Thousands of people crammed downtown Santa Rosa's plazas and sidewalks last winter, waiting with palpable anticipation. Spectators leaned over railings, craned out of second-story windows and climbed trees to get a better view. And then a chorus of shrieks and cheers trumpeted their arrival: the brilliantly colored peloton, a cluster of nearly a hundred of the world's best cyclists, shot into view.
Reaching speeds almost double the city's posted limits, pumping their muscular legs and jostling for position, the pack circled Santa Rosa's downtown three times, each circuit building up waves of excitement that carried the elated spectators ever higher.
Just about everyone was pulling for the same rider: hometown hero Levi Leipheimer. Based in Santa Rosa for the past decade, the Montana native has finished as high as sixth in 2005's Tour de France, cycling's most prestigious race.
Leipheimer, 33, kicked off last year's inaugural Tour of California by winning the prologue, a 1.9-mile course in San Francisco, and then set his sights on finishing first in the next stage which ended in Santa Rosa. Making the turn into the final circuit, riders in jerseys of emerald green, sherbet orange and scarlet fought for space at the front of the peloton. And then it was over in a photo finish, with most spectators unsure who won.
A racer who excels at steep climbs, the 5-foot-7 Leipheimer didn't finish first that day on the relatively flat course. But he was close enough to retain his overall lead. After the top three finishers received their kudos, the race announcer brought Leipheimer onto the podium to present him with a fresh golden jersey (awarded to the overall race leader at the end of each stage), and the crowd roared with adulation.
Leipheimer approached the mic, but the cheers were so loud and sustained that he couldn't get a word in. After several minutes, the adoring throng calmed down, but by then Leipheimer was so overcome with emotion he was speechless.
Almost a year later, Leipheimer remains overwhelmed by the memory. "Awesome," was how he described that day in a December interview. "It was one of the best days of my career. I couldn't believe the number of people who came to Santa Rosa."
The Santa Rosa stage wasn't the only success in the weeklong race that took the world's elite cyclists from San Francisco through the North Bay, then to the Big Sur coast en route to Los Angeles. More than a million people caught at least a glimpse of the race--1.3 million according to race organizers--making it the best attended sports event in California last year.
This year's event--which begins on Sunday, Feb. 18, with a prologue in San Francisco, moves on to the Sausalito-Santa Rosa stage on Monday, Feb. 19, and concludes in Long Beach on Feb. 25 (see "All the North Bay's a Stage" sidebar)--promises an even more demanding course. The race has been expanded to 650 miles (from about 600 last year), and organizers have created a route that has more challenging hills to go along with the time trials. To add more drama, the most significant time trial--when racers start separately and race against the clock; the one with the fastest time wins--has been moved to Stage 5, later in the race than last year.
This year, the Stage 1 course includes the rigorous climb from Bodega Bay over Coleman Valley Road into Occidental. This is the kind of ascent that Leipheimer craves; his only disappointment is that the race doesn't conclude at the top of the hill or shortly thereafter.
The reason? Even if Leipheimer puts some distance between himself and the pack, the other riders have plenty of miles to catch up. There are some other steep climbs in the tour; about 12 miles after the Stage 2 start in Santa Rosa, the riders will face the seemingly vertical Trinity Road ascent, tackling the ridge the divides Sonoma and Napa counties, one of the most grueling climbs of the race. Again, this comes too early for Leipheimer to sustain any gain during the stage, which ends in Sacramento.
But don't think for a moment that Leipheimer is complaining about the race. He's thrilled to have a world-class cycling event in the United States, and especially gratified that it's in his own backyard. "I still think it's a great race," he told me in December, "the highest quality race the U.S. has ever seen." And not just a great race for the fans, Leipheimer noted, saying, "Riders in Europe were talking about it for a month."
In Europe, where cycling has millions of passionate fans, Leipheimer is used to being recognized in public. That doesn't happen as much stateside, but he's becoming well known in the North Bay and was blown away by the number of fans exhorting him during the race.
"It definitely motivates you when people cheer for you," Leipheimer said, noting that many fans recognized him as he rode, flanked by his sky-blue-jerseyed Gerolsteiner teammates, in last year's Tour of California. This year, Leipheimer is racing for U.S.-based Discovery Channel team that Lance Armstrong led a couple of years ago when he capped his career by winning an unprecedented seventh Tour de France.
The buzz about the Tour of California has spread through the pro cycling community. This year, though the race has grown to 18 teams, so many applied that race organizers had to turn some away.
"Teams were fighting for spots," Fred Rodriguez, a three-time U.S. professional champion, told me in a recent interview. "That's impressive for an event that's only a year old. Usually, events are begging for teams to come out."
One of those 18 teams, BMC, is based in Santa Rosa. Gavin Chilcott, a retired American racer who had a string of top finishes in the 1980s, was instrumental in forming the team (BMC is a Swiss bicycle company) which has a couple of top Swiss riders. Chilcott praised this year's course and said the Coleman Valley climb should be "spectacular for photography."
Chilcott is also thrilled about the addition of the Trinity Road ascent, which was an integral part of the Coors Classic race in the 1980s. "A big group can get away up there," he said, adding "the deliberate and thoughtful course design ensures we won't know after the first hour of the race who'll cross the finish line first."
After last year's successful race, Rodriguez isn't surprised that so many riders want to join the Tour of California. "The race has everything: scenery, spectators, sponsorship," he said, exulting over rides that take in glorious coastal scenery and breathtaking mountain views. "Other than the Tour de France, I don't see anything that comes close."
Known as "Fast Freddie," Rodriguez was born in Bogota, Colombia. When he was a young boy, his family moved to Los Angeles, where Rodriguez's father owned a bike shop. "He gave me a used 10-speed bike that had been unclaimed for over a year. At the time, I was really into BMX riding. I loved being a daredevil on the bike, doing tricks, hitting the technical courses. But that quickly changed when I got on the road bike for the first time," Rodriguez said. "It was the speed that got me. It wasn't long before I realized that I had a thing for going fast."
A resident of Emeryville, Rodriguez often rides through Marin and Sonoma counties on his way to his second home at Sea Ranch. "I'll leave my home in Emeryville an hour before my wife, and we'll meet three hours later in Sea Ranch," he said. So Rodriguez was well acquainted with Sonoma's backroads as he tackled them in Stage 1 of the premier Tour of California.
Riding with the Predictor-Lotto team (the co-sponsors are the Belgian lottery and an outfit that monitors an ever bigger gamble: a Belgian pharmaceutical company specializing in pregnancy tests), Rodriguez is a sprinter who was near the front of the pack coming into Santa Rosa last year.
"To compete on my home soil is amazing--I really wanted to win here," he said. "But in the last mile [of last year's Stage 1], I flatted." Rodriguez will have another chance this year, but the sprinter recognizes that the addition of the Coleman Valley climb increases the odds against him. "There's a chance of a breakaway I can't catch."
Rodriguez and Leipheimer both say that the race gives their winter training regimen a concrete goal, motivating them to venture out even in inclement weather. The riders have some concern about rain during the February race, but given that summer is fully booked with European cycling events, February is the best time for a California tour. Due to the technical nature of much of the course, "if we have rain, it will make the race extremely hard," Leipheimer said.
Last year the cycling gods smiled on the riders, who rarely had to pedal through rain. But even with the chance of some precipitation, Rodriguez would much rather race in California during the winter than in Europe. "I don't expect freezing rain like we had in Italy," he said. "We protested the first stage [in an Italian race], because it was so cold that the descents were dangerous."
For cyclists and fans alike, the Tour of California has become the beginning of the season. It's a bright spot in the winter calendar, a first taste of the long rides of summer on the horizon.
And watching the world's best cyclists roll through the North Bay is a fine way to spend Presidents Day.
The Amgen Tour of California at a glance
Who Eighteen teams featuring more than a hundred of the world's elite cyclists.
What A weeklong 650-mile race in its second year that attracted an estimated 1.3 million spectators in its inaugural run.
When Sunday, Feb. 18, through Sunday, Feb. 25.
Where The race starts in San Francisco, travels through Marin and Sonoma counties on Presidents Day, and crosses through Napa County on Tuesday before turning south and ending in Long Beach.
Why Because cycling has become widely popular in California, and the world's top racers couldn't imagine a better place to stretch their legs in midwinter.
Watch Versus, formerly OLN, will broadcast 14 hours of race highlights each evening after the race. Except for the first and last day of the race, these broadcasts start at 8pm. For details, visit www.amgentourofcalifornia.com/race-live/tv-schedule.html.
The lowdown on your downtown
The Tour of California isn't a continuous line down the state; one stage doesn't necessarily start where the previous stage ended. Most host cities are planning festivals around the tour. Sausalito has built a weekend of events around the race, including a black-tie dinner on Friday, Feb. 16, and reception with some of the cyclists and a Tour de Cuisine on Sunday, Feb. 18, featuring local wines and nibbles from Bay Area chefs.
If you're not inclined to shell out more than your first bike cost for these exclusive events, just come out to watch the cyclists start the race at 11am on Monday, Feb. 19. The festivities in downtown Sausalito start around 9am with a health and fitness fair, live music and, rumor has it, the chance to meet some of the cyclists about 90 minutes before the starting time. For more about the Sausalito events, see www.tourofcalifornia-sausalito.com or call the chamber of commerce at 415.331.7262 or the race hotline 415.289.4109.
Santa Rosa, the finish line for the Presidents Day stage, should also be festive, with lots of booths, bands and a huge-screen TV that lets spectators watch the riders approach town. It sounds hokey, but watching the peloton, on a gigantic TV with a crowd of thousands, come up the coast last year and then seeing them, live and in-person, bursting into downtown was indescribably cool.
Santa Rosa's festival, as sophisticated and well-planned as the race, goes way beyond the typical county-fair corn dogs. There will be bike clinics, health screenings and booths, including one from San Francisco's Exploratorium museum that shows how hard a pumping heart works, how to measure lung capacity, how much electricity pedaling a bike generates and how to extract and study DNA. (The race is sponsored by Amgen, a biotech and medical research firm based in Southern California.)
Sunday Feb. 18, Prologue, San Francisco This 1.9-mile time trial starts at the Ferry Building, traverses the Embarcadero and ends at Coit Tower.
Monday Feb. 19, Stage 1, Sausalito to Santa Rosa Covering 97 miles from Sausalito to Santa Rosa, Stage 1 gets into gear with a climb from Mill Valley up Mt. Tamalpais before turning toward Muir Beach. The route continues north along the coast to Bodega Bay and turns up Coleman Valley Road, a landmark climb. Spectators can watch the stage unfold as the field heads downhill from Occidental for three finishing circuit laps in downtown Santa Rosa. Riders are expected to turn onto Coleman Valley at about 1:30pm and reach downtown Santa Rosa about 2:30pm. But these are rough estimates; if you want to be sure to see the leaders, arrive a bit early. For a close look at the route and the expected times the riders will be at certain spots, see www.amgentourofcalifornia.com.
Tuesday, Feb. 20, Stage 2, Santa Rosa to Sacramento A scenic start passing several Sonoma County wineries quickly turns into one of the most significant climbs of the race as the peloton heads east en route to Sacramento. Twelve miles from the start, Trinity Road's steep climbs and treacherous descent toward the wineries of Napa Valley will make it one of the most difficult sections of the entire race. Continuing east past Lake Berryessa, the riders will head to Davis, recently named the best cycling town in the United States by Bicycle Magazine. With a quick turn to the north, the route will follow the Sacramento River to the well-known Tower Bridge and on to the Capitol Mall. This 116-mile stage concludes with three circuits through downtown Sacramento, finishing on the front step of California's Capitol Building.
Wednesday Feb. 21, Stage 3, Stockton to San Jose After riding from Stockton to Tracy, the cyclists will encounter a climb new to this year's race, Patterson Pass. After passing through the city of Livermore, the route connects to Calaveras Road. This long, constant grade leads to perhaps the most difficult climb of the race, the Sierra Road climb in San Jose. After completing this King of the Mountain competition, the peloton will finish the 95-mile course in front of San Jose City Hall.
Thursday, Feb. 22, Stage 4, Seaside to San Luis Obispo Beginning in Seaside, the peloton will head south on scenic Highway 1, where the mountains and redwood forests flank the Pacific Ocean. At 132 miles, this is the longest stage of the race and will test the riders on hilly and technical terrain. The course goes through Big Sur and by Hearst Castle before shifting inland toward San Luis Obispo.
Friday, Feb. 23, Stage 5, Solvang Time Trial At 14.5 miles, and with the start and finish located two blocks apart, the route will highlight some of the most beautiful areas of central California, winding through quaint towns, vineyards, farms and one short but steep climb.
Saturday, Feb. 24, Stage 6, Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita This 105-mile stage starts in view of the Santa Barbara shoreline. The racers pass Lake Casitas and ride into the town of Ojai; then the course heads downhill into Santa Paula. The cyclists will end the day with three circuits in Santa Clarita.
Sunday, Feb. 25, Stage 7, Long Beach circuit race Cyclists race in 10 laps around a circuit course in downtown Long Beach. Views of San Pedro Bay and the Pacific Ocean will be visible for the entire course, with a backdrop of the famed Queen Mary. Expect a hard sprint to the finish.
A glossary of terms to make you sound like a cycling pro
attack A sudden acceleration to move ahead of another rider or group of riders.
big ringing it A "big" gear--when the rider has his chain on the larger of the two front chain rings--allows a rider to go for maximum speeds. This gearing is most often used on flat or rolling terrain.
bonk Total exhaustion caused by lack of sufficient food during a long race or ride.
break/breakaway A rider or group of riders that has left the main group behind.
caravan/race caravan The official and team support vehicles in a race.
circuit race A race that does multiple laps around a long, circuitous route.
criterium A multilap, one-day race on a closed, short course, typically one mile or less.
DNF Short for "did not finish."
domestique A team rider who will sacrifice his individual performance to help a designated teammate. Duties can include giving up one's bike for another rider, supplying refreshments to teammates and catching breakaway riders. French for "servant."
draft To ride closely behind another racer, saving energy by using that racer as a wind break.
drop/dropped When a rider has been left behind by another rider or group of riders.
echelon A staggered, long line of riders, each downwind of the rider ahead, allowing them to move considerably faster than a solo rider or small group of riders. In windy sections where there are crosswinds, a large peloton will form echelons.
feed zone A designated area along the route where riders can grab bags filled with food and drinks as they ride by. There is an unwritten rule in the peloton that riders should not attack the field while the riders are going through the feed zone.
field sprint A mass sprint at the finish among the main group of riders in a road race.
hammer To ride hard. Also, to "put the hammer down."
jump A quick acceleration, which usually develops into a sprint.
KOM King of the Mountain; award for the best climber.
lead out To intentionally sacrifice one's chances of winning in order to draft and create an opening for a rider behind. This is a racing tactic in which one rider races at high speed to give a head start to the rider on his/her wheel. This tactic is most often used in a field sprint.
mechanical Slang for a problem with the bicycle. "He had a mechanical."
off the back When a rider cannot keep pace with the main group and lags behind.
off the front When a rider takes part in a breakaway.
paceline A string of riders who move at high speed with each individual taking turns setting the pace and riding in the draft of the others.
peloton The main field, or pack, of riders in the race.
point to point road race A race in which the route travels between two separate points.
prologue One type of beginning for a stage race, which is a relatively short time trial. The Tour of California starts with a 1.9-mile prologue in San Francisco.
popped When the legs lose all power.
slipstream The area of least wind resistance behind a rider.
stage race A bike race held over successive days, with a different course each day. Stage races can last up to 21 days. The rider with the lowest total time (or accumulated points) after completion of all the stages wins the overall race.
time cut Mostly applicable to the Grand Tours. On each stage all riders must finish within a certain percentage of the winner's time to remain in the race. Those who are unable to make the cut are disqualified from the race.
time trial A race in which riders start individually and race against the clock. The fastest over a set distance is the winner. Riders can pass each other on the course but they are not allowed to draft off one another. Also known as the "race of truth."
train A fast moving paceline of riders.
wheel sucker/wheelsucking Someone who sticks to a rear wheel ahead and refuses to go to the front of the pack.
Glossary courtesy of the Amgen Tour of California, with contributions from CyclingNews.com.