By now it’s a familiar sight – thousands of fans lining downtown Sacramento’s streets, 100-plus pro cyclists racing across the rural countryside and a helicopter hovering overhead to capture the scene for television.
On a breezy, mostly sunny Sunday afternoon, the Amgen Tour of California men’s race rumbled across the Tower Bridge and headed for a three-lap circuit around the Capitol. A procession of motorcycles led the racers, who ripped around corners and hammered along the straightaways, followed by the organized chaos of team cars speeding behind, one after another.
“This is so cool. I love seeing all the pros in our town,” said Brandon Van Cleve, standing next to his bicycle at 15th and Q streets as the race blew by.
With a sudden burst of speed down L Street, British superstar Mark Cavendish won the sprint Sunday, his fourth such win in Sacramento. Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe won the overall crown, an accumulation of time and bonus seconds over the entire eight stages. For the women, Dutch cyclist Kirsten Wild won the sprint Sunday and American Megan Guarnier won the overall.
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This is the 11th year of the race and the eighth time it has visited Sacramento in one form or another. With TV coverage broadcast nationally on NBC Sports and also to 200-plus countries, plenty was at stake for Sacramento. For the first time, the race organizers chose the state capital to host the final stage of the eight-day event, which began in San Diego and wound its way up the coast, into the mountains, through parts of wine country and across flat country roads, with a pit stop Friday in Folsom for the more low-key sixth stage, an individual time trial for the men and a team time trial for the women.
The race this year had plenty of highlights and an abundance of star power. In the four-day women’s race, Guarnier, the reigning national road race champion, was tops in a highly competitive field, which included teammate and fellow American Evelyn Stevens, who in February broke the prestigious hour record; and Marianne Vos, the Dutch superstar who will go down as one of the all-time greats in the sport.
The men’s field featured legend-in-the-making Peter Sagan, the world champion who seems to contend in every race he enters with unmatched talent and intensity; Cavendish, one of the most prolific sprinters in history; the emergence of Alaphilippe as the kind of superstar France has been seeking for years; and the startling exploits of 19-year-old Neilson Powless of Roseville, who seems destined for a successful career in Europe.
It was those storylines and more that attracted fans from all over to watch the race. By midday Sunday, thousands lined the barricades near the finish line on L Street and thousands more were scattered at various locales throughout the downtown grid.
Alden Tanaka, a longtime cycling fan, made the trip from San Mateo to watch Stage 8 in Sacramento. His neighbor, it turns out, is Guarnier, and he was there to cheer her on as she rolled across the finish line. Tanaka said Sacramento had shown itself off admirably during televised coverage of the Amgen Tour of California.
“It looks good. They always feature the state Capitol, which I think is expected in Europe. They expect palm trees and sunshine,” said Tanaka.
Pro cycling has had its ups and downs in the United States over the past 15 years, soaring to new levels of popularity thanks to Lance Armstrong, whose reputation collapsed after a notorious cheating scandal. Cycling fans went looking for new stars and, given the recent performances of Sagan, 26, and the tenacious 23-year-old Alaphilippe, seem to have found them.
On the second of three downtown laps before the finish, Van Cleve finally spotted Sagan and his green jersey tucked into the speeding peloton as it barreled along Q Street. It was his first glimpse of the rider, known for his all-around ability and his clowning, including post-victory wheelies.
“Now that I got to see Sagan, it made my weekend complete,” he said with a laugh. “He’s my favorite rider. These guys are our heroes.”
Local road bike racer Megan Brinkmeyer said she was pleased to see the pro women getting plenty of attention at the race in recent years.
“It’s awesome for an amateur like me to see them. It’s totally inspiring,” she said.
In many ways, the Amgen Tour of California is more than a bike race. By reaching a vast audience worldwide, it is considered a key marketing opportunity to attract tourism locally and throughout the state. For Sacramento alone, the global exposure can be worth millions. On the final day, the city was given a 30-second commercial featuring its farm-to-fork prowess and emerging craft beer scene.
On television, the crowds, the thick cover of century-old trees, the rivers, the stately Tower Bridge and, yes, the ubiquitous potholes and crumbling pavement along River Road in Yolo County, all got attention.
“This is excellent for the city. It brings people in, not only for the race but to the stores downtown,” said Brinkmeyer, standing on the sidewalk as the racers stormed past. “It puts the city in a good light and it really highlights how good and how diverse downtown has become.”
Fans ranged from serious cycling enthusiasts to casual observers. There were families, folks walking dogs, couples enjoying picnics and people arriving on all different styles of bikes. Among them were Randi Revell, who rode a cargo bike with his two children as passengers, and his wife, Kristie, riding next to him.
Looking around at the crowds, the cheering, the racers and motorcycles zooming along Ninth Street, Revell said, “I think this just shows what an embrace Sacramento has for cycling and for the Amgen Tour of California.”
By midafternoon, the race was over, but many of the fans stuck around, ducking into bars and restaurants as organizers packed up the barricades, the teams loaded their bikes onto trucks and police reopened the closed-off streets.