Tour of California to kick off with downtown Sacramento time trial

When the news broke months ago that Sacramento would host the first day of the Amgen Tour of California, cycling fans imagined a six-hour romp with Lance Armstrong leading the peloton through the challenging roads in the foothills.

The course, however, will take a dramatic shift on Day 1 from those plans. It will be about 80 miles shorter but some say 100 times more exciting for the atmosphere and spectacle of an anticipated 100,000 fans converging on downtown Sacramento on Feb. 14.

That was the word Thursday during a news conference announcing the surprising route, which will feature 2.4 miles of flat-out racing against the clock, one rider at a time pedaling furiously around the streets of downtown Sacramento.

What's more, Armstrong and many of the world's other top cyclists could be in town for several days, training on local roads. On race day, they will be warming up downtown on their stationary trainers for an hour or more, giving fans a chance to gawk, take pictures and inspect the latest high-tech, high-priced cycling equipment.

Officials shortened the first day after consulting with racers and the cycling's international governing body. They concluded that nine full days of racing might be too much so early in the season.

The winners? The fans.

"From a spectator's standpoint, this is going to be much more exciting," said Mike Sayers, a Sacramento native who recently retired after 14 years as a pro cyclist.

The short race against the clock is generally considered a true test of cycling strength, devoid of all tactics and without any drafting or teamwork. In many major races like the Tour de France or Giro d'Italia, these brief tests signal which riders are performing at the top of their games.

If Armstrong is anywhere close to his prime, he'll be considered a favorite to win the stage, known in cycling parlance as a prologue.

The seven-time Tour de France champion is coming out of retirement and using the nine-day Amgen Tour to get some serious racing miles in his 37-year-old legs.

In his heyday, the Texan was a masterful time trialist, noted for his ability to sustain a steady power output with a distinctly high pedaling cadence.

In fact, Armstrong's other comeback – from testicular cancer – began with a stunning prologue victory in the 1999 Tour de France.

The capital region, however, will enjoy the best of both worlds since Davis is hosting the start of the road racing on Day 2, a challenging course through the Napa Valley to Santa Rosa.

For Sacramento, a prologue has several advantages. The fans, contained in a relatively small area, will be able to mingle for several hours as the racers leave the start ramp every 30 seconds or so.

And when the riders hit the course, fans will be treated to uncanny speeds.

"They will be going absolutely as hard as they can," said Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports, which owns and operates the Amgen Tour of California.

Reaction from the local cycling community has been mixed. Many welcome the atmosphere of the prologue, while others were looking forward to a race on some of the area's tough climbs beyond the city limits.

"It's still great that the tour is coming through here, but they're missing truly a golden opportunity," said Matt Barnes, a cyclist and the assistant principal at El Dorado High School in Placerville. "They're bypassing some of the best riding in the state."

Local officials are expecting as many as 100,000 people to line the streets downtown that day. The event could generate up to $8 million for the local economy, according to Steve Hammond, the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau's president and CEO.

Said Rick Braziel, Sacramento's police chief and an avid cyclist: "Everybody's pretty jazzed about it. When you become a world-class city, you have to have world-class events."