Last year, Peter Sagan, the charismatic super-talent, claimed victory in the Amgen Tour of California in what had to be the most exciting and closest finish in the bike race’s 10-year history. On the final day, there was a sprint, a bike throw, a photo finish, and just enough bonus seconds to award the popular Slovak the crown.
Each year brings its own kind of drama, replete with triumphs, surprises, mishaps and more. Up, down and around the state they go, 100-plus racers sporting colorful uniforms, $10,000 carbon bicycles and shaved legs, with a caravan of team cars, motorbikes and promotional vehicles making their way from town to town in a spectacle patterned after the Tour de France.
While the eight-day stage race (along with a separate four-day race for women) has become the biggest pro cycling event in the country, it’s helpful to think of it as much more than a race.
Organizers consider it a moving billboard broadcast to much of the world, with a subtle sales pitch that inspires tourism and rings the cash register throughout the year.
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The charming foothills town of Nevada City has hosted an Amgen stage three times and is already competing to land another for 2017. Dozens of cities put together proposals to tour organizers that typically include a range of financial and logistical considerations such as available hotel rooms and access to roads used for the race, along with showing there is plenty of local fan support.
“It’s massive for any community like ours that relies heavily on tourism,” said Duane Strawser, a City Council member and owner of the Tour of Nevada City Bicycle Shop. He noted that hits on the chamber of commerce website are “off the charts” when the race comes around, and the tourist occupancy tax sees a significant bump.
Part of that is because Nevada City’s rolling hills and historic architecture look good on TV – and, with bike racing being such an international sport, the event is broadcast to 200-plus countries. Strawser said many visitors have specifically cited the Amgen Tour of California for inspiring them to make the trip to Nevada City.
Those who design the route for each stage have to produce an exciting sporting competition – some days have to be hilly to inspire heroic climbing exploits, others flat enough to encourage a furious mass-sprint finish. But officials are also concerned with how the whole thing looks on camera.
They want to show mountains, farms, wineries, vineyards, quaint towns, big cities, rugged coastlines, a touch of Tinseltown and, as is the case this year, a roaring blur of a finish around Capitol Park on Sunday, with thousands of fans cheering on the athletes. Even when snow disrupted the race one year, it was a win in the big picture – tourists come here to ski, too.
We’re showing the people throughout the world to come to California any time.
Kristen Klein, executive director of the Amgen Tour of California and senior vice president of AEG Sports
“One of the main goals every year is we look to incorporate all of those iconic images in the state of California,” said Kristen Klein, executive director of the Amgen Tour of California and senior vice president of AEG Sports, which owns and operates the bike race. “We’re showing the people throughout the world to come to California any time.”
That kind of exposure can be worth millions to large cities and small towns alike. Because of the vast tourism potential, Visit California is a major sponsor of the Amgen Tour of California and says the race has an economic impact of $100 million or more. Visit California says bicycle tourism is a big deal, noting that 3.8 million visitors include biking as part of their itinerary.
To host a stage can be expensive, but Strawser, whose city does not have a marketing budget for tourism, says it’s money well spent. Nevada City holds several events throughout the year that stir tourism interest, including Victorian Christmas, the Summer Nights art and music festival and the long-running Nevada City classic bike race.
“Amgen probably does as much or more for tourism than everything else we do combined,” Strawser said. “From what we paid to host a stage, we get back fivefold in cash, and what we get back in marketing exposure is impossible to quantify because it’s worth millions.”
That might be even more apparent in Sacramento, which will have hosted one of the stages in eight of the 11 years of the race’s existence. With so many municipalities competing to attract the race, Sacramento has plenty at stake and much to showcase – TV shots of the domed Capitol, the tall palm trees lining Capitol Park, and all those enthusiastic fans cheering on the racers. In 2010, an estimated 100,000 people converged on downtown streets to watch the finish of one of the stages.
From what we paid to host a stage, we get back fivefold in cash, and what we get back in marketing exposure is impossible to quantify because it’s worth millions.
Duane Strawser, Nevada City city councilman
The immediate financial numbers are easy to chart – 511 booked hotel rooms in 2007 or 2,700 hotel rooms in 2015, for example – but the bigger value is the indirect financial windfall. Among other things, the host city gets to run a 30-second commercial during the broadcast on NBC Sports. Sacramento’s spot this year will tout the area’s farm-to-fork reputation, along with its burgeoning craft beer scene. Yes, the race can help Sacramento look cool to the rest of the world.
“The exposure is fantastic because it’s a fun race and an exciting race, and it paints Sacramento in a positive light,” said Mike Testa, chief operating officer of the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The other part that’s hard to measure is the prestige of hosting an international event.”
This year, the city’s cost will come to about $75,000. Last year’s cost came in double that amount because Sacramento hosted the overall race, and there were more events involved, including an opening banquet and different press opportunities.
Testa gets a sense of how important the bike race is to Sacramento in the years Amgen doesn’t come here. Complaints pour in from fans and elected officials alike.
“They want to know what happened to Amgen,” he said.
This year, the region will have a major presence during three days – the start of Stage 5 in Lodi on Thursday morning, Folsom on Friday for the men’s individual time trial and the women’s team time trial, and for the first time in the race’s history, the finale on Sunday in downtown Sacramento. The financial ripple effect, says Testa, will be felt throughout the year as TV viewers visit California months or years later based on what they saw from the race.
While Nevada City is on the outside looking in this time, Strawser is already focused on a year from now. In the next few days, he’s taking time out of a busy Nevada County Board of Supervisors election campaign to make a pitch to get the race back for 2017.
“People here want it back every year,” Strawser said, “and they get offended when it doesn’t come back.”