Those who lined the downtown streets to watch the final six miles of the Amgen Tour of California could feel it – the speed and the roar and the wind as 100-plus riders strung out in a line – their backs low and flat, and their noses poking out beyond their handlebars – battled for position.
There were three finishing laps on Sunday that saw the riders hold speeds exceeding 30 mph and ramping up closer to 40 mph along the final 500-meter sprint toward the finish line.
It was all part of the spectacle as the 10th edition of the tour kicked off eight days of racing. Englishman Mark Cavendish, the premier sprinter of his generation, won the day, easily speeding ahead of Peter Sagan in the closing meters.
“You can feel the wind when they go by,” said Kurt Elliott, who parked his hybrid bike next to a palm tree along Capitol Park and was still wearing his helmet as he craned his neck for a view of the race. “It’s shocking how fast they go.”
The closer of the three-day race in the women’s division also drew large crowds and in many ways was a more vivid spectator event, as its closed two-mile circuit for 34 miles allowed fans to catch glimpses of the racers more than a dozen times.
With a route designed to challenge the riders over varied terrain while showing off California via television coverage to 200 countries and territories, the men’s Amgen race travels 724.1 miles to Los Angeles.
Clear skies and a light wind made for ideal weather for a bike race.
This year’s edition features two of the biggest names in Sagan and Cavendish, both sprinters, while some of the best all-around riders opted to compete in the three-week Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy) or focus on training elsewhere.
While Cavendish won handily, this was considered a flat stage that played to his strengths. He is expected to vie for at least three other stages, but Cavendish is given no chance of winning the overall. That title has no clear favorite this year, though the winner will be a rider who climbs well and is strong in the time trial.
Elliott, like many fans who turned out to watch, mingle with friends and browse the lifestyle pavilion, had returned from previous years for Sacramento’s seventh time hosting a stage of the race. He said he was eager to take in the spectacle, get a sense of the excitement and watch his city thrive in the spotlight once again. Then he planned to go for a ride and have a beer.
Asked about his own cycling, Elliott, who is retired, looked down at his bike with knobby tires, a loaded-down rack and handlebars outfitted with a bell and said, “They would laugh at me and tell me to get training wheels.”
At the other end of the spectrum was Jonathan Weast, who held his Italian-made Colnago racing bike as he watched the pros roar past.
“I think it’s awesome that the race comes into Sacramento. This is really a cycling community, and we really show our support,” said Weast, a graphic design professor at California State University, Sacramento.
Standing next to him, with a Colnago of her own, was Pamela Wilber, a professor of education at CSUS.
“We love the sport. Being able to come out and support cyclists who dedicate their life to the sport is pretty nice.”
From the couple’s vantage point more than 300 meters from the finish line, it was impossible to tell who actually won the day.
But there were plenty of ways to keep up with the action, including a free phone app that provided live updates, complete with the names of leaders in the breakaway and their speed.
With 35 miles to go and the riders battling crosswinds along the flat, rural roads in the Delta, you could learn that three riders held a two-minute lead with the 100-plus peloton giving chase.
There was also two hours of daily television coverage on NBCSN and, on the final day, NBC.
Race director Jim Birrell, who designs the route and coordinates race coverage, says he sees the route, which changes each year, as a chance to create a “mobile postcard” seen by millions around the globe.
“I’m always trying to find those iconic images that will resonate not only with our domestic viewers but our international viewers,” Birrell said. “California tourism is one of our founding partners. It’s important that we fulfill their mission to bring tourism into this state and have this mobile postcard representing the state.”
To beam those images to American viewers and beyond is a complicated and chaotic enterprise. Much of the TV footage is from cameras on the back of four motorcycles, which then transmit the signals to two aircraft flying at 10,000 feet. Those signals are sorted them into a bundle that is transmitted via an antenna on a downtown rooftop to the TV compound on site.
“It keeps you awake at night,” Birrell said.
Sacramento tourism is in on the selling and promoting game, too. Hours before the men’s race kicked off at 10:45 a.m., chef/owner Michael Thiemann and his crew from Mother Restaurant and the soon-to-open Empress were out in the chilly predawn air carrying a pig from K Street to a large outdoor barbecue pit at the VIP tent near the finish line.
Sacramento has made a major play the past two years to position itself as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital,” and Thiemann is considered one of the top practitioners of a food movement that showcases local farms and ingredients on restaurant menus.
The chef was one part of the arduous, multiday planning and preparation for Sacramento to host the race. It included scores of road closures, a shortage of parking and at times frayed nerves as motorists unaware of the cordoned-off streets attempted to navigate through town on Mother’s Day.
A day earlier, out on the American River bike trail, there was some prerace drama as a recreational cyclist took a blind corner too wide and caused a pile-up of pros out on a slow-paced training ride. At least one rider crashed to the ground, and prerace favorite Sagan narrowly missed crashing, though his chain wound up jammed between his front derailleur and chain ring.
Try as he might a day later, an unscathed Sagan was unable to get past sprint star Cavendish at the end of 126.2 miles.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.