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Sacramento hosts prologue for Tour of California

Despite its diverse riding community, numerous bike shops, accomplished cyclists and a 32-mile training artery along the American River Parkway, Sacramento is hardly a hub for professional cycling.

Leonard Harvey Nitz, Greg LeMond, Scott McKinley, Eric Heiden, Steve Larsen, Mike Sayers, Chad Gerlach and Julie Young all had their time in the sport. But for the most part, those pros and others with Sacramento area connections traveled around the globe to pedal their bikes competitively. Rarely has the cycling world come to Sacramento.

The Coors International Bicycle Classic in the mid-1980s had stages in Sacramento and surrounding cities. The California Lottery Classic, a criterium (a short, enclosed course) in Old Sacramento, attracted a strong international field of men and women riders in the early 1990s, but it folded after a brief tenure.

A decade and a half later, cycling’s most well-known athletes—Tour de France titlists, Olympic gold medalists and multiple world titlists—will begin the most important race in the United States in Sacramento on Saturday, in the prologue of the fourth edition of the Amgen Tour of California.

The field will comprise 17 teams of eight riders, and barring a late illness or injury, a field of 136 cyclists. Although representing more than a dozen countries, riders don’t compete as compatriots. Instead, they’re employed by domestic and international trade teams.

Eight ProTour squads, the highest designation of the Union Cycliste Internationale, the international governing organization, will compete. The remaining nine teams have lesser international status. The ProTour squads, all employing 25 to 30 riders and with multimillion-dollar budgets, compete on a nearly year-round schedule that includes the famous trio of three-week races, the Tour of Italy (May), Tour de France (July) and Tour of Spain (September). Squads like Northern California-based BMC have substantially smaller budgets and primarily compete domestically with periodic international races.

The Tour of California debuted in 2006 in San Francisco, but its profile didn’t include Sacramento. During the 2007 and 2008 events, the weekday second stage beginning in Santa Rosa ended in Sacramento with riders finishing in a blur of short, high-speed laps near the Capitol. With the prologue, the race will unfold not too unlike an Indianapolis 500 qualifying session, with a short, individually timed time trial.

Like motor sports drivers, cyclists’ livelihoods are determined via sponsorships. With the exception of participation in Olympics and world championships, athletes perform while wearing sponsor-laden attire. Financial institutions (Saxo Bank, Rabobank, Ag2r) sponsor ProTour teams, and others cyclists in the Tour of California will compete while promoting vacuum cleaners (Bissell), natural gas (Liquiqas), designer jeans (Rock Racing) and a conglomerate of Kazakhstan businessmen in the country’s capital (Astana). Jelly Belly will also field a team. The confection manufacturer based in Fairfield is beginning its 20th year of cycling sponsorship, the country’s longest tenure.

The nine-day Tour of California (one day longer than its first three years) will progress through the daily starting and finishing cities of Sacramento, Davis, Santa Rosa, Sausalito, Santa Cruz, San Jose, Modesto, Merced, Clovis, Visalia, Paso Robles, Solvang, Santa Clarita, Pasadena, Rancho Bernardo and Escondido. The route will cover an estimated 750 miles and conclude February 22 in San Diego County.

The Sacramento race will begin at 1:30 p.m. A short (5 to 6 minutes) and fast (an average estimated winning speed of 30 mph) race, the prologue determines a race leader for the first stage.

Beginning on a ramp near the corner of Capitol Avenue and L Street, riders will head west toward Tower Bridge before making a U-turn at Fourth Street and heading east along Capitol Avenue. Riders will turn right on Ninth Street, left on N Street and advance past Capitol Park for 10 blocks to 19th Street. After left turns on 19th Street and L Street, cyclists will pedal eight blocks to the finish line at 11th and L streets.

Stage one will begin at noon Sunday, in Davis, at the intersection of the Third and C streets. A new stage, the route will include evenly spaced climbs, rolling terrain and spectacular views. After 20 miles of flat roads, riders will negotiate their first climb up a short, steep section leading to Monticello Dam. Another long, flat section along Lake Berryessa will take riders up Howell Mountain Road, followed by a descent into Napa Valley. Downtown Santa Rosa has held a stage finish the race’s first three years, and it has attracted the largest crowds of the event. It will likely do so again following the 108-mile route ending in midafternoon at Third Street at Santa Rosa Avenue in the historic downtown area.

The subsequent stages all have unique profiles:

Stage two—Sausalito to Santa Cruz. It will include crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, a race first.

Stage three—San Jose to Modesto. The well-known climbs of Sierra Road and Patterson Pass will test the field.

Stage four—Merced to Clovis. It’s a hilly stage in a new area for the event.

Stage five—Visalia to Paso Robles. It the event’s longest day at 130 miles, and likely the most unpredictable.

Stage six—Solvang individual time trial. Two-time defending race titlist Levi Leipheimer has dominated the flat 15-mile route the past two years.

Stage seven—Santa Clarita to Pasadena. The fast finishing circuits near the Rose Bowl could prove dangerous.

Stage eight—Rancho Bernardo to Escondido. It’s uncommon for a stage race to include a final-day climb, but the 97-mile day will feature the 12-mile Palomar Mountain climb.

With the exception of prologues and individual time trials, stage racing unfolds as a team sport. Riders move to the front and others follow, or don’t, depending on the strength of their legs and lungs, position in the overall standings or their team leader’s position. Subcategory competitions, like best climber, best sprinter and best young rider, unfold, too.

But the Tour of California, like other stage races, will progress with easy-to-understand overall formula: The rider with the lowest cumulative time will win.