Astana, Amgen Tour rock the cycling world in February. How will they stack up in the thick of the season?
ESCONDIDO, California (VN) — Who emerged the biggest victor from the 2009 Amgen Tour of California?
Astana’s Levi Leipheimer took his third consecutive overall victory, of course, but what about Lance Armstrong, who finished seventh and delivered his Livestrong message of cancer survivorship to two million roadside fans? Another winner was San Diego County, which celebrated its debut into the route with huge, rowdy crowds atop Palomar Mountain. And what about race owner AEG Sports, which now commands an event mentioned in the same breath as the Tour de France?
The answer, of course, is all of the above.
Held February 14-22, the Tour of California’s prologue and eight road stages covered more than 750 miles, the longest route yet, showcasing both the sport and the country’s most populated state on such a monumental scale that even three days of torrential rain couldn’t keep spirits down.
Fans turned out in droves for every start, finish and seemingly every stretch of road in between, even in horrid conditions. They were there to see the sport’s biggest names — and Armstrong, its biggest name of all.
“It’s sort of like being told you have a chance to see Superman fly by,” said one race official, referring to the thousands of rain-gear clad fans lining the roads hoping for a glimpse of Armstrong. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Even though it’s storming out, you’ve just got to go out and watch him go by.”
As part of AEG’s relationship with Tour de France organizer ASO, the race was broadcast in more than 200 countries and territories.
“We are enormously satisfied with the race,” said Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports. “We’ve had some epic racing, beautiful terrain and tremendous crowds. The ratings for our television broadcast were up about 70 percent, we were broadcasting for twice as many hours and we were broadcast live all over the world.”
Casual fans may have been surprised to see the seven-time Tour de France champion riding in support of a teammate, but dedicated followers were thrilled to see Armstrong in the position of superdomestique. It was a role he’d promised to assume at Astana’s team training camp, held just weeks before the race in Leipheimer’s hometown of Santa Rosa rather than the previous Armstrong-era mainstay of Solvang.
During camp Leipheimer proved he was strong enough to win for a third time, and Armstrong pledged his support. “Nobody came in here with any expectation other than to ride for Levi,” Armstrong said.
And ride Astana did, at the front, from the first stage to the last, taking both the overall win and the team classification. But it wasn’t exactly a smooth ride. Armstrong’s Trek Equinox TTX time trial bike was stolen in Sacramento — along with several other team bikes — but later recovered. Leipheimer, Armstrong and teammate Chris Horner crashed during the first three rainy stages; x-rays later revealed that Leipheimer had fractured his sacrum. And the race’s second leader, Rock Racing’s
Francisco Mancebo, nearly ran away with the general classification on stage 1 when race officials shortened the stage for weather.
Leipheimer called this year’s win the most meaningful of his three.
“To win the Tour of California once, that was huge. To win it twice, it was a little bit of a surprise and felt like I was a little lucky,” Leipheimer said. “Now I’ve won it three times. It’s the sweetest of the three, and it’s hard to describe that.”