Sports

Central Valley cities brace for Tour of California's participants, fans

Participation of seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong in his pro cycling comeback has greatly magnified interest in this year's Tour of California -- and raised the stakes for the communities along the route.

In Clovis, that could mean up to 100,000 spectators at the finish line of Stage 4, said Shawn Miller, business development manager for the city of Clovis.

That would make it one of the city's biggest events. City officials said the Clovis Rodeo, for instance, draws "tens of thousands."

Hotels and restaurants stand to be the big race-day winners, housing and feeding the thousands of fans expected to descend from across the country and the world to see the race in person.

As a finish-line city, Clovis will host a daylong festival that follows the tour in its Old Town downtown to keep spectators occupied watching the race on big-screen TVs as the riders make their way from Merced. Organizers say they expect merchants to benefit from increased walk-in traffic that day.

"Being an end-stage city has a much greater effect," said Tina Sumner, Clovis' interim economic development director. "We have all of these people -- the racers, their crews, the media -- spending the night. It's a much bigger economic impact for the hotels, restaurants and shopping facilities."

The race teams and their entourages and race officials -- perhaps as many as 1,000 people in all -- will spend the night and have breakfast in Clovis before busing to Visalia for the start of the race to Paso Robles. Clovis has nearly 600 hotel rooms in the city, and all of them are expected to be booked up on Feb. 18, said Miller. He added that nearby hotels in northeast Fresno and near the Fresno airport also are booking up to handle visitors for the race.

Over the four days leading up to the Merced-to-Clovis leg, several Clovis restaurants will host race-viewing parties.

"They're happy to do it because they want that business," Miller said.

As a starting-line city, Visalia will get a share of the revenue, although it's unclear now much.

Greg Kirkpatrick, a former Visalia City Council member who is heading up that community's tour committee, said local hotels are reporting bookings for Feb. 18 -- the evening before the Stage 5 start in downtown -- are on a pace to fill all of the city's 1,200 or so available rooms.

Besides about 150 race volunteers coming to Visalia from out of town -- some from as far away as Texas, New York and even Europe to be part of the Tour experience, Kirkpatrick said -- "we're seeing bookings from fans who are following the entire tour from city to city."

Kirkpatrick said Visalia is looking beyond the short-term economic surge of the race to big-picture hopes of establishing the city and Tulare County as a cycling hotbed.

"The commitment isn't as great as a start city; we don't have to put up the whole 1,000-person race entourage," he said. "But this is a great opportunity to showcase Visalia to all these visitors and to the people who will be watching the race on Versus."

Clovis and Visalia's gain this year may be San Luis Obispo's loss. This is the first time since the tour began in 2006 that the coastal community has not been on the route.

"It was really a heartbreak for us to not have the tour come back this year, but we're thrilled for the other cities to have a chance to participate," said Lindsey Miller, marketing director for the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce and the local event coordinator last year.

"It's been a huge economic event for us," Lindsey Miller said. "We've seen spikes in hotel stays that we don't normally have in February ... and restaurants and businesses near the route in our downtown see a big benefit."

Volunteers in Clovis and Visalia have put in countless hours arranging logistical details and raising tens of thousands of dollars in donations for the tour requirements and for the cities to avoid dipping into their depleted budgets to handle the police, public works and fire department needs on race day.

Less than a week before the tour kicks off with a prologue stage in Sacramento, Shawn Miller and Kirkpatrick said the Valley cities are ready to show race organizers they made the right choices.

"When it comes down to it, we've all worked 10 months for the 15 seconds it takes these riders to go by," Shawn Miller said. "It's a lot of planning and a lot of work, but I think it's all going to pay off in the end."The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6319.

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