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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.

"Great crowds"

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.

"I think Levi has so much clout, being a three-time winner and being from Santa Rosa," McClelland said. "Santa Rosa has some of the best riding in California. I think that had a lot to do with it, too."

Windsor delighted

When the peloton reached Windsor, the town was ready.

"This is so cool," said Mayor Debora Fudge, who wore a sash saying "Mayor" and carried an official Windsor Town Limit sign to let the riders know where they were. "It is very exciting for Windsor to see international riders coming through town."

The Amgen tour has been in Sonoma County six times — it skipped last year — but it was the first time through Windsor.

"This is huge, for the biggest bike race event to take place in Sonoma County and it is here in our little town," said Sandee Gibson of Windsor.

A crowd of 500 gathered at Windsor Road and Windsor River Road, where the cyclists had to make a sharp left turn while dodging railroad tracks and road dividers.

"It is a great place to watch, they'll have to slow down," said Steven Harrison of Windsor. "It makes for an exciting corner."

Occidental scene

The race zipped through Occidental shortly before noon, past about 200 people lining the streets, ringing cow bells and cheering loudly. The seemingly endless convoy of emergency vehicles — 68 in all — team cars, photo motorcycles and VIP cars added to the excitement.

Occidental was a prime location for spectators because the riders came through twice, once on their way out to the coast and once back.

"It was totally worth it," said Jordan Costello of Healdsburg. "All the the bikes and cars and the convoy — you never really see that when you watch it on television."

Steve House and his wife, Paula Rinaldi-House, of Boulder, Colo., were among the first to stake out a spot on the steps of the Occidental Center for the Arts. They were visiting Sonoma County for a three-week camping and bicycle riding trip, which luckily coincided with the Amgen race, which they've only seen on TV.

"This is one of the premiere races in the country," Rinaldi-House said.

Amie Breeze, former Rohnert Park mayor and city councilwoman, and her family also were among the spectators in Occidental. Breeze said she she stayed Saturday at the Inn at Occidental on Church Street for a Mother's Day "staycation."

"This is a pretty momentous time to be part of witnessing this race," Breeze said. "It's an honor to have it here in our community."

Santa Rosa fans

The Belon family scoped out their course-side spot on Third Street in downtown Santa Rosa well before the festival vendors rolled in bicycles, set up stands featuring T-shirts and health aids.

Craig Belon and his dad, Marc, and mom, Sharyn, set up their chairs at the start-finish line and made a day of it.

"I grew up here and moved to New York City and I was never able to see the tour," said Craig Belon, a fourth-year medical student at Columbia University. "I wanted to be here the one time I could come to the race."

Jeff Silbaugh of Seattle brought his bike down to give Sonoma County's roads a try Saturday before spending Sunday at the Tour festival at Old Courthouse Square.

Silbaugh had high praise for area drivers when it comes to courtesy for cyclists.

"The motorists are really polite," he said. "We didn't have one person who didn't give us room, not one honk."

Julie Bright of Santa Rosa found a perch on the third deck of Santa Rosa Plaza's parking garage to watch the final sprint for the finish.

"It's over in a flash, but it's fun," she said. "I don't know about all of the riders, but I like the cycling event."

You can reach Staff Writers Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, Martin Espinoza at 521-5203 or martin.espinoza and Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@pressdemocrat.com.

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