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Tour of California: A New Era for Cycling

Somewhere, despite awkward fat jokes and an endless train of ghost-written regret-rospectives, cycling in the US has given birth to the most important bike race in the world right now: the Amgen Tour of California.

Don’t believe me? SRAM chose ATOC to launch its new wireless electronic groupset, arguably the biggest tech development of the season. Then there was Shimano, which rolled out its pre-launch action cameras by rigging them to John Degenkolb’s and Koen de Kort’s bikes. The resulting footage speaks for itself:

I have my quibbles with the specifics of each marketing effort (SRAM initially dressed their components in wires that fooled no one; Shimano rapidly discovered that any action camera footage will automatically be attributed to a GoPro), but it speaks volumes that the platform they chose to roll them out at was this upstart American race — and not, say, the Giro.

The Tour of California didn’t even exist the first time current Giro leader Cadel Evans wore the pink jersey, way back in 2002. Right now, he’s leading the race once again, but because of what? Panache? Savvy tactics? Hardly.

The bulk of the BMC rider’s advantage came on a day when he and a small group of riders remained upright through a rainy roundabout. As the escape headed up the final climb, Evans and his teammates ensured cooperation — and thus time on his rivals — by simply giving away the stage win to the second-best represented squad.

Not that the racing action at ATOC was overwhelming, either. Even the gripping onboard footage from the Giant-Shimano sprint train was dulled a touch by the wide roads and shallower talent pool, and for the most part, the large climbs, neatly paved and graded for big rigs, failed to break up the group as effectively as similarly-sized climbs in Europe. But unlike the Giro, anyone in the US could watch the event by simply opening up a web browser.

Also unlike the Giro, which can’t do much about the lousy Italian pavement, Tour of California has the potential to work out its flaws as it grows. Bigger audiences will bring more advertisers, reducing dependence on funding from finishing towns, and opening up the possibility of stage finishes on twistier, steeper, and more decisive climbs.

There might even be a full women’s Tour of California someday, instead of the current tangentially related women’s circuit race and time trial, which, frankly, would struggle to find popularity even as an amateur Masters event.

The opportunity is fantastic — in contrast to the very-well attended Women’s Tour of Britain, which was a fun but relatively unapproachable classics-style race, a full women’s Tour of California would follow the stage race mold of time trials and climbs hammered into the American consciousness during the Armstrong years. And the United States’ Mara Abbott and Evelyn Stevens just so happen to be two of the strongest contenders in that particular format at the moment.

Of course, ATOC will never develop into the next Tour de France. And while the mayhem of the Giro is more curse than gift at the moment, the event is always only a snowstorm or seemingly suicidal attack away from greatness.

Already, brief flashes of brilliance have punctuated the rainy monotony — Treks’ Julien Arredondo nearly soloed clear to three KOMs and a stage win on Stage 8, and while he lacks top tier competition (read: Kittel and Cavendish), Nacer Bouhanni’s three stage wins are a very definite breakthrough for the FDJ sprinter.

But the Tour of California need not match the Giro’s drama and spectacle to be a success. Its mid-May launch date is a marketer’s dream, and its position as a restart race for classics specialists all but guarantees a field peppered with big names. The wide, well-kept roads and VIP opportunities for American-based sponsors (a certain Morgan Hill, CA company now provides more WorldTour teams with bikes than any other brand) don’t hurt, either.

At any rate, it’s not like the cycling world needs another Tour de France. The TdF isn’t a race so much as cycling’s version of the Star Wars franchise — a plotline and characters that verge on cultural inescapability despite not having produced a compelling edition for many, many years.

The Tour of California is more akin to Twilight, or more charitably, The Fault in Our Stars, supported by legions of screaming fans whose enthusiasm, though thoroughly baffling to the uninitiated, is infectious. That this energy compensates for the fact that many of them are relative newcomers to the sport is not a criticism

At one point, every one cycling fan was very much in these same shoes, mesmerized as multicolored trains of athletes in spandex weaved across the road while Phil Liggett yelled about engine rooms, not really knowing what was going on other than that it seemed cool, and that we wanted to learn more.

The difference with the crowds in California is that they’ve heard about the drugs, they’ve watched the confessions, and they’ve seen the heroes fall — yet they’re still on hand to watch as the spectacle roars by. That a relatively unremarkable, eight-year-old event can ignite such enthusiasm can only have good implications for the future of the sport as a whole.

*Editor’s Note: Cadel Evans lost the Maglia Rosa to Urán shortly after this piece was written.

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