February 19, 2006 (San Francisco, CA) — San Francisco and all of California is abuzz with excitement, at least in the world of cycling, as the Amgen Tour of California (UCI 2.1) is set to kick off on Sunday February 19. Sixteen of the planet’s top teams are lined up, their bikes measured, lubed and dialed for Sunday’s opening prologue.
Rain fell as dusk began Saturday, and thunder was booming by the time the Navigators Insurance Cycling team, along with their fellow competitors, settled in to a spacious heated tent near the hotel’s outdoor swimming pool for dinner. Tureens of pasta, rice, potatoes and salad were set out, alongside spare portions of pink salmon and cruciferous veggies, as the gaunt and already red-faced riders tucked into their last supper prior to competition.
Tubs of ice cream in melting ice sat neglected in one corner next to a dessert tray of sliced melon and pineapple. A selection of soft drinks and water was available, along with boxes of orange and apple juice. None of the sodas were chilled.
The round tables were set with heavy linen napkins and a pitcher of ice water in the center. There was space for 12 to dine, but in some instances only a lone mechanic or soigneur sat eating his meal, waiting as team members woke from late afternoon naps or emerged from the massage table. By 7:30 the first to enter were already leaving, sated, visibly excited about tomorrow’s start.
It is without a doubt the highlight of the American race season, this California tour, if only for the fact that it is also the opening event of the season. In years past the traditional U.S. opener was the McLane series, followed by the Fresno criteriums, or some other Central Californian version thereof. Promoters no doubt will try to accommodate those races in future iterations of the Tour of California, capitalizing on the presence of so many Pro Tour teams from so far away as well as the legitimate need to stretch and flex the legs and logistical team workings prior to a complicated stage race. But for now this is it, and the frenzy of a major tour being run for the very first time is meeting head-on with the chaos of February. The strain is palpable.
The mechanics for the Navigators set up the new Colnagos today, prepping the time trial bikes with new Oval Concepts parts and dialing down each team member’s measurements. The combination of new equipment, new faces, and a new set of challenges has the working wrenches whipping out the measuring tapes, checking and rechecking seat heights, headset stacks and overall reach repeatedly, making sure it’s right.
Team Manager Ray Cipollini spent the day applying new decals to the team car, and was caught in the last minutes of daylight with just a few more rubbings to do. The rain began pelting him harder and harder, and finally he had to give up on the scripted lettering and head for dryer ground. In his room he mentioned the weather as only a minor distraction, his mind preoccupied with all the million little details needing attention before the morning’s start.
The prologue course is short, less than two miles, and with the first rider going out at 10 am the whole event should be done before noon. Weather predictions are for clear and sunny skies, and for the Bay Area in February this is both typical and remarkable. Typical that such a beautiful winter day in California should crackle with so much springtime sparkle, and remarkable because just two days ago snow fell on most of the mountains over 2,000 feet out here. Flying in there was still a dusting of white visible to airline passengers in the East Bay hills by Richmond and Concord, near where the climbs will be on Tuesday. Newspapers showed front-page pictures of knit-capped adults smiling in wonder as their serious-at-play children scooped up handfuls of snow on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin and chucked it at each other. Only in California, the saying goes.
The teams will be staying two nights in the airport Hyatt before the strange and precise exodus begins on Monday. Transfer occurs first across the Golden Gate bridge to Sausalito, the most harmoniously-named city in the state, and what is predicted by many as the hardest stage of the week. Hard not in and of itself, as say a stage from one mountaintop village of France is to another in mid-July. Hard not like the windy shores of Oostende in April. Hard not like the 302 kilometers from Milan to San Remo. Hard because it is the first day of whip-snap racing in a field full of ringers along a cross-winded, oceanside roller, with the number one team in the world sure to be driving an echelon-shaped wedge into the legs of each and every man out there. Hard like digging coal for a living. Hard like a roofer’s day in Houston’s August. Hard like diamonds.