There had been talk of a Tour of California for years, but it wasn't until March 2005 when the details, sketchy at best, first appeared during the UCI Track Cycling World Championships. A hastily called press conference offered few details, there were no dates and no title sponsor. But there was what mattered most — a financial commitment by a lot of guys wearing suits for the entertainment and sports conglomerate Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) to back a stage race with $35 million budget for five years.
11 months later, with its surprising title sponsor Amgen, the Tour of California began in San Francisco with a keen twist. Its opening act was a five-minute uphill prologue up Telegraph Hill to a Coit Tower finish.
After 68 men’s stages and four prologues and seven days of women’s since the February 19, 2006 debut, the event’s 10th edition will unfold Thursday with a three-day women’s stage race beginning in South Lake Tahoe. The conclusion of the women's race in Sacramento will coincide with the beginning of the men’s eight-stage race on Sunday.
"By the time February 2006 came along, there was already a lot riding on the Tour of California that it was going to take everything to the next level," said Ben Jacques-Maynes, who will on Sunday be the only rider to start all 10 editions of the race. “But at the same time being a February race, it was going to be a training race and kind of a spectacle for the Europeans.
“It was a good way to show off the California coast, a good vehicle for the promotion of the state. And from its first race, the prologue going up Telegraph Hill, it absolutely fulfilled its promise. The crowd was there. The buzz in the peloton was there. Everyone was exciting to see this thing go.”
Through its nine editions, four years in February and five years in its current May slot, the event has both helped launch and end careers. It’s had surprises and weirdness. It marked Lance Armstrong’s comeback to North American cycling in 2009 and the first inkling of what would come three years later, his life time ban and subsequent confession to doping.
The event has not only showcased not only the beauty of the California coastline and the Sierra Nevada, but also arguably the state’s best attribute — its rich agricultural interior. The race has included a few dozen stage start and finish cities, but San Jose remains the only host city in all editions.
"In 2006 when the race began, it was a perfect fit for the Silicon Valley," said Patricia Ernstrom, executive director of the San Jose Sports Authority, the event's local organisers. "It was in start-up mode, just like a lot entrepreneurial companies in the area."
Enstrom believes the event well suits the San Jose area's green initiatives. But she also has a personal investment in the race. She met her husband, then a volunteer, at the 2006 race. They were married last September.
The Tour of California has, over its history, had oddities and ironies, memorable stages and blunders, hosting rising stars, established champions and ambitious young riders from its first winner Floyd Landis to its most recent, Bradley Wiggins. Only one former winner will be present in the 10th year, Robert Gesink (LottoNl-Jumbo), who is recovering from a poor start to the season.
10 memorable moments from the Tour of California (photos: Getty Images Sport/Doug Pennsiger unless noted)
Young and restless: Floyd Landis was on his way to his now erased Tour de France title when he demolished the field by 29 seconds in the Tour of California's 2006 time trial in San Jose using his unconventional and now-banned praying mantis position. He took the race lead with his stage 4 win and kept it for the rest of the week.
Remember these guys?: In the stage 4 in 2007, reigning Olympic world titlist Paolo Bettini claimed a four-up sprint over Gerald Ciolek, Juan Jose Haedo and Thor Hushovd in downtown San Luis Obispo.
Hypothermia, anyone?: Dominique Rollin was still shivering when he arrived at the press conference after his seven-hour, 135-mile victory in stage 4 of the 2008 event from Seaside to San Luis Obispo. It was a nasty, too-long day on the bike, and organisers then knew the February dates needed to be changed.
Up on a hilltop: Peter Sagan showcased his versatility in the 2010 race’s queen stage. He catapulted to the front in the waning minutes and claimed the event’s first mountaintop finish to Big Bear Lake over Rory Sutherland and Rogers. Sagan went on to set the record for stage wins, currently at 11.
Photo: Tim De Waele/TDW Sport
Teammates climb alone: There were three major ascents and when the final two miles of the final climb arrived, the Radio Shack duo of Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer rode together alone in stage 7 of the 2011 event to Mount Baldy. Leipheimer took the win; Horner took the race, and many jokes about the two bald riders on Mt Baldy ensued.
This Brit's A-Blazin': Bradley Wiggins looked perfect on his time trial bike. He zipped around hilly Folsom for 12.5 miles and decimated the field by 44 seconds in stage 2 of the 2014 race. In less than 15 minutes, he so convincingly the won stage, the race was arguably determined at the same.
Lance isn't Teflon: He withstood a lot of freaky occasions in his career. But after crashing just outside of Visalia in stage 5 of the 2010 race, Armstrong abandoned the race with multiple injuries. A video showed Armstrong uncertain as to what to do. It was a rare vulnerable moment and may have been the best footage ever made of Armstrong, but it was disappeared from the Internet within a few hours.
Photo: Tim De Waele/TDW Sport
What, no blood?: In arguably the strangest quirk in the race’s history, particularly considering the race’s title sponsor, no blood control tests were taken during the 2011 event. The reason: A plan to implement an independent testing program didn’t materialise.
Photo: Tim De Waele/TDW Sport
A hot desert sun: The pavement melted, riders burned their backs, and several cyclists fell off their bike at the finish of the scorching stage 2 of the 2013 event in Palm Springs. Janier Acevedo won the day’s oven bake off in 108-degree temperatures, and earned himself a ProTour team contract for the next season. At least one team physician said the stage was dangerous and should have been shortened.