Tour pedals away from S.F. in favor of Palo Alto

The City’s streets will be left to local cyclists this Sunday.

Gone will be the pomp and circumstance surrounding the prologue of the Amgen Tour of California, which after two years in San Francisco has been moved to Palo Alto. Last year’s event drew an estimated crowd of 280,000-300,000 fans to watch riders race down the Embarcadero before finishing with a climb up Telegraph Hill.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said the event will be missed.

“It would have been nice to have it in San Francisco,” he said. “This bike race would have been a good thing for The City and it’s a good thing for the state.”

Michael Roth, the vice president of corporate communications for AEG, the presenter of the race, said the prologue’s change in locale will allow a different group of fans to experience the Tour first-hand.

“We try every year to bring the race to new cities,” Roth said. “We just felt this was a good year to expose not only new challenges to the cyclists but to bring the race to the strong group of cycling clubs at Stanford University.”

Stockton and Pasadena have also been added to this year’s 650-mile race, as organizers have tweaked the course to include a flatter prologue and steeper gradients in later stages.Strong climber Levi Leipheimer is a two-time winner of the prologue and went on to record a wire-to-wire overall victory last year. Other riders say the smoother terrain this year might level the playing field.

“I would assume that’s why the prologue is flat,” Health Net Pro Cycling Team rider Frank Pipp said. “Last year with Telegraph Hill, that kind of course will suit a guy who can climb really well. I think it could be a little different this year.”

The 2.1-mile Palo Alto route will take riders around the Stanford Oval before a sprint to the finish at the intersection of Palm Drive and Museum Way on the school’s campus.

It’s expected to take each individual cyclist less than 5 minutes to complete the course, and the new site has at least one participant excited.

“When I heard where the prologue would be, it was in the exact location I would have chosen,” said Bernard van Ulden, a Hillsdale High School graduate who is a member of Team Jelly Belly. “I train a lot on these roads, andpeople from the cycling world will get to see what Northern California has to offer.”

Roth did not rule out the possibility of bringing the Tour back to San Francisco in the future.

“We would love to return to San Francisco,” Roth said. “The Bay Area will always be part of the race [and] there are few more scenic icons [than San Francisco] in the state.”

Astana out of Tour de France

The exclusion of the Astana cycling team from the Tour de France will not affect its status in the Amgen Tour of California, race organizers said Wednesday.

Tour de France officials announced Wednesday that Astana, which features Alberto Contador (its defending champion) and Levi Leipheimer (the reigning Tour of California champion) will be banned from this year’s race because of “damage caused by this team to the Tour de France and cycling in general, both in 2006 and 2007,” Tour de France officials said. In 2006, Astana did not participate in the Tour de France after being connected to the Operation Puerto blood-doping scandal. Last year, the team removed itself from the race after title contender Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for a blood transfusion following his victory in the 13th stage.

“All of the teams have agreed to our drug testing program, which is more aggressive than any others,” said Andrew Messick, the president of AEG Sports. “We’ve never had a problem with Levi or Astana, and I think that going forward we will continue to be very particular with respect to who we invite to participate in the race.”

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