Road

Commentary: The 2011 Amgen Tour of California could have lost much more than a stage

Whether the deciding factor was rider sentiment, weather forecasts or logistical concerns, in the end, the decision to cancel the stage was the right one.

2011 Amgen Tour, stage 1, directors and Messick
Jonathan Vaughters and other directors discuss their concerns with race director Andrew Messick. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

STATELINE, Nevada (VN) — It was midday, an hour after the first stage of the Amgen Tour of California should have started in South Lake Tahoe, California.

The tension in the lobby at the Montbleu Resort grew as the updated start time of 1:15 p.m. drew nearer. Unbeknown to the autograph-hunting crowds filling the hallways of the hotel/casino, an earlier truce between organizers and teams to neutralize the general classification while contesting the 50-mile stage fell through.

As weather conditions improved and the National Weather Service radar cleared, organizers distributed an email informing teams that GC would be on the line at the finish at Northstar-at-Tahoe Resort.

AEG president Andrew Messick told VeloNews afterward that his team made the change when weather conditions improved.

“We had a lot of conversations with teams, riders and medical personnel to design a stage with racing that would be safe. That plan changed with updated information,” he said. “We gave ourselves more time and when we made that delay we understood we would need meaningful improvement in the weather.”

Course crews at the two KOMs reported that the road was wet but not frozen. And California Department of Transportation crews laid ice-melting salt on Highway 89 for the first time in decades.

But every 15-minute glimpse of sunshine was followed by an equal period of snowfall, and with two KOM climbs between start and finish — both with winding, high-speed descents —a slick road surface would be dangerous, especially so if GC were on the line.

So when Garmin-Cervélo CEO Jonathan Vaughters saw the message, with his riders already preparing for the stage, he sought Messick out near the start.

2011 Amgen Tour, stage 1, Mike Creed
Mike Creed, dressed for the weather but not looking forward to it. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

“We’d come to a compromise earlier in the day,” said Vaughters. “It was going to be a race … it’s not ideal or perfect for the world, but it was a compromise.”

The two men met in front of the announcer’s stage at 12:55 p.m. Riders filtered through sign-in, hundreds of fans looking on, as Vaughters became more and more heated, his arms flying in angry gestures.

Messick led Vaughters toward rider staging, and Leopard-Trek’s Brian Nygaard and Torsten Schmidt joined the discussion, as did HTC-Highroad director Ralf Aldag with veteran rider Bernhard Eisel.

The managers argued that organizers could not lay out a plan for the GC only to change it within an hour of the start. Eisel said that the move was not possible and the threat of a rider protest loomed. Minutes earlier Christian Vande Velde (Garmin) told VeloNews that riders were discussing a number of options.

Leopard’s GC leaders Andy Schleck and Linus Gerdemann, removing neck warmers from their faces only long enough to speak, joined the huddle along with three-time overall winner Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack). The meeting could not have been in a more public venue, but managers and AEG press officers fought to keep journalists out of the discussion.

The temperature dropped and snow began to fall again.

Race director Jim Birrell joined Messick and two of the race’s top officials listened for just short of 10 minutes to the team leaders before stealing away with Leipheimer to the stage. The RadioShack veteran has for years acted as a consultant to the race and when asked what to do, Leipheimer suggested options that included rolling out from the start for 10 neutral kilometers before abandoning the race.

“It’s split, really. Some guys want to race, others don’t, but no one’s happy,” he said.

All the while, the Continental riders and directors remained in the dark, ready to contest the stage.

“Ask Levi what we’re doing, because I don’t know,” said Jesse Anthony (Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth).

Meanwhile, Messick consulted technical director Chuck Hodge, and the top brass of the race — Messick, Birrell, Hodge and competition director Kevin Livingston — were pressed into decision mode with four minutes remaining to the start. The national anthem sang from the stage and the sun remained hidden behind blowing snow.

Pressed by Messick, Hodge said: “The roads are safe right now. We can go either way; you just need to let me know.”

2011 Amgen Tour, stage 1, cancellation chaos
Cancellation chaos. The race canceled, the riders head for the hotels. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

The forward vehicles rolled around the corner from the start line, indicating an imminent start. The officials’ radio crackled “three minutes to start and last we heard we are racing.”

And then, as the photo motorcycles edged forward, AEG communications director Michael Roth climbed on stage with Leipheimer to tell the crowd that there would be no racing today. The three-time winner was perhaps the only person capable of spinning the situation for the fans gathered since late morning, and he took the microphone to assure them that the riders’ safety was in doubt and that organizers and teams carried due process out to the fullest extent.

Fans half expecting the news served up a mild round of applause, and the riders clicked into their pedals and rolled downhill from the line. They coasted around a left-hand corner and onto Tahoe Boulevard where they found their team cars and buses for an exit from the cold.

Just then the clouds parted, but only briefly.

Team cars clogged the Montbleu parking lot, rushing to escape for the snowy drive to Northstar, where riders would saddle up on turbo trainers to spin some warmth into their legs. Fans gathered around the buses and riders lobbed snowballs at each other.

And the snow began to fall.

Whether the deciding factor was rider sentiment, weather forecasts or logistical concerns, in the end, the decision to cancel the stage was the right one. As we sat around a restaurant table in South Lake Tahoe, VeloNews editors unanimously supported the decision organizers and teams made on Sunday.

While fans on the road — and there were fans on the road — were disappointed to miss the action along Emerald Bay Road, our sport is reeling from the tragic death a week ago of Leopard’s Wouter Weylandt, and there has never been a more appropriate time to err on the side of caution.

HTC director Brian Holm laid out the weight of the situation well.

“What happened in the last few weeks in cycling, I think this is the really smart move,” he said. “The weather was changing every five minutes. … Somebody could have hurt themselves badly. It’s not about frozen fingers and cold feet; it’s about the health of the riders, you know, nasty crashes. We don’t want that to happen anymore.”

The Amgen Tour will reset tonight. Riders will loosen up their legs in hotel lobbies near Squaw Valley, home of the 1960 Winter Olympics. The drivers who crashed their motorcycles on the treacherous roads to the finish will recover — we’ve been informed that each is safe and accounted for.

AEG and Medalist Sports staff will work with transportation and law enforcement to determine whether Donner Pass is in the cards for Monday. In 36 hours, riders will be 6,000 feet lower, in the capital city of Sacramento and a day later in the arid Central Valley.

Stage victories and likely the most contentious GC battle in the race’s history will come.

All we’ve lost is a day of racing in America’s marquee event. That’s relatively little when we reflect on what could have been lost.