Sonora welcomes Amgen cyclists with open arms

bvanderbeek@modbee.comMay 16, 2012 

— The Amgen Tour of California is that flamboyant uncle bound to visit during the holidays.

You're glad to see him because he's lots of fun, and you hope he comes back. But during the visit, your uncle not only makes himself comfortable, he takes over the house.

Modesto learned exactly that during its host roles the last four years and still hopes for many happy returns.

Wednesday morning, about three hours before the start of Stage 4 of this year's Tour of California, Father Wolfgang Krismanits of St. James Anglican Church was one of the first Sonorans to discover how the tour can rule a host city.

He's in his 24th year at The Red Church, but when he tried to park his car in his usual church parking lot spot, he initially was turned away. Those spots, the rector was told, were reserved for the riders' support teams.

"I first was amazed at the amount of roads they had to close for this," Krismanits said. "It was a hassle just to park at our church. I didn't have my collar on, so I had to tell them I belong here."

No, he wasn't complaining. Far from it. The moment was worth a hearty laugh. And if he had registered a gripe, he would have been part of a very small group.

Estimates placed Wednesday's Washington Street crowd at upward of 10,000 people, with most of those crowded five- and six-deep on both sides within two blocks of the starting gate.

They began arriving by foot, two wheels and shuttle vans about 8:30 a.m. for the 10:35 starter's gun, all to get a good view of the nine seconds the riders passed by.

It didn't seem to matter that the actual race began two miles down the road, because this was a moment to celebrate the big event that came to town.

"We don't have a big-caliber thing like this come through Sonora too often," said Lon Mikita, who shared a tandem bike with his 8-year-old son Ben. "We've been to Modesto to watch the race, which makes this even more exciting for us. This brings in people from all over the freaking world."

Sonora schools had a minimum day Tuesday and closed completely on race day, and many of those students chose to get out of bed to take in the spectacle, adding a youthful exuberance to the event.

"It's come together great," said Mayor Bill Canning. "You can feel the excitement in the air. It's been a gradual build-up until today, and the excitement is still spiking.

"We had some people come through from Florida. They own a cycling shop and they're here for five days. We had people here from New York who never even knew about Sonora. That's what we need — to get our name out there so people can come back and visit our beautiful area."

The Sonora High Golden Regiment played for nearly an hour from the steps of the Tuolumne County Superior Courthouse, stopping only when the riders began to parade across the stage in the ceremonial race day sign-in.

From that spot, the first six blocks of the race were downhill, and a glance in that direction gave the riders all they needed to know about the size and the enthusiasm of the crowd.

"This is awesome," said three-time Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer, just minutes before climbing on his bike. "It's the beauty of a stage race like this that we can show off the entire state of California. This reminds me a lot of Nevada City — a nice, quaint little town nestled in the mountains.

"I've always wanted this race to come to Sonora. It's great for the Tour of California to be here, but a lot of people, after seeing the area, will want to come back."

The Tour's visit came through an absurdly busy time for Sonora. The Mother Lode Roundup and parade were last weekend. The Calaveras County Jumping Frog Jubilee up the road in Angels Camp starts hopping today.

The three events have been joined under the motto "Rope, Ride and Ribet," but there's little doubt which of the three was on the crowd's mind Wednesday.

"I'd never heard of the Amgen until they announced it was coming a few months ago," said Krismanits. "I didn't know what it was. I think a lot of people were that way. But there's a lot of excitement.

"We're hoping this will bring a lot of people here who haven't been here before, and they'll say, 'What a great town,' and want to come back."

Next to the stage, Sonora resident Lyn Gravelle staked out a prime spot more than an hour before the race. From her position, she would be able to see every rider cross the start line.

That entire procession, after months of planning, days of preening and hours of anticipation, took nine seconds.

"Yes, I've been here about an hour for these seconds, but I wouldn't have missed it for anything," Gravelle said. "It's wonderful. I don't think I'll ever see anything like this again in my lifetime.

"We got new grass in the park. The store windows are painted. And now that they're gone, I think I'll hang around downtown for a while."

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at or (209) 578-2150. Follow him at

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