The first stage of the Amgen Tour of California will start and end in downtown Santa Rosa, but take cyclists through much of Sonoma County's most beautiful and rugged countryside.

The 116-mile route was announced Wednesday morning by race-owner AEG Sports of Los Angeles, along with the routes of the other seven stages for the eight-day May event.

The launch of the race is tailored to downtown Santa Rosa spectators, who can mingle with the riders before the start, see them complete two noncompetitive laps and then do separate loops to Windsor and the coast and back that start and end in the downtown.

"It is definitely a nod to our pushing for a great spectator experience," said Raissa de la Rosa, a City Hall economic specialist who has led the local organizing effort. "It is a nod to our community."

Windsor officials also see it as a marketing opportunity for their reconstructed downtown, bigger than the Ford commercial that was filmed there.

"We are going to have to really market ourselves to the visitors based in Santa Rosa," said Windsor Mayor Debora Fudge. "Once they see Windsor, they may hang around. We want them to visit us, eat in our restaurants and stay in our hotels before the event."

Cycling enthusiasts also see the route as showcasing the best and most challenging of Sonoma County's countryside, winding through vineyards, along the Russian River, through redwoods and with spectacular climbs and sweeping views of the coast.

"This is Sonoma County's best, some of Sonoma County's finest bicycle routes," said Shaun Ralston, a Sutter Hospital marketing director, member of the Santa Rosa tour organizing committee and avid cyclist. "Certainly Coleman Valley is beautiful; Fort Ross is highest in percent of grades. They are tough, but also beautiful."

The first loop from downtown Santa Rosa takes the 144 riders out Third Street to Fulton, Guerneville, Olivet, Slusser and Windsor roads to downtown Windsor.

From there, the route goes back along Eastside, Vine Hill, Gravenstein Highway and Occidental Road back to Santa Rosa, with a sprint to the downtown Santa Rosa finish line.

The second loop uses much of Levi Leipheimer's King Ridge GranFondo route, taking cyclists out Occidental and Graton roads to Occidental, the Bohemian Highway to River Road and to Cazadero and the first major climb, Fort Ross Road.

The route continues down Meyers Grade to Highway 1 to the second climb, Coleman Valley Road, and then drops back to Occidental and retraces the route to Santa Rosa's downtown finish.

In its seven-year history, the Tour of California has become the premiere United States cycling event and draws top international teams.

Santa Rosa, where there have been crowds of 35,000 spectators, got the prestigious start to the tour as a consolation for being omitted from last year's event. It gives the city a chance to hold four days of events, including a gala dinner for the teams, sponsors and fans, and a daylong festival at the start-finish line in downtown Santa Rosa on race day, May 13.

Santa Rosa's organizing committee so far has raised $325,000 toward the $525,000 cost of hosting the start of the race.

Most of the cost is in hotels and meals for the team and event staff, along with the expense of turning Santa Rosa streets and Sonoma County roads into a race course.

The budget includes $100,000 for the Saturday night gala, which will be offset by the cost to attend, and $23,000 in contingency funds. That leaves organizers seeking an additional $87,000.

The second stage of the tour will start in San Francisco with a backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge, then along the coast to Aptos in Santa Cruz County. Subsequent stages in Northern California include San Jose to Livermore and Sonora to Clovis.

Tour proponents have estimated that the economic impact for Sonoma County will be $6.6 million, including spending by race fans, event organizers, the teams and sponsors as well as the salaries for local workers and suppliers.

Sonoma County officials also say the exposure from the tour is valuable in promoting the Wine County as a destination.

The tour is owned by AEG and sponsored by biotech company Amgen. It is broadcast live on the Versus TV channel.

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@pressdemocrat.com.