Riders get into gear early for Tour

For many domestic riders, the Amgen Tour of California’s spot near the kickoff of the cycling season is a recipe for a heady mix of anticipation and uncertainty.

“It’s like doing the Super Bowl without playing any of the other games,” said Roman Kilum, an Oakland resident and member of the Health Net Pro Cycling Team.

While more Europeans — including Italian sensation Paolo “The Cricket” Bettini — are flocking to the Tour with several races already under their belt this year, most domestic riders have only had one or two local races to prepare, Kilum said.

“The biggest challenge is getting motivated to do the big effort into winter,” he said. “You feel good in training, but until you get out there,you don’t know how you are, really.”

Despite the uncertainty, the Tour of California is the biggest and most important race of the year for Health Net, which doesn’t race in Europe. It is also a hometown race for Kilum.

“A lot of roads we’re going to race on are roads I train on and that’s really special,” he said.

Even from those outside the Golden State, the fact that the race is held in California is a major selling point.

For Chicago native Christian Vande Velde, there’s no question in the draw of sunny days.

“Is the weather a factor? What do you think? It was minus-3 degrees when I left Chicago,” he said with a laugh.

For Vande Velde, a member of Team Slipstream and son of two-time Olympian John Vande Velde, the enthusiasm of the fans also enhances its appeal.

“The U.S. hasn’t had anything to really look at since the Tour de France, no big event for cycling enthusiasts to see their stars and heroes,” he said. “California’s a hotbed for cycling and outdoor sports in general.”

Most riders appreciate the nice hotels and highly organized production of the race as well, Vande Velde said.

Health Net rider Rory Sutherland said that while the prize money in European races is generally greater, the excitement around the Tour of California is unsurpassed.

“I’ve done some of the big races, grand tours and World Cup classics in Europe. The response in San Francisco at the first stage last year was amazing. The supporters here cheer for all the riders. Some don’t know who anyone is, they’re just excited,” he said. “In the Tour of Italy, there were some stages where only a few people came out to watch. Here, you see school kids outside screaming and shops making a day of it.”

tbarak@examiner.com

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