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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Ride Director and newsletter Editor, Santa Rosa Cycling Club, Sonoma County,
Director, Terrible Two Double Century, Santa Rosa, California
Board of Directors, California Triple Crown cycling series
Adventure Velo Cycle-touring