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The Amgen Tour of California will skip Santa Rosa next year for the first time in the race's six-year history, but the city will be the prestigious starting point in 2012.

"Our respective organizations have reached an agreement and Santa Rosa will be part of the tour in 2012 and it will feature Santa Rosa in a prominent role," said Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports, the Los Angeles company that owns the Tour of California.

Messick said he would not specify what the prominent role will be, but sources close to the negotiations said Santa Rosa would be the site of the overall start of the race.

"It would be huge, the overall start is the most significant stage," Messick said.

Messick said race organizers are also negotiating with UCI, cycling's international governing body, to upgrade the tour to a Pro Tour status; there are only 16 Pro Tour races worldwide.

"What that means is instead of having eight teams that also compete in the Tour de France and eight top American teams, we will have sixteen teams that compete in the Tour de France," Messick said. "It is a higher level of competition."

Santa Rosa officials said that hosting any stage of the <NO1><NO>800-plus-mile race is an economic boon to a community, bringing in hotel, restaurant and other service industry business as well as highlighting a region's cycling opportunities to a television audience.

Santa Rosa Economic Development Specialist Raissa de la Rosa estimated that hosting a stage in the race last year pumped more than $1 million into the local economy, money that will not come into the city next year.

For Santa Rosa, however, the overall race start in 2012 would multiply that annual financial boost several times over, with athletes, trainers, vendors, organizers, media and fans arriving a week or more ahead of time to prepare for the tour, de la Rosa said.

"There's the gala, the introduction of teams, the teams come in earlier," she said.

The entire organizational infrastructure sets up shop about eight days in advance. There are press conferences, team trainings and preparations for the race festival.

"It's going to be huge for Santa Rosa," promised three-time Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer, a Santa Rosa resident and top international competitor.

Leipheimer, whose fame has helped drive the growth in Sonoma County's popularity as a cycling destination, also couldn't confirm Santa Rosa's new role, but did say AEG had a long-term investment in Santa Rosa and its cycling community.

Messick was in Santa Rosa with his family Thursday to attend a gala benefit dinner and participate in Saturday's second-annual Levi Leipheimer King Ridge GranFondo, a group ride of 6,000 cyclists designed primarily to raise money to host the Tour of California, which is sponsored by Amgen.

Messick described "a fantastic partnership with Santa Rosa. It's a place where we like to be. It's a place where we feel welcomed and loved."

He also praised the local organizing committee, chaired by de la Rosa and David Guhin, the city's deputy director of engineering services.

"It's a partnership that we view as a long-term relationship, and the race is always looking for ways to continue to make Santa Rosa a premiere and preeminent stop on the Tour of California," Messick said.

Leipheimer countered the disappointment some race fans might feel in missing the race in 2011 by suggesting the break could be good news for Santa Rosa, which will need extra time and money to prepare for the 2012 event.

"It's going to be worth the wait for us next year," Leipheimer said.

Leipheimer's GranFondo, scheduled this weekend, is expected to raise $60,000 toward the cost of funding public services, hotel rooms and meals for the tour staff and participants, during the tour.

"I think we're going to need more money come 2012," he said. "It definitely serves a big purpose. The Fondo is definitely going to help out for what's coming."

"In speaking for the GranFondo, we definitely are looking forward to a long-term relationship with the tour, with the city, getting this event back, and we're not worried one bit," ride organizer Greg Fisher, editor of Bike Monkey online magazine, said.

In its brief history, the Tour of California has evolved quickly, attracting top-ranked international teams and racers and helped put Sonoma County on the map as a world cycling destination.

It is broadcast to some 90 countries, bringing worldwide attention to the region and those communities that host stages each year.

Messick said about 50 cities submitted competitive bids to host the start or finish of one of eight stages in next year's event.

Fifteen cities won positions on the tour, either starting or closing a single day's stage - including Sacramento, a five-time host, and San Jose, which has hosted a stage all six years.

The May 15-22, 2011, event will cover more than 800 miles over eight days, starting in South Lake Tahoe and bypassing the North Coast altogether.

Stops include North Lake Tahoe, Sacramento, Auburn, Modesto, Solvang, Paso Robles, Claremont and Mt. Baldy, with the race finishing up in Santa Clarita and finally Thousand Oaks.

It's tradition for major cycling races like the Tour de France to alter the route each year, Messick and others said.

He said each year brings the challenge of repeating visits to cities that work out well and finding ways to bring the race to new places organizers want to try.

"We've never been north of Santa Rosa with the race," Messick said. "We would love to find a way to get to Chico...places like Oroville and further north."

At the same time, organizers want to structure a challenging race that this year especially emphasizes "decisive finishes" to each leg, often built around a substantial climb, he said.

With 18 switchbacks in the last 4 1/2 miles, that's especially true of Mt. Baldy in the Angeles National Forest, Messick said.

"Mt. Baldy is the real deal," Leipheimer said, calling the 2011 route "definitely the hardest, by far."

"It's a Tour de France-caliber climb," he said.

The entire 2011 routes is as follows:

Stage 1: Sunday, May 15 - South Lake Tahoe to North Lake Tahoe-Northstar at Tahoe Resort

Stage 2: Monday, May 16 - North Lake Tahoe-Squaw Valley USA to Sacramento

Stage 3: Tuesday, May 17 - Auburn to Modesto

Stage 4: Wednesday, May 18 - Livermore to San Jose

Stage 5: Thursday, May 19 - Seaside to Paso Robles

Stage 6: Friday, May 20 - Solvang Individual Time Trial

Stage 7: Saturday, May 21 - Claremont to Mt. Baldy

Stage 8: Sunday, May 22 - Santa Clarita to Thousand Oaks.

Staff Writer Bob Norberg contributed to this report.

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