At the Back: Why American bike racing needed the Amgen Tour of California

For years, the race showcased a battle between Tour de France superstars, and guys from your local group ride or your college team.

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This story appeared in the January/February print issue of VeloNews Magazine. Illustration by David Brinton. 

My favorite memory of the Amgen Tour of California comes from the prologue of the 2007 edition.

Crowds packed downtown San Francisco as the clap clap of helicopter blades echoed through the Embarcadero. One by one, pro riders sped along the city’s eastern waterfront before turning left to ascend the brutally steep Telegraph Hill. Television cameras beamed images of the action across the globe.

Levi Leipheimer took the win, just one second ahead of Jason Donald, a guy who had held a Category 5 racing license just a few years before. Third place went to Ben Jacques-Maynes, my old teammate on the UC Santa Cruz collegiate cycling team. Ben beamed as he stood on the podium and waved at thousands of fans.

Ben had waited for a moment like this for his entire career. During college, I had written about him for the school newspaper, City on a Hill Press, when my knowledge of the sport was all about Lance. Ben explained the various levels of the sport, and how the U.S. domestic scene was where aspiring young professionals, like himself, honed their craft. Some guys dreamed of racing in Europe; Ben simply wanted to earn a living racing in the U.S. To race and win in Europe, Ben told me, would compromise his integrity to race clean.

But the U.S. scene lacked that one big race where local strongmen like Ben could test themselves against the sport’s biggest riders. He wondered if the U.S. scene would ever have such an event.

RELATED: Races we love — Amgen Tour of California

And that’s exactly what the Amgen Tour of California became upon its launch in 2006. For years, the race showcased a battle between Tour de France superstars, and guys from your local group ride or your college team. Most of the time, the Europeans dominated. Every now and then, guys like Ben got to be the star. Ben often attacked into early breakaways, and battled for the top-20 in individual time trials. During his 10 starts at the race, Ben became a well-known name, often earning mention on the U.S. broadcast. That attention helped him achieve his big goal in pro cycling: earn enough to support his family while still racing in North America.

Like many other fans, I was sad to see AEG cancel the 2020 Tour of California, and I realize that the race may, indeed, be gone for good. American cycling is moving in different directions, with the growth of gravel, virtual cycling, and mass-participation events. Changing dynamics like these are simply a part of life.

And while memories of the race may fade, I will always fondly recall how the Tour of California helped Ben Jacques-Maynes and other domestic pros live their dreams.

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