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Benefield: Tour of California helped make Sonoma County bike country

Where were you on ?just about this date ?10 years ago when 35,000 people jammed into downtown Santa Rosa, perched from garage ledges and dangling from trees, craning their necks to get a peek and feel the whir of 128 professional cyclists screaming past?

It was the first stage of the Amgen Tour of California, the second day of racing and likely the first time anyone had seen anything like it on our city streets.

For days, for weeks, for years, people talked about the scene: some of the greatest bike racers in the world rising from the Third Street underpass and onto the circuit of downtown streets with bodies pressed up against the barricades, battering those inflatable sticks together, shaking cowbells like they were Will Ferrell and crying. Crying?

“Santa Rosa was unbelievable,” Olaf Pollack of the T-Mobile squad said at the time. “It was so loud, people were crying on the road so I didn’t understand my director on the radio.”

Now, I don’t remember anyone shedding tears that day, but the energy was stunning.

It was a gamble to buy into that first race. Santa Rosa collectively made promises of hotel rooms, of city services like closed streets and police escorts, of hundreds of volunteers. And because city officials and other backers had never seen such a thing, the investment was a risk. Would it pay off? Would people come? Would it be worth it?

In ways big and small, people I talked to on this, the 10-year anniversary of that first stage of the very first Tour of California in 2006, said yes.

Santa Rosa became near-legend on that first tour. I traveled south with the rolling circus that is a stage race that year and at every stop it felt like cities were being compared to Santa Rosa. And losing.

We had perfect weather, we had those crowds and we had our adoptive hometown guy, Levi Leipheimer, in the gold leader’s jersey after he won the opening prologue in San Francisco.

For years, organizers talked about Santa Rosa’s showing on that afternoon. They talked about it when the crowds here thinned some, they talked about it after organizers moved the race to May and were oddly met with torrents of rain, and they talked about it when Santa Rosa opted not to bid for a stage and again now, after a two-year hiatus when Santa Rosa began prepping for its return to the nation’s premier cycling event.

It’s coming back in May, much the same race we have grown used to, but is Santa Rosa, is Sonoma County, the same cycling place?

“One thing competitive cycling did is put bike riding on people’s radar,” said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition. “But it would be difficult to say, ‘Yeah, that since more pros are coming more people are riding.’ The change is more subtle than that.”

But certainly marketing of Sonoma County as a place for world-class riding has taken off.

“Sonoma County is beginning to self-identify more and more as a bicycle place and not just a wine place. It sets us apart from Napa, which is just a wine place or Marin County, which is just a bike place. We are both,” Helfrich said.

That will only be highlighted by the Tour’s new race operator: ASO, the same group that runs that little race called the Tour de France.

“Television coverage will be different. That will look like the Tour de France,” said Raissa de la Rosa, the city’s economic development specialist and co-chairwoman of the local organizing committee. “If you watch the Tour de France, it’s vignettes, points of interest in the community, so in addition to watching the race, they’ll show school kids.”

The Tour puts an annual spotlight on what locals already know: We live in paradise.

“We have everything if you are a cyclist,” said Carlos Perez, founder of Bike Monkey, which owns and runs a slew of cycling events including the extraordinarily popular Levi’s GranFondo. “The Tour of California helps broadcast that.”

It’s hard to quantify if more people are riding, accepting and encouraging bike riding in the 10 years since the Tour first rolled into town.

But one hopeful stat? Walk and Roll to School Day, an annual event meant to encourage kids (and their families) to try ditching the car for a day and riding to school, is growing every year. In fact, it’s Sonoma County’s single largest cycling event, with 11,500 participants.

“For all of us who are kind of in it, it’s this perpetual motion of work and continuing to do what we are passionate about in this area,” Perez said.

“We are still learning and finding ways of harnessing the Tour of California,” he said.

There is a lot to harness in addition to enthusiasm.

De la Rosa said the expected economic impact is $1.3 million for area business.

Those revenues come on the day of the race but they also play out weeks and months later, backers said.

Cycling fans may see the route on TV or they may even travel here to watch the peloton whir past, but the boon is when they visit with their bikes.

It’s not like the NFL or NBA where it’s nearly impossible to get access to a professional playing surface. In cycling, the arena is the road you drive on to get to work.

“It’s the only sport that the ?facility is a public infrastructure, just out on the road,” Helfrich said. “And we have those challenging routes but they are not out in the middle of nowhere.”

You can climb the roads they climb; you can train on the routes they use to train.

Riding a bike is no longer some fringe activity for “either people who like to dress in costumes or people who have too many DUIs,” Helfrich said.

“Life has definitely changed for the better for people who ride,” he said. “I don’t know how related it is to competitive cycling.”

But it doesn’t hurt.

“Until we get there, the big cultural events are important because it makes people feel good about what they are doing,” he said.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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