Tour of California: Rolling postcard has a picture-perfect start

Shortly before the start of the Amgen Tour of California on Sunday morning, Mark Cavendish rolled casually through the crowd on his way to the start line, the greatest sprinter of his generation turning heads, inspiring cheers and, more than anything, prompting dozens of onlookers to raise their cellphones in unison and start taking pictures.

At 10:50 a.m., moments after the national anthem, the multicolored peloton of pro racers rolled out of town at a casual pace, headed toward Garden Highway, into the countryside and out to Auburn on a windswept 120-mile course, only to return hours later to scorch downtown streets at 35 mph before ending in a bunch sprint in the shadows of the state Capitol.

As he has done 25 times at the Tour de France, the brash and powerful Cavendish of Britain won the stage, narrowly beating rising German standout John Degenkolb in a photo finish.

There were cheers and whistles, roars and shouts, with spectators pressed against the barriers as the riders did three laps along a downtown circuit before thundering their way to the finish line.

“I’m so thrilled, it almost makes me cry,” said Pam Holm, standing next to her husband 250 meters from the finish line.

The eight-day event is not only a race that attracts some of the best pros in the sport but, like the Tour de France, is seen as something of a rolling postcard that showcases the state to many parts of the world. Local tourism officials say 2,000-plus rooms were booked locally for the race and, when you add up restaurant visits, lodging and more, it is expected to give an estimated $8 million boost to the local economy.

Today, Folsom hosts a significantly different kind of stage on Day 2, with a 12.5-mile time trial in which riders start one at a time and race entirely against the clock, the only strategy being pedal as hard and steadily as possible. Because significant time gaps are inevitable, Cavendish, a sprint specialist who does not excel at time trialing, is not expected to hold onto the gold jersey as the race leader.

Tuesday’s stage two route

After an absence of three years, the Tour of California returned to the state capital and drew scores of fans. The sport has changed significantly since the last time Sacramento played host to the event and seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong was embarking on a comeback that would soon lead to ruin, his image shattered by mounting evidence that he had used performance-enhancing drugs to not only win races but mislead his millions of adoring fans.

Indeed, the crowds were smaller and more sedate this time, as the sport struggles to rebuild trust, heal its many wounds and win back fans. Still, those who turned out Sunday say they were excited to see the first stage and felt the city showed off its assets with aplomb to a global television and Internet audience.

James and Dorothea Simmons were taking photos near the steps of the state Capitol on Sunday around 8:45 a.m. The Sacramento couple said this would be their second time attending a Tour of California stage.

James Simmons said he had long been a cycling fan. Asked whether the Armstrong debacle had colored his views of the sport, he said: “No, not really, but cycling has changed. It’s not the same guy winning every time. You see different people winning now.”

“I’m still a big fan,” he added.

Holm, who lives in Palm Springs but has longtime ties to the Sacramento area, said she and her husband have been eager to watch the race in person and were giddy about the setting and the electricity on what would normally be a low-key Mother’s Day Sunday downtown.

“It’s a thrill. Oh, my gosh,” she said as she found a vantage point with plenty of elbow room on L Street. “In this setting, it couldn’t be more beautiful, with the Capitol and the bridge that’s painted gold and the cathedral. It’s just magical.”

More than ever, modern conveniences have changed the way we watch and cheer. Standing nearby, Dave Morisey, a pilot for FedEx and an avid cyclist, was checking his phone for updates, noting at one point that the official iPhone app for the race indicated that the peloton was 12 miles from the finish. Minutes later, a helicopter could be spotted in the distance. Then came the police escorts, the procession of race vehicles, photographers on the back of motorcycles, team cars, one after the other, with extra bikes mounted on the roof.

Referring to the “postcard” Sacramento will be projecting well beyond California, Morisey said: “I think it’s great – blue skies, palm trees, nice weather.”

The pilot won’t be watching today. He’s flying to Taipei, Taiwan, for work, but he plans to see as much as possible via Slingbox, a technology that allows users to watch their regular TV remotely by computer.

Shortly after the pro men departed toward Auburn, the women professionals had a race of their own, a 10-lap circuit that featured several pile-ups and plenty of high-speed excitement for the fans, among them Katie Stonebraker, looking on with her dog. Stonebraker and her husband, Dean Alleger, had been working at a booth to promote the idea of building a velodrome for track bike racing in the Sacramento area. It was one of many booths and tents set up to entertain, promote and inform visitors before and after the race.

“It’s amazing that we have world-class athletes here,” said Stonebraker, a cyclist herself. “It’s a beautiful thing for our community, and this is the perfect place to have it.”

American Carmen Small won the women’s race.

J-E Paino, owner of Ruhstaller Brewing, opened his downtown taproom Sunday morning specifically to welcome cycling fans and serve them coffee supplied by Old Soul.

“This is a beer town and a bike town,” said Paino, wearing a custom Ruhstaller cycling jersey. “The cycling culture here is very strong. As a cycling fan watching the European races for years, you get to know the regions and the towns as the race progresses. Cycling is not only a beautiful sport to compete in, but for spectators watching this race in the rest of the world, California can do some beautiful things.”

One of dozens of volunteers at the race, Jean Nelson was patrolling a crosswalk for fans, holding them back when the riders thundered past, letting them cross L Street when the lanes were clear. Throughout the day, she chatted with scores of folks. Some were serious fans. Others happened upon the event and had no inkling there was a pro bike race.

With a helicopter overhead, with the race announcer whipping up the crowd and with fans craning their heads to watch the action, Nelson took a deep breath and smiled.

“I’m so proud of Sacramento,” she said.

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