Even though it’s crammed with eight riders, three directors, and three photographers, the Rally Cycling bus is silent. The team’s Performance Director, Jonas Carney, has just given his troops their orders, and the gravity of the situation is sinking in. The team’s multi-faceted task is not an easy one: Protect, feed, and guide their sprinter, Eric Young, throughout 160km of crosswind-laced mayhem, keeping him as fresh as possible until the race re-enters Sacramento. With one lap to go on the stage’s downtown finishing circuit, bring four riders to the front and take control with Eric in tow. Keep the pace high and eat up as many kilometers as possible until the World Tour teams take over, allowing Eric to jump on the perfect wheel that could lead him to victory. No problem. It’s just the Amgen Tour of California - the biggest, toughest, and fastest stage race in North America.
Sacramento is vastly underrated. In most other states, a city of Sacramento’s caliber would be a shining beacon of culture and entertainment, a mecca for foodies, wine connoisseurs, and history buffs. But the sheer scope of California often leaves its capitol hidden in the shadows, a city long ago forged by prospectors and railroad barons, and destined for the history books. Having neither the beauty and sophistication of San Francisco nor the glitz of L.A., Sacramento seems to lack its own identity. But, it has something. And the Tour of California organizers know it.
To discover Sacramento, you’ve got to get off the freeway and under the thick canopy of trees, into the old neighborhoods that surround the capitol and downtown. It’s an awesome city, but at 7am on a Sunday it looks and feels as though downtown Sac has been ridden hard and put away wet. Then, as the sun rises and the town wakes up, it reveals an unexpected vibrancy that simply can’t be felt at 80mph on the way to Tahoe.
The Tour of California has visited here on nine occasions, and each year it seems to get better. The formula just works: The pro men start their race in the morning amidst thousands of fans lined up on L Street, adjacent to the stately capitol building and its 40-acre public park. While the men’s race crosses the picturesque Tower Bridge to begin their big loop outside the city, the pro women duke it out for forty miles on the finishing circuit that winds around the capitol and Midtown. Shortly after the women finish, the men re-enter the city and excite the massive crowd with three fast and chaotic laps on the same circuit. It makes for one of the best one-day cycling experiences in the country.
The neighborhoods are filled with cafes and restaurants, and outdoor diners are treated to the sights and sounds of pro bike racing for hours, the wind from the peloton blowing napkins from tables as the riders pass by at arm’s length. Residents sit in the shade on blow-up furniture, sipping drinks, laughing, and asking questions about the sport. Local club riders crowd the steps of old Victorians, grilling meat and drinking beer, still kitted up from the morning ride. The whole scene gives you tremendous hope for the future of the sport.
Team Sky leads the peloton onto the finishing circuits, keeping their sprinter Elia Viviani safe at the front of the field. After almost four hours of racing, the hapless four-man breakaway comes back to the group, and the fight for control of the front begins. Several teams challenge Sky, but they are determined to stay at the front and match the speed of teams like Katusha and Trek until they have exhausted their men, leaving Viviani to fend for himself. With no team controlling the pace, the field bunches as they approach the 5km to go mark. Then it happens. Rally sweep up the left-hand side with four riders and assert themselves. The announcers scream about the American underdog team here to take on the best from the World Tour as Rally lines out the peloton with Eric Young in fourth wheel. For three kilometers, it looks as though Carney’s plan is going to work. Rally is all in, selling themselves out to give their sprinter a shot. The small team is actually doing it. Then the harsh reality of World Tour cycling sets in.
Quick Step have amassed themselves behind Young, and with 2km remaining in the race, Kiwi Jack Bauer pulls his team up alongside the Rally boys with such a burst of speed that it’s almost unbelievable. Quick Step have four riders leading their sprinter Marcel Kittel to the line - the world’s best leadout working for the world’s fastest pure sprinter. As they blow by, Young tries to jump into the line, but it’s an impossible task. The speed is inconceivable, and the result unavoidable. Bauer’s pace down the finishing straight crushes the hopes of almost all others, and when Fabio Sabatini opens up the final lead-out for Kittel, the win is a foregone conclusion.
Back at the Rally bus the team is understandably disappointed. They couldn’t contend for the win, but they gave it a go against the strongest teams in the world, and sometimes that’s all you can ask for. The riders are tired and dirty from the fight, and nobody is in much of a mood to talk. Eventually they begin to come around and even joke and laugh a bit. Tomorrow is another stage, and this one goes up. The team will be all in again.