Matteo Fabbro (Katusha Alpecin) led the peloton during Stage 7, a circuit around Sacramento. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images for AEG.

The weekly spin: California memories

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It’s cold and raining in Colorado as I take a pause from packing my suitcase to turn some thoughts into pixels. Though I’ve lived in Boulder for almost 20 years, in a sense, I’m headed home.

I’m headed to warmer climes — Sacramento, to be exact — for my 14th consecutive trip to the Amgen Tour of California, the state where I was born and raised. On Thursday I’ll be driving through spring snow, wearing a winter jacket to the airport, which won’t see much use until I return.

It wasn’t always a guarantee that the Amgen Tour would be warm and sunny, however.

When the race launched in 2006, it was held in mid-February, a risky endeavor even by Golden State standards. The first two editions were contested under warm, sunny conditions; the third year was marked by inevitable harsh winter weather.

It was at that 2008 race that the peloton spent over seven hours racing through sideways rain and into a block headwind along the scenic stretch of coastline that connects the Monterey Bay and San Luis Obispo. I have a distinct memory of pulling over in the media car, opening the door to get out, and watching the wind slam the door shut before I could get my leg out of the car. It was a day that many pros called the most difficult of their career.

Riding for the domestic Toyota-United squad, French-Canadian rider Dominique Rollin won that stage from a breakaway, soloing away from American star George Hincapie. That victory launched Rollin’s pro career; he would sign a contract with Cervélo TestTeam for the following season. After several years spent riding with FDJ and Cofidis, Rollin retired in 2015; that stage win would remain his biggest result. Though it happens less than it used to, the Amgen Tour was once a race that launched careers.

With rain, cold temperatures, and a strong headwind, Stage 4 of the 2008 Amgen Tour of California, from Seaside to San Luis Obispo, has been described by many riders as the hardest day of their career.

The race was first announced in March 2005, a month before Lance Armstrong announced his first retirement, at a press conference held during the UCI Track Cycling World Championships at what was then called the Home Depot Center, a $150 million training center in Carson, California.

Like that velodrome, the stage race would be owned and managed by Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), a subsidiary of a Colorado-based venture capital group owned by billionaire (and cycling fan) Philip Anschutz. The Amgen Tour would be a relatively small event in an AEG portfolio that also includes the Staples Center, the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, and the Coachella music festival.

Amgen, the Thousand Oaks-based biopharmaceutical company that had developed erythropoietin for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, signed on as title sponsor, initially for three years. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger offered his support, including providing route security from the California State Highway Patrol.

Back in March 2005, Robert Colarossi was named AEG’s managing director for the event, and Gerard Bisceglia was CEO at USA Cycling. Since then, Shawn Hunter, Andrew Messick, and Kristin Klein have run the race for AEG, while Steve Johnson, Derek Bouchard-Hall, and now Rob DeMartini have been at the helm of USA Cycling.

“It’s going to rival the Tour de France,” AEG CEO and president Tim Leiweke said in 2005, offering up a $35 million commitment over five years. The American cycling industry welcomed the event. California-based brands Specialized, Clif Bar, and Giant all hosted events in conjunction with the inaugural edition. This year, for the second consecutive year, a stage will finish in Morgan Hill, the city south of San Jose where Specialized is based.

Much has changed over the past 14 years. Other statewide stage races, such as the Tour de Georgia, Tour of Missouri, and the USA Pro Challenge have come and gone; only California, and the Tour of Utah, remain.

The inaugural edition began with a prologue in San Francisco, finishing at Coit Tower. The top five finishers from that prologue — American stars Levi Leipheimer, Bobby Julich, George Hincapie, Floyd Landis, and Dave Zabriskie — have all since admitted to doping, along with Armstrong, the biggest star the sport has ever seen. The race has not returned to San Francisco since 2013.

Riders whose careers began at the same time as the inaugural event have long since retired. Last year’s winner, Colombian Egan Bernal, was nine years old when the first edition was held. The race has, essentially, spanned a generation of cycling fans and athletes alike.

The Amgen Tour perhaps first peaked in 2009, the first year of Armstrong’s comeback. Competing in that 2009 edition were several of the biggest names in the sport — classics stars Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen and Thor Hushovd; future Grand Tour winners Vincenzo Nibali and Andy Schleck; and fan favorites like Jens Voigt and Chris Horner. It was possibly the best field ever assembled in the United States; at least since the 1986 world championships in Colorado Springs. (Last year’s field was not bad, either.)

Also participating in the 2009 race were Floyd Landis and Ivan Basso, both returning to competition after serving doping bans. The confluence of Armstrong, Landis, and Basso all back in the pro peloton after years in the wilderness— and Armstrong’s welcoming attitude toward their return, despite any obvious signs of contrition— led to the infamous line of questioning from Irish journalist Paul Kimmage at the pre-race press conference, who asked Armstrong, “What is it about these dopers you seem to admire so much?”

Armstrong’s angry response silenced the room. “When I decided to come back, for what I think is a very noble reason, you said, ‘The cancer has been in remission for four years, our cancer has now returned,’ meaning me, that I am the cancer… You are not worth the chair you are sitting on with a statement like that, with a disease that touches everyone around the world.”

One year later, the Amgen Tour was rocked by Landis’ explosive allegations of doping during his time riding alongside Armstrong at the US Postal Service team, with Armstrong forced to deny the accusations outside the RadioShack team bus before the start of Stage 5 in Visalia. A few hours later, Armstrong crashed out of the race, his left cheek covered in blood.

Two years of the race, and two years of doping scandals. It’s fair to say Armstrong’s presence at the Amgen Tour of California was disruptive.

That 2010 edition was also the first year the race had been held in May, rather than February. The weather was better, and the door was opened for summit finishes, but the race date now clashed with the Giro d’Italia.

Lance Armstrong rode the Amgen Tour of California twice, in 2009 and 2010, and both appearances were marred by doping allegations and controversy.

In 2010, Australian Michael Rogers became the race’s first non-American winner. In 2015, a women’s stage race was added; later that year, longtime operations partner Medalist Sports was notified its management contract would not be renewed, with Tour de France owners ASO slotting into the role. In 2017, the race took on WorldTour status, though a UCI exception has allowed a limited number of domestic teams to continue to compete.

I’ve been to every edition of the Amgen Tour with the exception of 2013, when I covered the Giro d’Italia. Looking back, it’s hard for me to select memories of the race that stand out most. Some are specific, like Peter Sagan winning the overall in 2015 by turning himself inside-out in the leader’s jersey on Mount Baldy, and then scooping up bonus seconds the following to take the jersey back from Julian Alaphilippe. Other memories are more general, such as the race visiting places where I have friends and family, like Santa Cruz, where I went to college, or Escondido, where my parents live.

I recall standing behind the podium at the finish of a stage in Sacramento, minding my own business, and being bumped into, and then manhandled, by several men in suits and sunglasses that looked and acted a lot like Secret Service agents. They were sweeping out the area, and just as I was about to show them my credential and explain that I was allowed to be there, the “Governator” passed through. I was quickly shown the exit. I thought it was funny that I was viewed as a possible threat to the former bodybuilder who had played Conan the Barbarian on screen.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on stage with the jersey wearers after the opening prologue of the 2009 Amgen Tour. From left: Mark Cavendish, Fabian Cancellara, Levi Leipheimer, and Lance Armstrong.

I recall that, especially in the early years, riders from Continental teams — names like Rollin, Haedo, Acevedo, and Skujins — could land themselves pro contracts based on stage wins in California. It’s a facet of the race that has changed somewhat now that the race has taken on WorldTour status and it has become harder for small teams to participate.

I recall the chaos surrounding Rock Racing at the 2008 edition, and squaring off against bombastic team owner Michael Ball a few weeks after I had been uninvited to the team launch in Los Angeles for reporting that team rider Kayle Leogrande was the anonymous filer of a lawsuit against the United States Anti-Doping Agency.

Though Rock Racing was a sponsor of the 2008 race, three of its riders — Tyler Hamilton, Santiago Botero, and Oscar Sevilla — were not allowed to participate, denied by race organizers after the UCI stated that they were still involved in an open investigation, stemming back to Operacion Puerto. Ball, who embraced controversy, turned that edition of the race into a PR stunt, with Hamilton, Botero, and Sevilla riding the route of each stage ahead of the race.

Mario Cipollini and Rock Racing owner Michael Ball at the 2008 Amgen Tour of California.

Inside the race, Italian sprinter Mario Cipollini, who came out of retirement to ride for Rock Racing, finished third in a sprint behind Tom Boonen and Heinrich Haussler, but ahead of a young Mark Cavendish, who had reportedly upset Cipollini a few days earlier when he pedaled past him using only one leg during the time trial.

Rock Racing’s mantra was “Here to Stay.” Thankfully, the team folded in 2010, after just three seasons. A footnote to the entire Rock Racing story: In the spring of 2010, at the behest of federal agents, Landis wore a wire and carried a small video camera to expose doping products in the refrigerator of Ball’s luxury apartment in Marina Del Rey. According to the New York Daily News, the evidence Landis collected helped the FDA obtain a search warrant for Ball’s apartment.

I have several memories from the 2011 edition, beginning with my experience riding L’Etape du California with my father, previewing the 75.6-mile (121.6km) stage finishing on Mt. Baldy, with a total of 11,000 feet (3,352 meters) of elevation gain. On the final, steep 5km — averaging 10% gradient, with the last kilometer an unrelenting 12-16% — I saw dozens of riders off their bikes, cramping, walking, huddled in the shade, and either encouraging or consoling one another.

That year’s race began in South Lake Tahoe, though the opening stage was cancelled, somewhat spontaneously on the start line, after riders protested against racing in the snow. A few days later, on the Sierra Road climb in San Jose, Chris Horner countered off an attack by Ryder Hesjedal, creating a bit of controversy when he left behind Leipheimer, a three-time California champion and his RadioShack teammate, to take the leader’s jersey. A few days later, they crossed the finish line atop Baldy together, on their own, with Horner gifting the stage to Leipheimer, a bit of a consolation prize.

I recall doing a joint interview with Liquigas teammates Peter Sagan and an allergy-affected Vincenzo Nibali in their shared hotel room in 2012; Sagan went on to win five stages that year. I recall riders collapsing with heat stroke at the finish in 114°F (46°C) heat in Palm Springs, in 2013. I recall Bradley Wiggins winning the overall in 2014 as he aimed, unsuccessfully, to make Team Sky’s selection for the Tour de France squad one year after ceding team leadership to Chris Froome. It would prove to be his final stage-race victory.

I recall the horrifying moments and questions that were raised in 2017 after Toms Skujins, who had won a stage and wore the leader’s jersey in 2015, crashed from a breakaway, struggled to maintain his balance, twice attempted to get back on his bike, and ultimately re-mounted and rode for several kilometers, clearly concussed, before he was pulled from the race.

It’s also noteworthy that while participating in every edition since the race began, the American Slipstream/Garmin/Cannondale/Education First squad has never won the general classification, five times finishing second. The last American to win the race, Tejay van Garderen (in 2013), hopes to change that next week in his first season for EF Education First. Van Garderen finished second overall behind Egan Bernal last year, though that was largely on the strength of his stage-winning time trial.

This year’s race will mark the first edition without a time trial, something that may work against Van Garderen as well as pre-race favorite Rohan Dennis, twice a second-place overall finisher.

With mountain stages finishing at South Lake Tahoe and Mount Baldy, Dennis will likely see his greatest competition from compatriot Richie Porte, making his California debut, and Kiwi George Bennett, who took his first and only professional stage-race victory in California, in 2017.

This year’s race will also mark Sagan’s tenth consecutive participation at the event; he’s raced in California every year of his pro career. In that time he’s amassed quite a record, with 16 stage wins, plus his overall victory in 2015. The 2018 edition was the only time he’s left California without a stage win.

And while much has changed over the years — race directors, operations management, calendar dates, host cities, UCI status — both Amgen and AEG remain as the driving forces behind the event. What began as a three-year commitment from Amgen, and a five-year commitment from AEG, has blossomed into something much more significant.

Early on, I recall race officials asking media to refer to the race as the Amgen Tour of California, rather than just the Tour of California. At the time, it felt a bit forced. Today, it doesn’t. AEG may own the event, but the race will forever be linked to Amgen. When the Coors Classic folded after the 1988 event, part of the reason was that it proved impossible to find a replacement sponsor; Coors had left an indelible brand imprint on the event. I suspect that, for better or for worse, that may now be the case with the Amgen Tour.

With its 14th edition beginning on Sunday, the Amgen Tour of California equals the Red Zinger/Coors Classic as the longest-running professional stage race in American history. It also stands as the only US race on both the UCI WorldTour and UCI Women’s WorldTour.

These are milestones that should be celebrated. I know I’m looking forward to creating more memories.

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