Races We Love: Amgen Tour of California
This story appeared in the January/February print issue of VeloNews Magazine.
In October, the Anschutz Entertainment Group announced the cancellation of the 2020 edition of the Amgen Tour of California, citing the race’s prohibitive economics as the reason for stoppage. AEG said it would try to revive the race in the future, however the proclamation did not ensure confidence within the U.S. bike racing scene.
Only the Tour of Utah, which cancelled its 2007 edition, successfully returned from a year off.
The stoppage ended the race’s 14-year run as the premiere professional cycling event in the United States, the longest uninterrupted run by any major UCI stage race in American history. The race’s longevity, plus its place on the international calendar, had an enormous impact on American cycling, even if it never achieved financial stability.
The Amgen Tour of California was launched in 2006—the year after Lance Armstrong’s first retirement—at the peak of American cycling’s popularity. The title sponsor was California-based pharmaceutical giant Amgen, and the company’s title became synonymous with the race.
Its original February date made it the official season opener for the stars of the Tour de France, who came for the sunshine, good roads, and upscale hotels. And every year, European stars battled against top American riders who honed their early-season form. Floyd Landis won the first edition; Levi Leipheimer took the next three; Chris Horner and Tejay van Garderen rounded out the list of American champions.
The race also elevated riders on smaller U.S. domestic teams. Once unknown riders like Ben Jacques-Maynes, Rory Sutherland, and Evan Huffman became household names due to their success at the event. Juan Jose Haedo, Toms Skujins, and Dominique Rollin all went on to enjoy WorldTour careers after winning stages at California.
In 2008 the race incorporated a women’s criterium. The next year, it was an individual time trial. In the ensuing years, the single-day women’s event grew into a four-day WorldTour event that helped Americans Megan Guarnier and Katie Hall advance their respective careers.
The race was ambitious with its place in the international calendar, and in 2010 moved to May, placing itself as a major test for Tour de France riders. Then, in 2017, it took on UCI WorldTour status; another step up aimed at attracting bigger stars. In its final editions, the Tour of California became a testing ground for WorldTour stars of the future. Sagan won the overall in 2015, and a young Julian Alaphilippe took it the following year. Egan Bernal won the 2017 edition, just one year before he became Tour de France champion. And in the race’s final edition, 20-year-old Tadej Pogačar won, just months before finishing third at the Vuelta a España.
“It had mountains and tough stages and really strong riders,” Leipheimer said. “It was on par with those legendary one-week races in Europe.”