It was announced yesterday that Rabobank, a Dutch-based bank, will become a major sponsor of the Amgen Tour of California(AToC). If you follow professional cycling you know that Rabobank also sponsors a highly successful European cycling team. Levi Leipheimer rode for the Rabobank squad for three season from 2002-2004. Luckily, for us Californians and Americans in general, the Dutch bank is looking to expand across the pond into the USA.
What makes Rabobank's sponsorship even more noteworthy is the fact that, even before the current economic crisis, money was flowing out of the sport. Sponsors like Credit Agricole and Gerlosteiner in Europe and Health Net, Toyota and Jittery Joes in the US all said 'adios' to cycling in 2008. That left a lot of riders looking for work. And without races for them to ride, the riders and their teams would be in even more serious trouble.
The AToC has a reported budget of roughly $8,000,000 which works out to about $1,000,000 per stage. In it's three-year history the race has yet to turn a profit, but if any major bicycle race in the US has a chance of running in black ink, it is the Amgen Tour of California. Last year, with the inclusion of Rock Racing both the number of spectators and the desired demographic were up sharply. Add to that the number one-ranked team, Team CSC, America's favorite team, Slipstream-Chipotle(now Garmin-Chipotle) and California son Levi Leipheimer and his Astana squad and you had all the right ingredients for a successful event.
In 2009, the race will keep its mid-February dates, but expand from eight to nine days with the final stage in the San Diego Area. Clearly, the race organizers are trying to find the correct formula to make the AToC profitable. Hopefully it is just a matter of time. With Rabobank on board, the organizers have done just that, given themselves more time to prove to all of us that the AToC is one of the best events going on the entire planet.
ps - As a bit of an education into the Dutch culture, Rabobank's up and coming star and the winner of last year's AToC stage three into San Jose is Robert Gesink. In Dutch, the "G" is pronounced like an "H", the phonetic pronunciation of Robert's last name is "Hesink". Also, for those of you who like Gouda cheese, named after a small town in western Holland, the correct pronunciation is "Houda".
The headline in today's l'Equipe translates to "The Thunder of the Tour" which is a great way to describe all that accompanies the entourage that is the Tour de France. And we are finally underway in Brittany with a very hilly day from Brest to Plumelec. To steal a phrase from Phil Liggett, the course profile looks like a discarded piece of string. When the riders aren't going up, they are going down and they will do that for about 120 miles.
While the focus today is on the sprinters, the race for the yellow jersey is still the main focus. In my Tour preview I opined that Cadel Evans, Denis Menchov, Alejandro Valverde and Damiano Cunego are the favorites. Some like Andy Schleck, but this is his first Tour and at the ripe young age of 23 it might just be a learning year for the Luxembourger on Team CSC-Saxo Bank. There is the possibility that he will contend for the white, best young rider, jersey against the likes of Rabobanks' Robert Gesink who is a year younger than Andy at 22.
Another possibility is that neither Schleck or Gesink will finish the race. Some consider 22 and 23 years old to be too young both physically and mentally to race the Tour. Lance Armstrong first rode the Tour as a 22/23 year-old and was pulled, as planned, after the two mountain stages in the Alps about ten days into the race. The primary reason for pulling a rider isn't about the physical demands. It has more to do with the mental aspect and the strain it puts on a rider's confidence.
A potential Tour winner has to believe that he can someday win the race and to be overwhelmed at a young age could do damage to his psyche. So, young riders, especially those who are tipped to do well in the future are routinely pulled either after the first set of mountains or about ten days in.
The finish today in Plumelec was incredible and hopefully it bodes well for an exciting race. Stefan Schumacher's attack looked to be the winning move, but he picked up a couple of concrete suitcases and Kim Kirchen appeared to have taken everybody by surprise. But, in the end, nobody could match Alejandro Valverde. What is very cool is seeing potential overall contenders Cadel Evans, Kim Kirchen, Frank Schleck and Ricardo Ricco also in the Top 10 for the stage. They all outfoxed the sprinters and stole the show on day one. A great start for the Tour.