Nearly 28 years ago, on an otherwise typical August afternoon, young French cyclist Bruno Cornillet nearly upstaged Greg LeMond on the streets of downtown Sacramento.
A month earlier, LeMond won the first of his three Tour de France titles. Cornillet, two years younger, won the less-heralded Tour of Romandie earlier in the season. But he was about to pull off an upset in the 1986 Coors International Bicycle Classic, the precursor to the Amgen Tour of California.
But Cornillet, with a 20-second lead, got lost on that day in 1986 just a few turns and less than a mile from the finish. With the Frenchman wayward, LeMond crossed the line first and was declared the winner. Cornillet finished fifth. LeMond, however, told race officials course markers were confusing and recommended Cornillet be awarded the stage win.
The judges agreed. LeMond defined sportsmanship, and Cornillet quickly was given the nickname “Wrong Way” Cornillet.
The Tour of California, which for the second time in its nine-year tenure begins in Sacramento on Sunday, hasn’t had a similar incident, but from an unexpected May snowstorm to a 114-degree day in the desert to a rare Lance Armstrong crash, the event has had its share of unique moments.
The eight-day race is cycling’s most important competition in the United States. Sixteen squads, including nine UCI Pro teams, the sport’s top level, will compete. The expected field of 128 will ride an estimated 700 miles from Sacramento to Thousand Oaks.
“Riding in California is definitely something different and a nice alternative to the traditional racing program in Europe,” said Great Britain’s Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 Tour de France winner. “There are a lot of passionate cycling fans in the States, and this is one of the only chances we get to ride in front of them, on their roads. We’re all looking forward to it.”
Wiggins competes for SKY, the wealthy Manchester, England-headquartered outfit with a deep roster of international riders. Like other UCI Pro teams, SKY will field teams in the Tour of Italy, which begins Friday , and the Tour of California. Americans Ian Boswell, Joe Dombrowski and Danny Pate will be among Wiggins’ seven teammates in California.
American riders at cycling’s top level rarely compete in the United States. The Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado in August are the best and most welcomed opportunities.
“It’s a huge focus for the team,” said Lucas Euser of Napa, who will compete for the sixth time. “And it’s always been a huge focus for me because I am from there. I remember in the early years coming back and forth from finals at Cal Poly.”
Euser, who rides for UnitedHealthcare based in Oakland, is a strong climber who has twice finished in the top 20 in the Tour of California. But he prefers his role as a team rider.
“I have this public misconception that I am a GC (general classification or overall) rider, but in all respects I’m not and I never have been,” Euser said. “I can climb well, and I am a really good lieutenant. Most importantly, I’m usually the second-best guy on the team.”
With last year as the exception, the event has followed a north-to-south route. And the race has featured different cities as race officials connect geographic dots depending on the year-to-year interest and economic status of communities that want to host.
The event needs mountains, nearby hotel rooms and cooperative civic and law enforcement agencies. Mostly, it requires financial arrangements, with network television commitments and sponsors’ desires as priorities.
The event has been in the state’s biggest cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, and it’s ventured into smaller locales such as Clovis, Big Bear Lake, Avila Beach and, this year, Cambria.
In 2010, Armstrong fell into gravel with several other riders in Stage 5 just outside Visalia. Armstrong briefly continued to ride but then dropped out with eye and elbow injuries. Armstrong, riding slowly next to his team car and unaccustomed to crashing, asked his team manager, “What do I do? I never crashed out of a race.”
In 2011, extreme weather changed the race. It was the second year of the event’s May schedule (the first four years were in February), and who could have predicted a snowstorm in South Lake Tahoe for the event’s first visit? The opening road-race stage was delayed and then canceled minutes before the start when directors told race officials the route around Lake Tahoe was unsafe.
Last year, Palm Springs was included for the first time, with the finish a four-mile climb with an 1,800-foot elevation gain to Aerial Tramway. The 126-mile route included a loop in Palm Springs basin with temperatures climbing past 100 degrees before noon. It was 114 degrees at the finish, and many riders collapsed crossing the line. A few other cyclists fell off their bikes before the finish, with one suffering burns on his back from the scorching asphalt. More than one physician said the course was unsafe.
It’s unlikely snow or three-digit temperatures will affect this year’s race, considering its substantial coastal route. But like any international stage race, there will be surprises. There will be crashes likely involving riders whose names will be difficult to pronounce.
There will be favorites but few certainties, except no one named Armstrong, Cornillet or LeMond will compete.