Staging the Tour: Route provides riders best test, allows spectators exciting finish

02/14/2009 12:10 AM

02/14/2009 1:25 AM

Think of Stage 3 of the Amgen Tour of California not as a bike race, but as a daily San Jose-to-Modesto homeward commute.

Experienced commuters know the traffic will slow to a crawl at pretty much the same point every day, while the truly great commuters are able to adjust their departure times to avoid such bottlenecks, arriving home just in time (barring accidents) for dinner.

Jim Birrell thinks like a great commuter.

As race director, it's his job to scout, test, research and ultimately put a personal stamp of approval on the courses for the race.

And because Birrell also is a cyclist, he has a feel for where the climbs and sprints should come in each stage -- not only to provide the best test possible for the field but to allow for an exciting finish for spectators.

The entire Stage 3 commute is in his hands, and he has a traffic report for early

Tuesday afternoon.

"It will start as a mountain stage and flatten out on Calaveras Road, all downhill to Livermore, with I don't know how many turns," Birrell said. "Patterson Pass is a good climb, but not a separating one, and from there to Modesto the whole peloton will have the chance to group together before reaching Modesto."

Birrell has given a lot of thought to the finish, to how closely bunched the riders will be by the time they hit the Needham-Kansas overpass on the northwest edge of downtown.

"I think in this year's stage you'll see the riders coming into Modesto in big groups, not like last year in San Jose," Birrell said.

Downtown loop seen as key

There was particular attention given to the 2.8-mile downtown Modesto loop. After coming off the overpass, incorporated into the route to eliminate any worry about railroad traffic, the riders will follow the course to the finish line at 11th and I streets, then start down 11th to begin their final circuit.

Birrell said local organizers suggest the downtown routes in each city as a way to highlight local scenery and landmarks. In Modesto's case, the riders will whiz by Modesto Junior College and barely notice the Stanislaus County Library, the McHenry Mansion and Gallo Center for the Arts in the I Street sprints.

"It is an art form to make it all work," Birrell said. "The actual layout of the course is sponsor-driven, city-driven, television-driven and competition-driven."

Last year's Modesto-to-San Jose run, while dramatic and grueling, was anticlimactic from a spectator standpoint. The race's great strategic moments took place on the ascent and descent of Mount Hamilton, in view of perhaps scant dozens of hard-core fans.

Because the downtown San Jose finish to the race was only a few miles from the final climb, there was no time for the racers to bunch together for an exciting finish.

So as thousands of race fans packed downtown San Jose for what they hoped would be a riveting climax, what they got for their hours of standing was a dripping faucet finish -- a handful of riders in the lead pack followed by a few more a minute or so later.

It was an important and decisive stage, but lacked for spectator thrills.

Group sprint to finish sought

The desire for a group sprint to the finish line was a factor in determining this year's Stage 3 route. Birrell could simply have reversed the route, sending the riders up the 365 hairpin turns on the west slope of Mount Hamilton, but it wouldn't have proved anything.

"If Modesto was closer to the base of that descent, that would have been the route," Birrell said. "That would be a true mountain stage where we could reward the climbers. But the distance between the summit and Modesto is so great that it would have reduced that reward. There is no use breaking legs early in the stage when the results of that aren't what you're looking for in the end."

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at bvanderbeek@modbee.com or 578-2300.

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