” says Barney Berglund, chairman of the local organizing committee.
Berglund says that although other annual stage races do take place in the United States — such as the Tour de Georgia — none can boast of the star power that will be competing in the upcoming California tour. “The Tour de Georgia has never had the level of international teams that will be attending this first Amgen race, and the exciting thing is that there are a lot of great American riders.” Berglund says that with Lance Armstrong’s recent retirement from competitive cycling, American promoters of the sport are working to ensure that the popularity of cycling continues to grow on domestic soil, and that the cycling craze built by Armstrong’s domination of the Tour de France does not wither. “They want to see the enthusiasm of the last seven years continue.”
The Amgen Tour of California will consist of 16 teams and about 130 athletes. They will visit 10 cities, including San Francisco, Santa Rosa, San Jose, Monterey, San Louis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Thousand Oaks, and Redondo Beach. The eight stages range in distance from the 1.9-mile time trial stage in San Francisco to the 130-mile Monterey-to-San Luis Obispo “Queen Stage.” The total mileage measures out at 596.2 miles.
The Tour de France, meanwhile, usually covers 2,500 miles, yet even to arrange the relatively short Amgen tour was a tremendous logistical undertaking, reports Berglund; the route has had to be changed several times in recent months as various CHP offices reconsidered their plans of cordoning off certain roadways. The alterations reduced the length of the route by 100 miles, but Berglund is confident that enthusiasm for the event will only grow over time and that in the future the tour will receive greater liberty to go where it wants. Still in its infancy, however, the Amgen race must organize itself around the bigger, established tours. “They had to plan this race for the beginning of the year so it wouldn’t block the European races,” explains Berglund, “but they eventually want to do it later in the season so they can add mountain stages.”
The Sierra Nevada, of course, will be buried in snow for months more, yet some difficult, snow-free ascents await competitors in the Amgen tour as they travel down the Big Sur coast, past San Luis Obispo, and onward toward the finish line in Redondo Beach. In fact, the February 24 climb over Highway 154 as riders enter Santa Barbara marks the loftiest point in the race. Berglund says the racers will move at 18 to 20 miles per hour up the back side and will descend at more than 50 mph. Meanwhile, the Amgen Lifestyle Festival in Santa Barbara begins at 10:30 a.m. on West Cabrillo Boulevard, between Chapala and Castillo. Amgen is a biotech company that specializes in human therapeutics and medical research, and visitors to the festival will find information on cancer awareness and treatment. Some proceeds from the bike race, in fact, will go toward cancer research. Other festivities will include a health and fitness expo, cycling gear, family activities, live entertainment, and a big-screen TV to keep the crowd tuned in to the race as the riders move toward town. The first cyclists are expected to arrive at approximately 2 p.m., and winning jerseys will be distributed on the stage at 3 p.m. The jerseys, which are granted after each day’s ride, go to the best athletes in various categories and aspects of the race.
These include the strongest mountain cyclist, the fastest sprinter, the most aggressive cyclist, and the most promising rider less than 23 years of age. The stars of pro cycling may not be as well known to Americans as our baseball and basketball icons, but they are tremendous athletes in their own field. Some of the big names competing in the Amgen Tour of California are Levi Leip- heimer, George Hincapie, Bobby Julich, and Gilberto Simoni — all veterans of the renowned summertime tours of Europe. Each of these cyclists enjoys the status of “protected rider”; each is a valuable asset to their teammates, who shield them from the headwind as they move together across level terrain. This trick is called “drafting” and it prepares these star cyclists for punishing climbs, where they tear ahead on legs of steel. Like Lance Armstrong, these cyclists are the ones who win races, and they are the ones to watch out for just before 2 p.m. on February 24 as they charge over San Marcos Pass.