Bike this way
Like all sports events, the Tour of California relies on sponsors. What happens when Amgen’s ride is over in 2011?
During an uneventful early session at the 2005 UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Carson, Calif., a hastily called press conference was announced to a small corps of international journalists. Everyone knew what was about to be revealed—a new California bike race.
Men dressed in fancy suits and employed by Anschutz Entertainment Group, the conglomerate that owns pro teams and sports facilities around the globe, said the Tour of California would debut the following year. No riders or teams had committed, nor did the event have race dates secured on the international pro calendar.
Since the demise of the Coors Classic in 1988 (the last time an international stage race included a stop in Sacramento), race promoters and sport enthusiasts wondered when top-level cycling might return. And just as planned, the Tour of California debuted in February 2006 with Amgen, the pharmaceutical manufacturing monolith based in Thousand Oaks, as title sponsor.
Floyd Landis won the event easily and five months later he pedaled to an improbable Tour de France title later stripped due to a doping suspension. Three straight titles by Levi Leipheimer of Santa Rosa have followed in subsequent Tour of California editions. And the race’s fifth edition begins Sunday with its strongest 16-team, 128-rider international field.
Add it all up, and there’s been about 3,000 miles and a month or so of total racing days as the Tour of California has matured and is now positioned among pro cycling’s most prominent events. This year’s edition will advance from Nevada City to Sacramento on Sunday, progress from Davis to Santa Rosa next Monday and conclude May 23, in Thousand Oaks.
But like all bicycle races (and other pro sports) around the globe, the Tour of California relies on sponsors. When the Tour of California was announced, AEG officials said the company would commit $35 million for its first five years. Amgen originally signed on as title sponsor for three years and then renewed its contract.
But the often-reported, two-year Amgen title sponsorship renewal and the race owner’s commitment to the event through 2010 event is inaccurate.
Interviewed following his remarks at the recent unveiling of the U.S Bicycling Hall of Fame in Davis, Andrew Messick, president of the AEG, said the Tour of California’s current status will remain through 2011.
“What we agreed to with Amgen is not to discuss the terms of the renewal,” said Messick. “What I will say on the record is that the race is moving forward and we expect this year [to be] the biggest race so far.” With its dates moved forward three months for better weather conditions allowing the inclusion of a mountaintop stage finish, the Tour of California is now pitted on the international calendar with dates overlapping the Tour of Italy (May 8-30). Known as a grand tour or three-week race, the Tour of Italy is generally considered cycling’s second-largest stage race, behind only the Tour de France.
The conflicting dates mean several things, but the change has been overwhelmingly welcomed, particularly among cyclists.
“I think the date changes are great,” said veteran rider George Hincapie, a member of the BMC team who has competed in all four Tour of California editions. “The weather is probably going to be a lot better. With its new place on the calendar, it can be even a more important race. They’ll be a lot of the Tour de France riders there. The riders will be coming into the race in shape. So generally, I think the race will be a lot more interesting for the fans and for the riders involved. So I’m happy with the changes. I think the race will be harder.”
With the exception of Team RadioShack (it wasn’t invited), participating ProTour (top-level) teams will simultaneously field quads in both the Tour of California and Tour of Italy. Yet, while holding its own against the depth Tour of Italy field, some well-known American pros, including Christian Vande Velde and Tyler Farrar, will be a week into Tour of Italy when the Tour of California begins.
But many other prominent riders, including reigning world road titlist Tom Boonen of Belgium; Mark Cavendish of Great Britain, the sport’s best sprinter; Leipheimer and a guy named Lance Armstrong will pedal into Sacramento in midafternoon Sunday en route to finishing stage one at the Capitol.
Two major cycling events held concurrently prompts a logical assumption the business of cycling is healthy. Yet the future of the Tour of California past 2011 is unknown.
Bicycle race uncertainty is nothing new. The Tour de Georgia, which began in 2003, lasted six years and had Armstrong and Landis among its winners. Chrysler and AT&T held title sponsorships, but when the title deals ended, so did the race. Likewise, the Tour of Missouri, now three years old, is awaiting word of its future. State politicians continue to argue the merits of the race’s $1.5 million department of tourism budget while the state is facing the same general funding worries of other states.
Lack of financial sponsors has prompted the cancellation of numerous other cycling events around the country in recent years. But there are exceptions. The Tour of the Battenkill, a rugged one-day race in upstate New York, has a new title sponsorship from Pepsi. Likewise, the Tour of the Gila, a longstanding, hilly, five-day event in New Mexico, was saved from its demise after 22 years in 2009. It acquired a last-second title sponsorship from SRAM, the bicycle component manufacturer partially owned by Armstrong. In Minnesota, the Nature Valley Grand Prix, a men’s and women’s pro stage race, has a long relationship with the General Mills brand.
One rumored future for the Tour of California is its sale to Amaury Sport Organization, the global enterprise that owns the Tour de France and events as wide-ranging as the Dakar auto rally and Paris Marathon.
The Tour of California recently announced an expanding media agreement with ASO. Its technical team will film and distribute the Tour of California to global networks, including Versus in the United States and Eurosport in Europe. Messick denies cycling website reports that the new agreement is an entree to new event owners.
Various cycling publications have also reported the Tour of California has lost substantial amounts of money, with some estimates as much as several million dollars per year.
“I won’t comment on that,” said Messick. “but what I will say is that we’re looking forward to it and can’t wait until this year’s race. I think it will be our best.”