Santa Rosa and Sonoma County on Sunday had the attention of much of the international cycling world as tens of thousands of people lined city streets and rural roads for the start of the seventh Amgen Tour of California.
The grand depart, as it is called in the Tour de France, highlighted downtown Santa Rosa as 128 riders rode two neutral stages around Old Courthouse Square after the 10:50 a.m. start before being unleashed upon a course that took them to Windsor, back into Santa Rosa, out to Cazadero and to the coast, up Coleman Valley Road and back into downtown for a sprint finish.
Peter Sagan, 22, of Slovakia, who rides for the Liquigas-Cannondale team, overcame a flat tire in the final six miles to win the 115.9-mile Stage One of the Tour, while Santa Rosa's Levi Leipheimer, who is recovering from a broken leg sustained April 1, crossed the finish line with the main group, 10 seconds off of the lead.
Leipheimer, who rides for the Omega Pharma-QuickStep team, earned Amgen's Breakaway from Cancer Most Courageous Rider jersey on Sunday.
Leipheimer, a key ambassador in bringing the nation's largest cycling event to Santa Rosa, said the three runs through one city in a single stage was unusual but a win for race fans.
"That makes for a great experience for the fans and hopefully more stages can be designed like that," he said.
"What a perfect place for the start," announcer Bob Roll told the throngs assembled near the starting line on Third Street. "Santa Rosa is a legacy city."
Santa Rosa police estimated about 40,000 people were in the downtown area between when the race festival began at 9:30 a.m. and just after Sagan crossed the finished line at 3:45 p.m.
The event, broadcast live for two hours on NBC Sports Network, was a showcase of Sonoma County's challenging terrain and the area's support for cycling.
"I think we are going to show the world why cycling is such a big deal in Sonoma County," Leipheimer said, calling the first stage a "huge success" for organizers.
The eight-day race resumes today with Stage Two from San Francisco to Aptos in Santa Cruz County. The race then holds stages in the East Bay, the Sierra, Bakersfield and Southern California before ending Sunday with Stage Eight in Los Angeles.
The racers themselves praised Sonoma County's challenging terrain and enthusiastic crowds.
"It's great racing, great crowds, enthusiastic crowds," said Radio Shack Nissan Trek rider Jens Voigt.
Ben Jacques-Maynes, a Bissell rider whose hometown is Napa, said he knew the route well because Bissell is based in Santa Rosa year-round. Jacques-Maynes earned the Exergy Most Aggressive Rider jersey for his gritty riding on the course.
"I knew every inch of the climb and the pretty gnarly descent," he said. "It was a good day to be out — beautiful scenery, great crowds out there."
Fans with RVUs
Steve McClelland of Sacramento and his young son both brought their "RVUs" to downtown Santa Rosa to better enjoy the three-times-through-town route.
RVU? Race Viewing Unit — a three-step ladder affixed with a shoulder strap for better mobility. McClelland has brought some form of the RVU to bike races since 1982, but he was stunned by the route Santa Rosa landed for the seventh running of the nation's largest cycling race.