By Neal Rogers

In some ways, Saturday’s prologue at the Amgen Tour of California went according to script.

Olympic time trial champion Fabian Cancellara crushed all comers, powering around the flat course like a motorbike, just as he did last year.

America was treated to world-class bike racing in the capital of its most populated state.

And in the absence of the steep climb up San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill that vaulted Levi Leipheimer to victory in 2006 and 2007, the two-time California champion finished just off the winning pace, just as he did last year.

Time trial specialists, such as David Zabriskie, Michael Rogers and Thor Hushovd, came close to victory, as expected. The crowds around the Astana team bus were the deepest the Tour of California has ever seen. And in his first stage race on American soil since 2005, Lance Armstrong didn’t disappoint, churning out a respectable 10th place finish out of 136 riders, just 4.26 seconds off Cancellara’s time.

But while the results may have been more or less expected — Floyd Landis’ surprising 90th place finish not withstanding — for those actually on the ground in the state’s capital, the magnitude of the event would have been hard to predict, and even harder to describe.

Even on a cold day with skies threatening rain, a crowd somewhere in the ballpark of 50,000 — about the size of an average ballpark, actually — turned out in downtown Sacramento to the world’s best riders haul ass around a flat 2.4-mile course.

Come to think of it, it’s surprising the crowd wasn’t larger, particularly considering the price of admission.

The scene in the start house for the last dozen riders was an all-star cast of international cycling. One after another, national and world champions lined up behind grand tour stage winners, stars of the classics and Olympic medalists.

Take a look at the names of the last 12 men to roll out. Kirchen. Boonen. Hincapie. Hamilton. Zabriskie. Armstrong. Vande Velde. Cancellara. Basso. Rogers. Landis. Leipheimer.

Sure, these are the biggest names in pro cycling. But what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that this was not a world championship, or a grand tour. This was not the Roubaix velodrome in April, or the Champs Elysees in July. This was Sacramento, in February.

Add the appearance of Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Governator himself, shaking hands post race with Armstrong — the day’s “most courageous” rider — and the whole scenario becomes slightly surreal.

At the risk of upsetting purists, the Amgen Tour of California is, at least in 2009, the fourth most important race in international cycling. As Columbia-Highroad’s Michael Rogers told VeloNews earlier this week, the only race more important to his team, the most successful team in 2008, is the Tour de France.

And at the risk of upsetting VeloNews editor at large John Wilcockson, this is the best field ever assembled in the United States. Every rider might not be racing for the win, but in terms of star power, they’re all in California.

Sure, there’s still no summit finish. And the February spot on the international calendar means equates to tricky timing for some racers as well as the likelihood of inclement weather.

But Saturday in Sacramento, these amounted to nothing more than details. America was treated to world-class bike racing in the capital of its most populated state.

When AEG Sports announced the inception of a Tour of California in the spring of 2005, they promised an event that would be mentioned in the same breath as the Tour de France. Cycling fans and journalists, including yours truly, either laughed or just shrugged their shoulders.

Four short years later all that can be said is “mission accomplished.”

There’s been discussion in the past, perhaps unrealistic, about the United States someday hosting a Tour de France prologue. No need. We’ve got our own world-class event.

Come to think of it, maybe someday France can host a stage of the Tour of California…