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Commentary: Gone in ’60 Minutes?’ Regardless of past, Amgen Tour has a future

There was both irony and hope in the confluence Sunday afternoon of CBS’ “60 Minutes” exposé on doping in cycling and the finish of the sixth Tour of California.

2011 Amgen Tour of California, stage 8, RadioShack bus
Where's Lance Armstrong? At this year's Amgen Tour, it doesn't seem to matter as much.

THOUSAND OAKS, California (VN) — There was both irony and hope in the confluence Sunday afternoon of CBS’ “60 Minutes” exposé on doping in cycling and the finish of the sixth Tour of California.

The irony comes from the race ending in Thousand Oaks, the hometown of the world’s largest biotech company, Amgen, the original manufacturer of EPO — the substance, Tyler Hamilton told CBS, that the peloton used routinely during the years when his teammate Lance Armstrong was winning the Tour de France.

The hope comes from the continuing success of the eight-day race that Amgen sponsors and which is proving to be such an impressive showcase for all that is good in American cycling.

Asked to comment on the issues raised by the “60 Minutes” program, Bob Stapleton, the owner of HTC-Highroad, whose Matt Goss won stage eight on Sunday, said: “Every sport has its controversies … but this is a sport that is open and accessible. And that is its strength.”

And Jonathan Vaughters, the owner of Garmin-Cervélo, which won the overall team prize at this Amgen Tour, said: “The fact that cycling is being scrutinized is a function of (its success). We have the most WorldTour teams of any country, great races like this Tour of California and a multiplicity of up-and-coming riders — even at the under-23 level, where there’s a big rivalry between Trek-Livestrong and my Chipotle development team.”

What was perhaps the most significant feature in the success of this year’s Tour of California is that it was achieved without the participation or appearance of Armstrong, who was a major factor in popularizing the race over the past two years.

Armstrong, whose credibility as a champion athlete was questioned by the CBS news program, was in California during the race, but left before his Team RadioShack celebrated the overall one-two finish by Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer after dominating the two mountain stages this past week.

In 2009 and 2010, Armstrong’s appearance was seen as the main reason for the large increase in fans, especially those who gathered at his team bus every day. But as the accompanying photo shows — it was taken in Thousand Oaks after the finish — the team’s popularity is just as much due to the popularity of Californians Horner and Leipheimer, and to the growing status of cycling in this country.

The Amgen Tour is growing in its own fashion. There has been much talk that it should be part of the UCI WorldTour, along with stage races like Australia’s Tour Down Under, so that it can have the participation of all 18 WorldTour teams. And AEG’s race director Andrew Messick said Sunday that he will be having discussions with the UCI as early as Tuesday regarding the event’s future.

“We like our position in the calendar,” Messick said Sunday. “But it’s important that there be a platform in this country for the Continental teams.”

If it were awarded a WorldTour license, the Tour of California could not invite any UCI Continental teams because they are not allowed into WorldTour events. That would mean the Bissell, Jamis-Sutter Home, Jelly Belly, Kelly Benefit Strategies and Kenda-5-Hour Energy teams would not be eligible for their country’s major race.

And that, said Messick — who pointed out that two of America’s four WorldTour teams, BMC Racing and Garmin-Cervélo, started out as Continental squads — would deprive them of the chance of climbing pro cycling’s ladder.

The most heartening factors about this past week’s racing in California were the massive support shown by cities wanting to host future stages, the fans wanting to cheer for racers not named Lance Armstrong, and the increasing professionalism of race owner AEG and organizer Medalist Sports. As Messick said, Medalist’s Jim Birrell transformed “a cow field into a village” to accommodate the summit finish at Sierra Road, near San Jose, on Wednesday and produced a brilliant mountaintop stage finish “on the top of Mount Baldy where no facilities existed,” not even buildings, power or cell-phone coverage.

It’s clear that America does not need a three-week grand tour to be a successful cycling country. As with every aspect of professional cycling in the United States over the past 25 years, the sport has grown incrementally. Vaughters said the advice he gives to Messick every year is: “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.”

Next year, the seventh Amgen Tour of California will start in Santa Rosa in May. Barring accidents, it will again have this year’s one-two, Horner and Leipheimer, as the race favorites … challenged by a host of younger American pros from the post-Armstrong generation.