Tour de California

Redondo Beach sits on the outer rim of convenient. Drive 121 miles, 100 minutes up the I-5/I-405, turn left at Carson, and carry on to the Pacific Ocean. For the geographically impaired, Redondo Beach is a little north of Long Beach and south of LAX. Said recreational hot spot will be the finish of this year's first Tour of California.

For those who followed last summer's Tour de France and fell in love with the sport, this race is an unexpected and considerable gift. The inaugural Tour of California will be the largest professional cycling race in the United States.

It's a real race: February 19th to 26th, eight days, 700 miles, a prologue in San Francisco followed by seven stages. The race begins in Sausalito, travels up to Santa Rosa, back down to Martinez, on to San Jose, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Thousand Oaks, and finishes with a circuit race (10 laps), in Redondo Beach.

Sponsors say, "...the field of 128 athletes will be among the most internationally diverse and accomplished group of cyclists ever assembled for a professional stage race on American soil." The best professional teams in the world are entered. Eight division I teams from Europe are here, including the number-one ranked team in the world, Team CSC (Denmark); number-two ranked team in the world, Phonak (Switzerland); number 4, Davitamon-Lotto (Belgium); number 6, Gerolsteiner (Germany); plus Discovery Channel (USA), T-Mobile (Germany), and others.

I should add that although the world's best teams are here, not all of the best riders are. Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France winner, has moved from rider to Discovery Channel team mouthpiece. Second place 2005 Tour de France finisher Ivan Basso (Team CSC) will not be here, nor will third-place finisher Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile). That leaves 125 of the world's best riders. I'm exaggerating, but not by that much. The field is flush with Tour winners, national champions, and Olympic medalists.

The UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) is the international regulating body of cycling. The UCI ProTour includes three Grand Tours: Tour of France, Tour of Italy, and Tour of Spain. Grand Tours last for weeks, have daily stages, long climbs, descents, sprints, team and individual time trials, and so forth. It's always been a European game.

There is no reason why the Tour of California can't join the gang of three. We have everything we need. France has a land area of 212,934 square miles. California has 163,707 square miles. Close enough. Both territories have a full range of climates, from alpine to seashore. France has the fifth-largest economy in the world. If California were an independent nation she would have the fifth largest economy in the world. The 2005 Tour de France lasted three weeks and was 2241 miles in length vs. eight days and 700 miles for the Tour of California. No problem there; California organizers can pump up the mileage and throw in mountain climbs.

World Class anything is worth watching. The gap between amateur boxing/baseball/ basketball/anything else and Best in the World in those activities is so large as to make it appear as if two related but different sports are being played. I interviewed Bill Walsh once and asked what he thought the most important difference between college and professional football was. Walsh said, "Speed." On the field, the pro game is a blur to college football players. Watch Bobby Julich fly past you at 50 mph, wearing skin-tight shorts and a short-sleeved jersey, nothing between bare skin and pavement but a 15-pound bike, and you'll see what I mean.

Professional cycling is human activity, and once you get familiar with it you'll find the same percentage of psychopaths, liars, and frauds there as anywhere else humans congregate, plus rampant doping. Happily, most of us are not that familiar with professional cycling, so, for the moment, we are in the best of times -- enthusiastic ignorance. Or, to put it more elegantly, in the words of Senior Dharma Teacher Zenkei Blanche Hartman, "Beginner's mind...is the mind that is innocent of preconceptions and expectations, judgments and prejudices."

We can just dig it.

The race will conclude in Redondo Beach on Sunday, February 26th. Football season is over, you could be there by brunch. Or, you could leave Friday afternoon, catch the peloton Saturday morning on its way out of Santa Barbara.

There are 16 teams and 250 cyclists. There are 450 bike mechanics, physical therapists, gophers, paper shufflers, bus drivers, officials of every sort, sponsors, cooks, and more. Four hundred media are expected. Then, add everybody's friends and relatives. Now, we have a Shermanesque bicycle army winding its way down the great state of California. A million spectators are expected to observe.

ESPN2 will broadcast an hour's worth of the race every night during its course. Hie thee to www.amgentourofcalifornia.com for maps and particulars.

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