Amgen Tour of California, 2010 edition: Not with a bang …

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You have to feel a bit sorry for the organizers and competitors of the Amgen Tour of California, and not just because they had to say the name of a giant faceless bio-med corporation every time they mentioned the race. While Amgen was a better title sponsor to have than, say, BP would have been, let’s pray we never get to the point where it’s the Toyota Tour de France or Goldman Sachs Hell of the North.

When they chose May dates smack in the middle of the 2010 Giro d’Italia, the Tour of California folks undoubtedly considered it a brilliant PR move. No one paid much attention to the Giro, and the cycling fans who did would be starved for media coverage since no one ever broadcast the Giro.

Plus the Tour (of Cali) would give American cycling fans a showcase to rival that of the Giro and Tour (de France) internationally. Instead of the biting cold and wet of February, the May weather would be spectacularly unrainy. Lance Armstrong and his new Team Radio Shack would be on hand to galvanize America’s racing crowd, Lance teammate Levi Leipheimer would take home a fourth straight title, and the U.S. would finally have a place in the pantheon of professional cycling’s grand stage races.

Oops …

Instead we got:

Rain in the early stages, including a deluge in the run from Davis to Santa Rosa. Versus television coverage that pretty much sucked from too few cameras — when they were working, that is (that Davis-Santa Rosa stage went completely untelevised due to technical problems). Compounding it all, Versus actually cut away from the finish of one stage to televise opening foo-fah of a hockey playoff game.

Even Lance tweeted in protest.

Then, just as the race entered its decisive stages, there was the Landis bombshell accusing Armstrong and the marquee U.S. competitors in the Amgen Tour of systematic doping. The King promptly crashed out of the race entirely, leaving Levi without the support (and perhaps less will) to succeed in his valiant quest for a fourth title.

At the same time, the Giro was proving to be one of the greatest Grand Tours of all time, with spectacular crashes, thrilling solos, day-to-day lead changes, brutal climbs and all sorts of strategic permutations keeping cycling fans glued to Universal Sports’ live coverage day after day. Yes, there was live daily coverage. The Amgen Tour planners undoubtedly hadn’t counted on that one either.

Nor has the Giro, so far at least, been rocked by doping disqualifications. If there had been a contest at the beginning of May with the question, “A major doping scandal will strike either the Giro d’Italia or the Amgen Tour of California. Pick which one correctly and receive the chance to win an autographed copy of Lance Amstrong’s “It’s Not About the Bike” and Floyd Landis’ “Positively False: The Real Story of How I Won the Tour” — no one would have won.

Instead, the cycling world is buzzing about the Giro being the first “post-doping era” grand tour.

About the only clear advantage Cali offered was better commercials — and the commentaries of vintage cycling sportscasters Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, the gold standard of the sport (even if Liggett did refer to the brown haze hanging over Los Angeles, without irony, as “fog”). But even those two could only do so much with an entire broadcast showing a single camera focused on a rain-besotted finish line, cutaways to hockey, and a scandal-battered cast of characters at tour’s end.

Trash in the non–drug sense.
As for Team Radio Shack, they may have forgotten that the “T” in the initials “TRS” stood for “trash” (as in the Trash-80) back in the day, when Tandy Radio Shack was the tech BP of the ’80s.

By the time yesterday’s final stage rolled around, all the air had been sucked right out of the Amgen Tour of California. Everyone seemed eager to get out of there and go home. It didn’t help that the cycling world was still buzzing about the 15th stage of the Giro earlier in the day, where Cadel Evans and Ivan Basso duked it out on punishing 15-percent grades up Monte Zoncolan.

The Giro took time out today for a rest day before resuming its epic final week of hellacious mountainous flagellation on wheels. If as the Giro concludes the cycling world continues to talk about the 2010 Amgen Tour of California, it will be for all the wrong reasons. For its organizers, 2011 can’t come too soon.


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