Tour de Force

The Amgen Tour of California—U.S. cycling’s premier racing event—comes to town this month, bringing superstar Lance Armstrong and a host of top riders to the state capital. Here’s everything you need to know about the race. This month, Sacramentans will get to see some of the world’s top athletes compete in a world-class event on their very own streets.
For free.
On Valentine’s Day, the Amgen Tour of California will bring more than 125 elite cyclists—including Lance Armstrong—to town for the start of a nine-day race that starts in Sacramento and ends in Escondido, north of San Diego.
It promises to be an exciting spectacle, even if you’re not a cycling fan.
About 100,000 spectators are expected to flood into downtown Sacramento for the race on Saturday, Feb. 14. Twenty-six city blocks near the Capitol will be closed to traffic and used as a racecourse. Big TV screens will be set up on Capitol Mall so people can see the elite riders whiz past the finish line. Before the race, the course will be opened to the public for a “Mayor’s Ride” hosted by Hizzoner Kevin Johnson. 
The race will be preceded by several days’ worth of parties and events, including a $300-a-ticket gala at the Memorial Auditorium that anyone can attend. (Anyone with enough money, that is.) 
Oh, did we that mention Lance Armstrong will be there?
Landing Lance, and getting the nod as the overall start city for the Tour of California, are big deals for little old Sacramento. We don’t get Super Bowls and World Series here, but we do sometimes attract the next tier of sporting events. A major stop on the international cycling circuit, the Tour of California is the U.S. equivalent of the Tour de France, Italy’s Giro d’Italia and Spain’s Vuelta a España—racing’s premier events. 
“This is huge,” says John McCasey, executive director of the Sacramento Sports Commission, which came up with the winning bid to bring the tour’s overall start to Sacramento.
This isn’t Sacramento’s first time on the tour. Twice, in 2007 and 2008, downtown Sacramento served as the finish line for a stage that began in another city. But those events took place midweek. This year’s race will be on a Saturday, so more people will be free to come downtown to watch. 
City boosters expect the tour will have a significant economic impact, pouring about $8 million into local coffers. That money will go for meals, hotel rooms and other amenities for the cyclists and their entourages, the media and spectators. 
They also hope Sacramento will reap a whirlwind of great publicity when the tour is broadcast on TV—both in this country (it will be shown on the cable channel Versus) and around the world. The race’s organizers designed the course to show the riders against a “beautiful backdrop.” Either the Capitol or Tower Bridge will be in just about every shot, they promise.
“We’re going to get a lot of exposure,” says Michael Ault, executive director of Downtown Sacramento Partnership, a nonprofit civic marketing group.
Some of the world’s top riders are expected to be here. There’s Levi Leipheimer, the Santa Rosa cyclist who won the Tour of California in 2007 and 2008; Tour de France winner Floyd Landis, who was stripped of his 2006 victory in a doping scandal; George Hincapie, a five-time Olympian; Alberto Contador, a Spaniard with Tour de France, Giro and Vuelta wins under his belt; and Giro d’Italia champion Ivan Basso.
But most eyes will be trained on Armstrong, the seven-time winner of the prestigious Tour de France and one of the most recognizable athletes in the world. He electrified the cycling community in September when he announced his return to racing after a three-year hiatus. The 37-year-old cancer survivor is using Sacramento and this tour as an early launch pad for his comeback—and for what he hopes will be an unprecedented eighth win at the Tour de France this summer.
Fans will be looking to see how well Armstrong performs in the Sacramento race, which will be a “prologue”: an individual time trial that pits each rider against the clock. 
When Sacramento was chosen to host the overall start, many people assumed it would be a classic road race, with racers jockeying for position in a pack while riding hard for several hours. Some local cyclists fantasized about a hilly ride from Auburn to Folsom. Others dreamed of a flat route through the Delta, where strong winter winds, not hills, would challenge the riders. 
Instead, the race will start and finish downtown. The first rider will leave the start line at Ninth and Capitol at 1:30 p.m., followed at 1-minute intervals by the other riders. Each will race alone down the mall to Fourth Street and back, fly up N Street past Capitol Park to 19th, then sprint back to the finish at 11th and L, at speeds that could approach 45 mph on a route that is both flat and fast. Each rider will take less than 5 minutes to ride the course; the event will last about 2 ½ hours from start to finish. The cyclist who completes the 2.4-mile course in the fastest time wins the day’s race.
When race organizers announced the prologue, some local cycling aficionados were less than thrilled.
“It’s disappointing for those who like to ride the course,” says Dick Nussbaum, an avid cyclist who rides 17,000 to 18,000 miles a year. Such people, he noted, get their kicks from tracing the arduous course of their cycling heroes. Can they scale the Alpe d’Huez like Lance?
But for the vast majority of spectators, he says, a prologue provides much finer entertainment. “In a prologue, you’ll see people riding in front of you for two hours,” he explains. “In a road race, they go past you in five seconds.” 
Michael Sayers, a former professional cyclist who lives in Sacramento, agrees. “From a spectator’s standpoint, this is much more exciting,” he says. “You get to see each rider and pick your favorites.” 
A prologue also is exciting because it requires maximum effort from each rider. The race lasts only a few minutes, and every rider expends crazy amounts of energy in the hope of beating his rivals by a second or two. Armstrong used to be one of the world’s best time trialists. “It would be really something if he won the prologue,” says Nussbaum. “That would be newsworthy.”
According to McCasey, Armstrong’s mere presence in Sacramento will be newsworthy. He expects lots of media, both local and out-of-town: Sports Illustrated. The New York Times. Maybe People magazine. “We’re looking for places to have press conferences,” he says. “We’re gonna need an aircraft hangar.”
City officials and race organizers were positively over the moon when Armstrong decided to compete in this year’s tour. “We thought we’d died and gone to heaven,” McCasey told The Sacramento Bee. “This race deserves Lance Armstrong,” says Michael Roth, an executive with AEG Sports, which owns and operates the tour. “And Lance Armstrong deserves to ride in this race.”
Sayers, who once competed in the Tour of California himself, thinks Sacramento is in for a big treat. “You’ll see the show of a lifetime,” he promises. 
“It’ll be absolutely amazing.”