That Time of Year

The Tour of California (TOC) has been the preeminent cycling race in North America since its first go-around in 2006. The eight-day, 810-mile route attracts the best teams and best cyclists in the world. Andrew Messick is president of AEG Sports, the race’s owner and organizer. We spoke on the phone Wednesday last. I wanted to know if he’d “thought about expanding the race, making it as big as the Tour de France.”

“It’s something that we think about from time to time, there’s no doubt about that,” Messick says. “The Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia, the two biggest stage races in the world, are three-week races.

“We’re trying to find the right balance, what’s right for a young race, what’s right for California, what’s right for a race that is in the May time frame, and what’s the proper length of the race. This race is an important part of the preparation teams and athletes go through for the Tour de France. We think that somewhere in the seven- to ten-day range is the appropriate distance. It’s a hard race, a serious chunk of training and work for guys who are preparing for the Tour [de France], but it isn’t so difficult that it would have a negative impact on how people are riding in July. Eight days is a good length for us right now.”

All true, all makes sense; yet and still, one wants The Big One cycling past our front door. “California is very close to the same size as France, certainly has as wide a range of climates and geography. People who don’t live here love California. What would it take to bring the TOC up to a three-week world-class event. What would have to happen?”

“Well, there’s a whole series of procedural things that would need to happen,” Messick says. “We’re part of the international cycling calendar, so the UCI [Union Cycliste Internationale], the governing body for cycling, we would need to work with them to find out what would have to happen relative to other international races. We would need to be confident that we could continue to get the kinds of teams and riders we are currently getting. We would need to be a little more broad in the types of terrain that we cover. It would be easier to get to San Diego, easier to get further up into Northern California. We would need to have confidence that our sponsors and our broadcast partners would be supportive.”

“I assume the other grand races would not be welcoming?”

Messick says, “I’m not so sure about that. It would depend on when we were on the calendar. We’re going against the Giro d’Italia right now, and I don’t think either the Giro nor the Amgen Tour of California think that having those two races at the same time is a huge issue.”

“How come?”

“There’s a different kind of rider who’s riding the Giro versus our race. The Giro is going to continue to have a very, very strong field of Italian riders. I think ours is a little bit more international. For us, we’re seeking athletes who aspire to be very successful in the Tour de France in July. For a lot of those athletes, a 20-stage, hard race in May isn’t what they want in order to be at their best in July.”

I ask, “How do you put a tour together?”

“It is a fairly complicated process,” Messick says. “We have a broad sense of where we want the race to go. We choose cities that are very interested in being a part of the race. We balance that with parts of the state that we think are important to cover. And we balance that with particular types of stages — where do we want the flatter stages, where do we want mountain stages, where do we want the time trials, and whether there are broader considerations that are relevant either to our television partners or our sponsors. We started six months ago on 2011.”

“How much does it cost?”

“Lots. We travel 1000 people. They’ve got to be fed, they need cars, they need places to park, they need places to work.”

Last question: “Where is the best place to watch the race if you’re from San Diego?”

“I would come out for the final weekend. On the 21st of May, you can watch our first mountaintop finish at Big Bear. On Saturday the 22nd, you can watch the individual time trial at downtown Los Angeles. And on Sunday the 23rd, the final stage is going to be in the communities of Thousand Oaks, Westlake Village, and Agoura Hills.”

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