Tour of California Gains Prestige, and Sacramento Loves It

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, February 13, 2009

Eleven world champions.  Eight Olympic medalists.  And three Tour de France winners – or two, depending on your view of performance-enhancing drug use:  All reasons why tomorrow’s opening stage of the Tour of California cycling race could draw the largest crowd to downtown Sacramento in over a decade.  And everyone is gearing up for a huge day at the races – from cycling fans to internationally-known riders to local businesses.
There’s a certain energy in the air this week at the Bicycle Business, a bike store just across from McClatchy High School in Sacramento. 
Rolke: “People are talking about the race and talking about riders.” 
… says Bob Rolke, the store’s manager. 
Rolke: “Definitely, it’s the topic of conversation – for a couple of weeks.”
Ben: “There’s a buzz here.”
Rolke: “Absolutely.” 
That’s what happens when the biggest cycling names in the world come to Sacramento, as they will this weekend for the fourth annual Amgen Tour of California.  Tomorrow’s prologue, which starts at 1:30, will circle the state Capitol and downtown Sacramento.  Sunday’s second stage will run through the mountains from Davis to Santa Rosa.  Steve Mara, a customer and Davis resident, is pumped. 
Mara: “This is a great opportunity for people to come out and see the best racers on the planet.  These are not local amateurs; these are not state champions; these are world champions.” 
And the storylines are a cycling fan’s dream – starting with seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong.  After a few years off, he’s making a comeback to promote cancer research.  There’s also American Floyd Landis, who won the 2006 Tour de France but was stripped of his title after his doping samples tested positive.  He’s racing this weekend for the first time since his suspension ended.  Bob Rolke says Armstrong and Landis make this year’s race all the more intriguing. 
Rolke: “All those people who haven’t been in for a few years, who were really at the top of the game.  They were the crème de la crème of the cycling world.  They’ve all been out for a couple of years, and this is one of the first times where you’re gonna see these guys all back together against each other.”

There’s also popular Northern California racers like Levi Leipheimer.  Announcer Phil Liggett, who calls the Tour de France and will broadcast this race too, says the Tour of California is making its mark on the cycling world. 
Liggett: “You can happily slot it in as the fourth or fifth biggest race in the world. It is terrific on the highways; it’s got the support of local government; it is the best field that’s ever raced, apart from the world champs, in the United States, this time around.” 
And the riders are ready to go too.  Here’s the cyclist everyone wants to hear from, Lance Armstrong. 
Armstrong: “Obviously, this state is prime cycling territory.  I think outside of the competitive side of things, which I think provides a good preparation for the season, people get to go to places that they’ve always wanted to go.  In just a few short years, it’s become a marquee event in cycling.” 
The riders and fans aren’t the only ones looking forward to the race.  For downtown businesses reeling from the recession and the state budget crisis, 75,000 people swarming around the Capitol can’t happen soon enough. 
Take, for example, the Citizen Hotel, at 10th and J.  It just opened in December, and the hotel and restaurant will be booked all weekend long.  General Manager Mark Mathews says the race is a high point. 
Mathews: “Kind of a culmination of three events occurring simultaneously, with Valentines Day, Amgen and Second Saturday.  So it’s gonna be a great weekend downtown, and Lance Armstrong coming back only adds to that excitement.” 
Say, $8 million worth of excitement, according to the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau.  That’s the Tour of California’s estimated impact on a local economy that can use every bit of help it can get.