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California Dreamin' Part II
 
By Vaughn Trevi
Date: 11/16/2004
California Dreamin' Part II
 

By Bill Oetinger

Last month, I wrote a column about the fantasy of having a major, world-class stage race in California. If you read that piece, you know the entire premise was built on a wobbly, insupportable accumulation of assumptions. It almost certainly will never happen, for all the reasons I mentioned, and for more reasons that have probably never occurred to me. It was just a day dream...wishful thinking.

But as I was wrapping up my pie-in-the-sky fantasy, I was taken by a notion that is almost as exciting, but not nearly as fantastic...a notion that has a very real chance of happening in the real world. I personally do not have the wherewithal to make it happen, but I wouldnít be surprised if there are people out there who do. I figure if I give it a little ink here, perhaps someone out there will get pumped up about the idea and run with it.

What am I talking about?

I am talking about having the World Road Cycling Championships in San Francisco. We know that all the big pro races are concentrated in Europe. That is unlikely to change anytime soon. But the Worlds are, well, worldwide. They were in Canada last year, and have recently been in Japan, Colombia, and Norway. (Okay, okay...Oslo, Norway is Europe, but itís not the Europe you think of when you think of pro bike racing.) Australia is currently bidding for a future edition of the race. So, why not San Francisco? Why not California, one of the hottest hotbeds of cycling mania on the planet?

Only a hermit, hiding in a cave for the last three years, could have missed the huge crowds and electric buzz of the San Francisco T-Mobile Grand Prix. I have been to all of those races, and I take two things away from those wildly successful affairs: first, this region--the Bay Area, the state of California, the western USA--is prime for such a big event...starved for such a big event; second, the city of San Francisco has demonstrated both the willingness and the ability to host and manage such a big event.

[Editor's note: The T-Mobile SF Grand Prix draws 500,000 fans to watch the race!]

Now, Iím not going to diss this great race. It sizzles with excitement, and it has succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of anyone, even the most starry-eyed promoter. But, all that good stuff notwithstanding, it is still an end-of-season, low-priority event, and is still a bit provincial. I know: we get Lance and the Posties--because Tailwind Sports is the driving force behind both the Grand Prix and the Postal team--and we get a large handful of Euro-stars too. But most of those big names are here in little more than name only. Theyíre not really committed to winning. Where did Gilberto Simoni go last year? I know he was in the field somewhere, but he was pretty much invisible when it came to being a player...just for one example.

I want to see a race where all the stars are really racing; where the prize is significant enough to make them care. The Worlds would be such an event. But to hold the World Championship, we need a world-class race course.

As wild and crazy as the Grand Prix course is, I donít see it as a World Championship circuit. It is what it is, and should be left as it is, for the GP. For the Worlds, we need another venue. And I have the perfect course in mind.

Several years ago, I had a series of conversations with Dave Walters about the idea of staging a major race in San Francisco. Dave has been a successful bike racer for well over 30 years. He was California State Champion several times, finished 2nd at Nationals on several more occasions, and in three trips to the Masters World Championships earned a 3rd, a 2nd, and finally, in 1992 a 1st...World Champion.

For over 15 of those years, he owned Daveís Bike Sport (now NorCal Bike Sport) in Santa Rosa, one of the best bike shops in the Bay Area for serious, high-end bike gear. On any given day, you might look up from browsing the racks to see Greg Lemond, Davis Phinney, Bobby Julich, or Levi Leipheimer walking in the door. Without dropping names or putting on airs, Dave always managed to make his patrons feel as if their own modest cycling agendas basked in a little of the magical glow of an Armstrong or a Hampsten.

Perhaps most importantly in the context of this article; he was a driving force behind the promotion and staging of many excellent bike races. Among them the Wine Country Classic race weekend and the Masters National Championship, which he brought to Sonoma County in 1996.
As a race promoter, he was intrigued by the idea of bringing an even bigger event to the region...something world class. I canít remember now which of us first had the idea of doing a circuit race in San Francisco, but we kicked the idea around some and with his encouragement, I spent a little time fooling around with maps and riding a potential course to come up with a specific proposal. Eventually, we settled on a great route, but like a lot of dreams, thatís as far as it went. We both had other priorities at the time. Life got in the way while we were making plans, and we put the idea on the shelf, where it has been ever since.

Now, after watching the astonishing success of the SF GP, I feel encouraged all over again to pull that old circuit race map off the shelf, dust it off, and toss it into the pool of public opinion...let the ripples spread and see if the idea rocks anyoneís boats.

So here is the course (see map). As the map key notes, the loop is approximately 11 miles around, with a little less than 1000 feet of elevation gain per lap. For a typical World Championship race, youíd be looking at 11 or 12 laps: 120-130 miles and around 10,000 feet of gain. This is just about perfect for a World Championship course.

The start-finish area would be along John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park, not far from the music concourse and the DeYoung Museum. The exact finishing line could be anywhere along that stretch. I picked a spot just below Strawberry Hill where there is a little uphill rise leading to the finish, just to make the final sprint a bit more testing. Itís a great staging area for a big event: lots of room for the entire support infrastructure, and the band pavilion and music concourse are tailor-made for a bike expo, entertainment center, Jumbotron screens (showing the race), and awards presentations. You could hardly ask for a better venue for such a production.

But Iím getting ahead of myself to be talking about the finish already. Letís back up and take a lap around the course. A quick look at the map will show you one of the best things about it: a huge amount of the circuit runs through public parks...Golden Gate Park, Lincoln Park, and the Presidio (now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area). Not only does this make for incredibly scenic and entertaining roads for riders and spectators alike, it means the roads can be easily closed off without a major disruption of city traffic.
Heck, they already close JFK Drive on Sundays for cyclists! Only one mile along Arguello Blvd, from the Presidio to Golden Gate Park represents a true urban setting, requiring complex traffic management, and even that bit is easy to do, with blocks on most cross streets and controlled pass-throughs on Geary and perhaps one or two other streets. Compared to the Grand Prix course in downtown San Francisco, this loop is an absolute piece of cake for traffic control.

From that brief rise by Strawberry Hill, the course begins with a long 2 Ĺ mile downhill run along JFK Drive through Golden Gate Park to the ocean. Itís about as gradual as a descent can be: less than 2%. But it has a steeper pitch just at the beginning, and that will get the peloton wound up to a pretty brisk tempo for the roll-out down to the sea, especially if people start hammering.

After a brief flat spot along the beach, the racers begin the first and the biggest of the three climbs on the course: up past the old Cliff House on Point Lobos Avenue, jog left one block, and then grapple up the wall of Seal Rock Drive. From the bottom to the top, this climb gains 300 feet in a bit over a mile. Most of it wonít phase world-class riders, but the quarter-mile pitch on Seal Rock is well over 10%, and that will take its toll, lap after lap. After that stout climb, the riders will get a brief rest on Clement Street, in front of Lincoln Park: a straight, 11-block run that starts out level and then zooms downhill at a good clip.

This fast descent ends abruptly with a tight left onto Legion of Honor Drive. Considering how fast strong riders will be going when they hit this corner, it could be a tricky spot...dicey for riders and thrilling for spectators...and possibly a good spot for an opportunistic attack: slice through the corner ahead of the field and sprint up the gradual hill past the grand old art museum, where Rodinís Thinker will be sitting out front, watching the riders fly by.

Just beyond the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the course tilts downhill through the Lincoln Park golf course, with its splendid view of the Golden Gate Bridge. This could be a ripper descent. Recreational riders doing this road under real-world conditions are forced to stop or at least slow down for a stop sign or two on the way down the mile-long hill, but racers on a closed course will blow through here at a very robust pace, snaking around a few slinky corners through the posh Sea Cliff neighborhood.

This frisky descent ends just as the road enters the Presidio on Lincoln Blvd, and as soon as the downhill bottoms out, the profile tilts back up: exactly one mile of climbing along the cliffs above the Pacific. This is not a brutal pitch (averaging about 4%) but as has often been said, itís not how steep it is; itís how fast you go up it. This is just one of many spots around the circuit where ambitious riders may attack, on any one of the many laps.

Once over the top of this climb, the riders begin two very fast miles along Lincoln. Some of this is almost level, but at least half of it is quite steeply downhill, and as the downhill pitch comes first, the riders will carry a lot of momentum onto the flatter sections. Just past the National Military Cemetery, the course heads into the ďdowntownĒ of the old Presidio, passing the former officersí club as it hangs a right and begins the last hard climb of the lap. This is the parkland portion of Arguello Blvd--before the urban section--and itís a tough pitch of about 3/4-mile at maybe 6-8%. If no one has made an attack stick earlier in the race, you can be sure the last lap will see total war break out on this little wall.

Once the riders pop out of the Presidio forest and hit the straight, urban section of Arguello, itís tempting to say itís all downhill from here, but thatís not quite the case. In fact, the first five blocks out of the park are steeply downhill to California Street, in the best San Francisco tradition. From California to Turk, there is a run of a little over half a mile that is nearly level, but then the road ramps up into another uphill as it re-enters Golden Gate Park...a very small climb, just behind the beautiful Conservatory of Flowers. This four-block rise is just a little bump in the big scheme of things, but it could force a crucial selection at the end of the race, if everyone is going flat out.

After that little bump, the road drops back to JFK Drive on a short descent, and then rolls out along the broad boulevard to the finish line. Although this stretch of JFK is gently curving, it is so wide and smooth that it effectively will work as a long, broad straightaway of over 1000 meters, should the race come down to a field sprint...plenty of room for the lead-out men to wind their sprinters up to full steam ahead.

Spectator viewing along this finish stretch should be excellent, with loads of room on both sides of the road and even a few grassy knolls nearby to get above the crowd for a birdís-eye view. Wonderful spectator opportunities abound all around the course. Itís a race-watcherís dream. There are hundreds of pretty spots where folks could spread a blanket in the shade of a tree and watch the passing parade while working through a picnic lunch.

There are even a couple of spots where energetic fans (on bikes) could shuttle back and forth across the loop and see the riders twice a lap. Watch the racers zoom past Spreckles Lake in Golden Gate Park, and then scoot seven or eight blocks over to the corner of Clement and Legion of Honor Drive to watch the pack negotiate that tricky turn into Lincoln Park. Or catch them as they crest the top of the climb on Lincoln, above the ocean; then hop on your bikes and race like mad along a mile and a half of Washington Blvd, through the Presidio, to get to the top of the steep Arguello climb just in time to see them steaming up that hill. Two hill primes per lap! Then cruise back to Lincoln and wait for them to come around again, soaking up the magnificent view over the ocean while you wait. Repeat this exercise for every one of the 11 or 12 laps, and youíll have yourself a pretty good workout (over 30 miles going back and forth) on top of having seen a great race.

This looks to me like a classic World Championship course: hilly enough to separate the sheep from the goats, but not so hilly as to be exclusively the domain of the grimpeurs. Itís the sort of course that will probably produce numerous attacks, lap after lap...en bagarre, in the best World Championship tradition. And it will be impossible to say ahead of time just where on the circuit the decisive attack might occur. With three big and two little climbs per lap, there is no single spot that is the no-brainer attack zone...itís anybodyís guess where the right move might happen. With the last significant climb coming two miles from the finish, it might all come back together for a bunch sprint. Then again, a determined solo rider or a small group working well together just might make an earlier break work.

Not only is it a fascinating and challenging course from a tactical point of view, itís also a gorgeous one. I know the riders wonít be looking around at the scenery, but it will make a terrific backdrop for the spectators and for television coverage. (Think of the Graham Watson eye-candy photos!) More importantly, the park landscapes and winding, hilly roads will impart a rural, organic feel to a course right in the heart of a major metropolitan setting.
Or, to put it in practical terms: you can have the ambience of a rural landscape but all the logistical convenience of a big city. Urban bike courses typically feature many 90į city corners. This course has only a couple of 90į corners, and even those could hardly be described as typical examples of a cityscape. Most of the course will feel more like country back roads than city avenues, and to my way of thinking, both riders and spectators will appreciate this.

As noted before, the abundance of public parks along the route will make the challenge of closing the course much easier than it would elsewhere, and it will also facilitate the movement of spectators and event personnel all around the course...lots of room for parking and support facilities. Then thereís the big music concourse and band pavilion for all the festivities before, during, and after the races...a ready-made venue as nice as anything you could draw up on a wish list. Taken together with a great race course through some of the prettiest real estate in one of the most popular tourist towns in the world...whatís not to like?

So thatís all dandy, but the bean counters out there are wondering whoís going to pay for it all. Staging a big event like this isnít cheap. Well, chew on this news release concerning the 2003 World Championships: ďThe Canadian city of Hamiltonís staging of the World Road Cycling Championships in 2003 was a huge boost for the local economy, according to an economic impact study done by the Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance. For an outlay of $4.5 million, the study found that Hamilton and the province of Ontario gained an economic benefit totalling $48.3 million. The races themselves turned in a profit of $1.1 million.Ē Do you think the City of San Francisco, the state of California, and a whole lot of local businesses would like a slice of that?

All in all, itís just about a dream setting for a major race. Philadelphia has the national championship sewn up, and the UCI has decreed that all the big, points-paying races are going to be in Europe, so that leaves us only one real option: the World Championships.
I know what a lot of planning and lobbying and legwork goes into landing a date on the World Championship calendar. I can hardly wrap my mind around all the logistical hurdles that will have to be surmounted in staging such a big production. But they have to hold the dang thing somewhere. Can you think of a better place to do it?

Bills article originally published in and courtesy of www.bikecal.com on April 1. 2004 Bike Cal is a great regional site to visit if you ride or plan on riding in Northern California.

About Bill Oetinger:

Occupation: free-lance graphic artist and illustrator (and writer)
Ride Director and newsletter Editor, Santa Rosa Cycling Club, Sonoma County, California
Director, Terrible Two Double Century, Santa Rosa, California
Board of Directors, California Triple Crown cycling series
Owner of Adventure Velo Cycle-touring

 
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