Agostini: AMGEN Race is a breath of fresh air

February 10, 2009 

The fourth Amgen Tour of California pedals into Modesto this weekend with world-class spokes trying to cover for a world-class loss.

In case you lived in a foothill cave last year, you're aware our fair burg no longer is the host of the Coca-Cola California Relays, the event that produced 32 world records and sometimes international clout for Modesto over nearly seven decades. It's been transplanted to Sacramento, leaving us with a void to fill and an open weekend in May.

But remember the old saying -- when one door closes, another opens. Modesto has reached that place with the Tour of California.

OK, your skepticism is piercing holes in my laptop. I can hear the questions: How can you equate a couple of bicycle laps in Modesto to 67 years of world-class track and field? What can the Tour of California do for the valley, unless Lance Armstrong rolls into the city with a $2 billion stimulus package strapped to his back?

The answer: The Tour, as we learned last year, brings fresh energy, both incoming and grassroots energy. It's the kind of outreach we had not witnessed with the Relays in, say, 20 years.

The Stanislaus County Bicycle Club, the official organizing hub for local volunteers, has enlisted more than 370 helpers for the Tour. No doubt there is overlap from the 410 Amgen-connected volunteers, but you get the picture: There is a small city moving into Modesto for Stage 3 on Tuesday. They're filling hotel rooms, making dinner reservations and ringing city cash registers.

In these tough times, we'll take it.

"It (the Tour) is a big deal to bicyclists," said Susan Dion, bicycle club president. "Last year, we followed the race on the big screen after it left Modesto and when they got to what we call 'The Wall,' a few miles from the county line, we laughed when they started to struggle. We struggle on our rides at the same spot. The big boys were challenged just like us."

Herein lies an advantage for the riders: We never truly could relate to Toby Stevinson, the American pole vaulter, because 99.9 percent of us haven't vaulted ourself over a mud puddle, much less 19 feet skyward.

But we can ride a bike.

We probably couldn't keep up with two-time Tour champion Levi Leipheimer for more than a few yards. That said, we've all spent some serious time in our lives on two wheels.

Another thing we've learned this year is it takes more volunteer manpower to finish a stage than to start one. Modesto has risen its street cred this year by wrapping up Stage 3, rather than kicking it off.

Racers will buzz into town on Highway 132, veer onto the Kansas-Needham overpass and onto College for two four-mile loops bordering Modesto Junior College. Then it's on to the finish line at the intersection of 12th and I.

It doesn't take a quantum mechanics major to figure out the finish line as the A-list destination for volunteers. There is a pecking order here.

"One of the best jobs is the medical control people who escort racers to drug testing afterward. That would sound pretty good to me, good for shaking hands and for autographs," Dion said. "One of the worst places are the roadways that have been blocked for the race. You're dealing with people who aren't happy. A policeman told us last night, 'Now you know what we go through every day.' "

If you're still wondering what the fuss is all about, consider: Volunteers are coming here from Europe and all corners of this country. They're here because, 1) they love bicycle racing, and 2) the world's best are on the way.

Floyd Landis, the disgraced Tour de France winner of 2006, restarts his career at the Tour of California. Also in the field is the reigning Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre of Spain.

"Levi's jersey went for $300 at our silent auction, and all the money went to Breakaway from Cancer," Dion said. "There's just no way we could do this without the volunteers. The excitement is big this year."

Can we replace a track meet with a bicycle race? Is it even a fair question?

We'll learn more in a few days.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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