Editor’s note: Citing illness and concerns about his fitness, German star Marcel Kittel has announced he has withdrawn from the 2015 Amgen Tour of California.
Throughout the 10-year history of the Amgen Tour of California, Sacramento has played a major role in the eight-day bike race, most often as the scene of a sprint finish on L Street just outside the Capitol with thousands of onlookers lining up for the high-speed blur that is the professional peloton.
The race has grown in stature since its start in 2006, and has included names such as Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara, Belgium’s Tom Boonen and the United Kingdom’s Mark Cavendish, all of whom will be listed among the sport’s all-time greats by the time they retire.
Lance Armstrong? Yeah, he’s been here, too. In 2010, he made a fateful comeback and, during his time in Sacramento, helped attract an estimated 100,000 people to watch that day’s stage. Armstrong, of course, turned out to be one of the sport’s great scoundrels, finally admitting that he cheated during all seven of his Tour de France victories. It’s now part of Armstrong lore that his pricey time-trial bike was stolen here in Sacramento.
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Beginning at 10:50 a.m. May 10, the Amgen returns to the Sacramento area for a seventh year. Sunday kicks off the men’s race and features a relatively flat 126.2 miles of riding out to the Sacramento Delta and into Solano County before returning downtown for an expected finish around 3:45 p.m. On May 11, the racers leave Nevada City for 120.4 miles of rolling hills to Lodi.
In addition, the pro women’s race starts May 8. It includes two stages in South Lake Tahoe and a third stage in Sacramento on May 10 (11:15 a.m.-1:15 p.m.) – a 34-mile circuit that will include many laps through downtown that will be ideal for spectators.
Road racing can seem baffling to the uninitiated. With that in mind, here are seven things to know about the race and the sport:
1. Cycling can be one of the worst spectator sports. The peloton goes by so quickly that it is often impossible to spot your favorite rider. Savvy fans tend to congregate on steep climbs where the pace is much slower. You can also make a day of it by hanging out at a cafe or enjoying a picnic, pausing briefly to watch and cheer before returning to your baguette, brie and Beaujolais. In Sacramento on Sunday, the finish at 11th and L streets is flat and fast, so you’ll want to position yourself nearby, where you can see the riders approaching from a distance. But the best way to watch and understand is on TV, so even if you attend the race, you’ll want to record it for viewing later on NBCSN. The race will be broadcast in 200 countries.
2. This year’s race promises to offer epic battles among world-class sprinters. Cavendish, who has won 25 Tour de France stages (third most in history) will square off with German phenom Marcel Kittel, who seems poised to eclipse Cavendish as the fastest finisher. Peter Sagan, one of the biggest stars in the sport, also will be a force in the sprints, though he tends to be more of an all-around rider who shines on varied terrain. It is unlikely that Sagan can outsprint Cavendish and Kittel, though he may well outfox them. While they will be star attractions, they have little hope of winning the overall title. That will go to an all-around rider whose strengths are climbing and time trialing.
3. World-class cyclists are alarmingly thin. But don’t let their small stature fool you. They can put out tremendous power on their bikes, though they might not fare so well at arm wrestling. In fact, you’ll notice plenty of very skinny arms in the peloton. The ideal cyclist body type tends to be very low body fat, little muscularity on the upper body and very powerful legs. Being as light as possible pays dividends when the race heads into the mountains.
4. Speaking of legs, pro cyclists shave theirs. It would be considered odd for a top-level rider to show up at a race with hairy legs. There are many arguments for shaving – ease for massage, better for cleaning up road rash after a crash, even aerodynamics – but it really comes down to tradition and aesthetics. Shaved legs are simply part of the look.
5. Like the Tour de France, Amgen is a postcard to the world. Yes, it’s a bike race and the route must be challenging, but it’s also a powerful way to show off California to the rest of the world, so the terrain must be varied and, ideally, look good on TV. Running nearly 700 miles through valley fields, undulating hills, beachside towns and mountainous terrain, the race finishes in Pasadena.
6. Not all of the world’s top riders will be at Amgen. That’s because it takes place at the same time as the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy), which is three weeks long and is considered one of the three grand tours on the race calendar. The others are the Tour de France in July and Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain) in September. Those who do well in the California race earn points that go toward their overall ranking, which could be crucial when contracts are renewed in the off season. But most top pros only do one or two grand tours, so that leaves California as an attractive option.
7. Pro bikes are very light – but not as light as they could be. The minimum weight for bikes is 6.8 kilograms (just under 15 pounds). The limit was imposed years ago for the safety of riders; officials were worried that bikes were becoming too flimsy and dangerous. With new carbon fiber technology, however, a pro-level bike could easily – and safely – be lighter than 15 pounds. The Union Cycliste Internationale is considering relaxing the weight restrictions. Those shopping for a road bike understand the more-you-pay, less-you-get equation. A 20-pound bike, for instance, may cost $800, while a 15-pound ride can cost $6,000 or more. The typical pro bike? $10,000-plus.
Amgen tour of California
What: The Sacramento stage kicks off the eight-day race.
When: 10:50 a.m. Sunday (men); 11:15 a.m. (women)
Where: The start/finish line is at 11th and L streets.