I spent most of Tuesday morning at Lake Cunningham, seeing my first Amgen Tour of California extravaganza. Usually, I miss it because I'm covering hockey this time of year. But that wasn't a problem this year. (And when the race was in February, I think I was covering golf at Pebble Beach.)
My brief impressions, not meant as a deep analysis because the cycling crowd gets mighty testy if you try to pretend you know what you're talking about when you don't. I wasn't assigned to cover the event, I just kind of wanted to soak up the vibe and see what there was to see. So this is more as an outsider's perspective, though I have covered some Olympic cycling races: There might be no event more made for television and less for in-person spectating than bicycle racing, unless it's a time trial where the riders do several laps and pass the crowds several times. Otherwise, the riders go by in a flash. The spectator "experience" consists of maybe four or five minutes of excitement, tops. San Jose is the only Northern California city to host portions of all nine Tour of Californias, which is thanks to the good work of the San Jose Sports Authority, the same organization that works to bring NCAA basketball tournaments and figure skating championships to town. Hats off (and helmets off) to the group and to all the volunteers who assist them in setting up the barriers and banners and stages utilized for the event production. Over those nine years, there have been starts and finishes and time trials in San Jose, some of them downtown, which is very cool but does cost a lot of dough for the police presence and road closings, etc. This year, the start was moved out to the east side and basically took place in the Raging Waters parking lots. I thought it worked well. A nice enough crowd showed up to stroll through the merchandise/sponsor areas and rub shoulders with crew members and riders. It was very weird to see competitors waiting at the start line, facing the toughest test of the Tour, but signing autographs for spectators who leaned over the retaining fences with pens and paper, but also kind of cool. This was one scene that made me chuckle: As I walked from the parking lot where the team trailers/vans were parked with the bikes and equipment, I sniffed something strange: Cigarette smoke. It turns out that I was walking behind a crew member from the Belkin team, who was surreptitiously puffing away on a butt that was cupped in his hand. I'm guessing he was from Europe. The big star of this year's Tour, of course, is Bradley Wiggins from Great Britain and the Sky Team. Excuse me. Make that "Sir Bradley Wiggins," as he was introduced at the start line. Look, I respect the guy a helluva lot as an Olympic gold medalist and former Tour de France winner. He's probably going to win this event, too. But if the cycling crowd wants to be seen as regular guys and not some cultish elite folk, they need to start calling the guy just plain "Brad." Lance Armstrong disclaimer: For the record, I saw no illegal drug activity on the premises. Man, I sure hope the sport has cleaned up itself. These guys are amazing athletes and watching them pedal frantically (in the brief time you see them up close) gives you great admiration for what they do. But this is one athletic business that can stand no more stains on its reputation. Anyway, so I stood there at the start line. Being virtually shoulder to shoulder with world-class athletes as they start an event is really unique (imagine being alongside Usain Bolt in the starting blocks). There was a nice moment of silence for cancer patients and victims, then the national anthem, then some announcer screaming, then a gun pop. Maybe a thousand people were there applauding as the riders went off, pushing off slowly to avoid accidents before forming the pack and heading around the curve and out of sight. Not the most exciting sports moment I've experienced this year (or even this week). But something different. The cycling crowd and fans seemed to get into it.