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Opinion: Delta’s beauty provides striking stage for Tour of California opener

Video: AMGEN Tour of California Stage 1 cycles through Isleton

Peloton from AMGEN Tour of California Stage 1 passes through the Delta town of Isleton. Video by Randy Pench.
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Peloton from AMGEN Tour of California Stage 1 passes through the Delta town of Isleton. Video by Randy Pench.

Dozens of lean-legged bicycle riders pedaled through the fat of the Delta land, on a day pretty enough to paralyze you on the western shore of the big Sacramento.

Maturing vineyards decorated the back roads, next to deep-green fields of alfalfa ready for another cut. A soft breeze chilled the morning air outside Shorty’s La Amistad Cafe, where inside, Brian Riddell waited on a pair of chorizo and egg burritos.

The television told Riddell a bike race was coming through the neighborhood, the first he heard about it. A retired engine builder and long-haul trucker, Riddell said it’s usually challenge enough in his life of leisure to find an excuse to get out of bed. Informed that the Amgen Tour of California would be passing through along South River Road in about 21/2 hours, Riddell said he’d probably make a point to check it out.

Sure enough, Riddell’s friends spotted him later where Clarksburg Road runs you right into the blue if you don’t turn right or left. He joined a hundred or so others up and down the road. Together, they devoted a few minutes of Mother’s Day to watch the riders speed past, about a half-dozen leaders at first, front-runners who were likely to be followers by the time the race circled the 126 miles back to Sacramento. A minute or two behind the rabbits rode the hounds, in a fuller pack of pedalers in what followers of the sport know as the peloton.

“There’s always something going on down here,” said Riddell, who gave his age as somewhere around 55. “You’ve got to dodge between the tractors and the bicycles. Every weekend out here, there are either a hundred Ferraris going by, or a group that rides antique motorcycles. There are wine tours every weekend. With the vineyards and the tasting rooms, you never know what’s coming up the road.”

With the bike race as the attraction, it was a day of politics and commerce, as well as mothers. They all gathered on the levee road above the river. They cheered the athletes and their teams of supporters and a couple dozen CHP vehicles that made you wonder if anybody was minding the nearby I-5.

Services at Clarksburg Community Church were set for 11 a.m., about a half-hour before the bicycle parade rode through, and a man named Larry Musso wondered beforehand if he’d be able to get in or out.

“My son’s singing,” Musso said, explaining his mild worry.

Ingress and egress in the tight confines of Clarksburg proved to be unimpeded, except for the few minutes it took for the competitors to push through town. If the TV cameras caught Clarksburg at all, it was only for a whoosh. The Delta Community Area Residents for Environmental Sustainability, or Delta C.A.R.E.S., wanted it to be longer. The activists stood on the side of the road holding signs that told of their disfavor with Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to tunnel water out of the Delta.

“We’re thrilled to see the race come through here,” spokeswoman Wendy Heaton said. “It exposes the Delta to a lot of people who can see what’s here. A lot of people don’t know about the Delta. It’s such a hidden gem.”

The race brought a business bonanza to Clarksburg, but not on Sunday. Katherine Van Diest, who runs Husick’s Barbecue and Tap Room, said her joint was jumping all day Saturday, when she said as many as 600 race officials and others streamed through the Delta. Things fell off Sunday, when the day’s pour featured two flavors from the Yolo Brewing Co., another from New Glory of Sacramento, as well as the Carneros Cerveza Pilsner, a new contender fighting out of Sonoma.

“I’m not a big biker, because I’m too lazy,” Van Diest admitted to a visitor. “But I appreciate anyone who is.”

Outside Husick’s, Paul MacFarland Jr. blew a nice soprano sax melody on Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle,” backed by a drum-and-music machine he did not need. Upriver a bit, over at the Old Sugar Mill, Doug Martin sang and strummed Blind Faith’s classic “Can’t Find My Way Home,” to a smaller-than-normal Mother’s Day crowd. Carvalho Family Winery’s hospitality director, Marnie Stiles, attributed the off day to fears of a race-related traffic nightmare that never materialized.

Plenty of people stood at the side of the road simply because they are bike race buffs. Nick Kantor, 71, who spins a hundred miles a week or so with the Sacramento Wheelmen, and his life partner, Jackie Miller, a watcher and not a racer, were two of them. They knew the names of all the teams and of all the leading riders. They knew the strategies. They know the big races and they talked about a dream vacation some year to take in the Tour de France.

On Sunday, they watched the Amgen TOC like they do every year, but for the first time ever from the Delta playground they love for its wineries and rural beauty.

They cheered when the race zipped through, and the excitement on the levees of Clarksburg had barely subsided before they got in the car to head for the next stage of their day.

“We’re driving downtown for the finish,” Kantor said.

Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.

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