From the Mag

VN Archives: The first Tour of California in 2006

Amid doubts about weather and long-term sustainability, the Amgen Tour of California kicked off in February 2006. Now, it's part of the WorldTour calendar.

The last half century has produced countless amazing moments in pro cycling, and VeloNews has been there for almost all of them. This year we celebrate our 48th birthday. With 48 years worth of archives, we want to present some of the more memorable VeloNews covers, feature stories, and interviews from our past. Our hope is these curated snippets will help motivate you to pursue your passion for the sport you love.

About 14 years ago, American cycling fans witnessed the start of a major stage race, the Amgen Tour of California, in late February. Although there were eight ProTour teams at the start in San Francisco, there were some doubts that such an ambitious endeavor would succeed.

That uncertainty was reflected in the opening paragraphs of Kip Mikler and John Wilcocksen’s article in the March 13, 2006 issue of VeloNews magazine:

When plans for a Tour of California were first announced last March, eyebrows, and questions, were raised. Initial rumors suggested a seemingly impossible road closure on the Golden Gate Bridge and stages encompassing Yosemite National Park, questionable given the event’s February 19-26 spot on the UCI calendar.

The ambition of the race reminded the sport’s veterans of so many other heavily touted, title-sponsor-to-be-announced stage races that never materialized. But unlike those other races, the Tour of California had the backing of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, a global sports marketing company that owns or controls a collection of companies including facilities such as the Staples Center, franchises such as the L.A. Kings NHL team and the recently developed Home Depot Center, the $150 million national training center in California that houses a world-class velodrome. The Tour of California would not be another race backed by a cycling­enthusiast looking for a title sponsor; instead, an international sports marketer had carefully developed this race intent on creating a profitable event.

Even a year ago, AEG president Timothy Leiweke demon­strated a commitment unheard of in American cycling. “The decision we had to make at AEG, and with our other part­ners, was: Are we prepared to go this alone if we don’t sell any sponsorship? Are we willing to finance this thing completely for five years, which would be about a $35 million commitment?” Leiweke said. “The answer is yes. If we have to spend $35 million to build the race we will.”

When the biotech firm Amgen, developer of red blood cell booster EPO, was announced as title sponsor in November, more shockwaves rumbled through the cycling community How could a manufacturer of cycling’s most notorious per­formance-enhancing drug sponsor the event? Other questions followed. What kind of condition could Tour de France stars be expected to reach for their first race of the season, still four months from the big show in July? And with American Tour champion Lance Armstrong now retired, what sort of reception could the California public expect to provide?

But even before the opening Coit Tower prologue in San Francisco, it was clear this was no ordinary American stage race. Eight ProTour teams were coming: Discovery Channel, CSC, T-Mobile, Saunier Duval-Prodir, Phonak-iShares, Credit Agricole, Davitamon-Lotto and Gerolsteiner Along for the ride were two Giro d’Italia winners, Gilberto Simoni (Saunier Duval) and Paolo Savoldelli (Discovery Channel) as well as three-time reigning world time-trial champion Michael Rogers (T-Mobile).

Of the American riders on the start list, team leaders F1oyd Landis (Phonak), Bobby Julich and Dave Zabriskie (CSC), Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) and Chris Horner and Fred Rodriguez (Davitamon) all had California roots; equally important, T-Mobile, CSC, Discovery Channel and iShares all have business ties in the state.

Costs were estimated at $1 million a day for the eight-day event A glitzy team presentation event in Sausalito sold tickets to the tune of $250 — and filled to capacity. Full-page newspaper ads were placed in finish cities, and every rider who started the race was given a video iPod California-based cycling companies Specialized, Clif Bar and Giant all hosted post-race bashes, and Specialized took it a step further, bring­ing a winged Victoria’s Secret-style angel to each stage. UCI president Pat McQuaid visited the race. And though he made no scheduled appearances, Armstrong was sighted with the Discovery team throughout the week State governor Arnold Schwarzenegger even made a cameo appearance in San Francisco to present the prologue winner’s race-leader jersey.

As it turned out, all doubts about the Amgen Tour of California were dismissed. Amgen took the irony of its unique sponsorship angle in stride, successfully sticking to its mission statement, to “underscore the value of a healthy lifestyle, pro­mote medical breakthroughs made possible through biotech­nology and to emphasize the proper use of our medicines.”

The race also received unexpected cooperation from Mother Nature. Rain clouds cleared the morning of the open­ing prologue and stayed away all week, only to return the day after the final stage in Redondo Beach — leading some to ponder whether AEG had the resources to buy the weather as well. In the days between, the race was treated to the postcard-perfect sunshine and warmth for which California is known. Conditions for stage 4, which traversed south from Monterey to San Luis Obispo along the rugged Big Sur coast, were considered a roll of the dice by even the most optimistic. But what the race experienced — cloudless, sunny skies, a light tailwind, and temperatures in the upper 60s — elicited unanimous praise from American and European riders alike. Aussie Nathan O’Neill (Health Net-Maxxis) called it the most beautiful 160km he’d ever raced, and it was tough to find anyone who disagreed.

And perhaps the biggest question surrounding the race, the level of competition spectators could expect, was answered atop Coit Tower, where Pro Tour stars Leipheimer, Julich, George Hincapie, Landis and Zabriskie took the top five spots. The cat was out of the bag — the top American racers were taking California seriously, and a weeklong battle was about to unfold.