As the Tour of California rolls into its second year, the young event has quickly blossomed from a burgeoning experiment in domestic road racing to a pro cycling phenomenon.
The seven-stage, 647.5-mile tour through some of the state’s most stunning scenery began last year as something of an experiment.
"The race has been a vision within AEG for almost five years," said Shawn Hunter, president of AEG Sports, which produces the race. "We decided to pull the trigger on doing it about two years ago."
After gaining sponsorship from the Thousand Oaks-based biotechnology firm Amgen, AEG set out to produce a Tour de France-style race that would bring cycling to the forefront of the United States sports scene, as well as establishing the United States as a player on the international scene. It seems to have worked.
The race drew 1.3 million spectators and generated $100 million in revenue for the state last year, Hunter said. This year, race organizers have garnered twice the television time and have expanded Internet coverage as well. Race announcer Dave Towle described cycling as "high-speed NASCAR meets chess meets marathon."
With mega-stars such as Lance Armstrong bringing attention to the United States as a cycling force, more and more Americans are hopping on bikes of their own, as well as tuning in to watch races. Part of the draw, Towle said, is that fans can use the same equipment and compare their own ability to that of the stars.
"I could never get into [a Formula One] car, but I can see what I can do with Lance Armstrong’s bike," Towle said. Hunter called cycling the "new executive golf."
The Tour of California quickly gained a good reputation among riders, both as a well-organized race with perks such as promotional iPods and DVD players, and as a beautiful, fun course. This year, there are 18 teams, up from 16 in the inaugural race.
"I’m not sure if it’s even so much the course or the race itself, but California has always had a huge cycling community and it’s always been super-supportive of cycling in general," said 2005 U.S. champion Chris Wherry, who rides for Toyota-United. "Riders see opportunity to ... come and race in front of an audience that is educatedand really excited about bike racing."
But the course, which Hunter called a "600-mile rolling postcard for the world," is a draw for cyclists, too.
For American cyclists, the real draw is the chance to represent the United States in the biggest race on home turf. Plus, as McCartney pointed out, "it’s great because it means we’re home an extra month at the beginning of the season."
Watch a quick video of a racer making the climb up to the finish line at Coit Tower in last year's prologue, an individual time trial in San Francisco (below):
WHAT: Second Tour of California cycling race
WHEN: Eight-day race begins Sunday at 1 p.m. on the Embarcadero
WHERE: 12 cities are highlighted, starting in San Francisco, north to Santa Rosa, then east to Sacramento before heading south to San Jose and finishing in Long Beach
LENGTH: The eight stages (including two time trials and a circuit race) cover 647.5 miles
DEFENDING CHAMPION: Floyd Landis
MORE INFO: Visit www.amgentourofcalifornia.com
For the latest news and features about the race, be sure to check our special Amgen Tour of California page.