The beautiful city of Santa Barbara played host to the Tour of California on Saturday as Stage 6 began within a stone's throw of the Pacific Ocean. Well...maybe not a stone's throw exactly, unless you have a REALLY good arm, but pretty close nonetheless. The beachfront park along Shoreline Drive gave spectators plenty of room to mill around and check out the commotion before the riders headed off southeast to Santa Clarita.
One of the coolest things about professional bike racing is the level of interaction between the riders and the fans in the pre-race setting. As we walked to the start line, Kim Kirchen and another T-Mobile rider cruised up in front of us, parked their bikes on the newspaper stand and proceeded to stand in line at a local coffee shop with the rest of the patrons. The Luxembourg national champion - just standing there in line an hour or so before the race. The locals may not have known exactly who he was but they politely greeted him and he politely responded. Can you imagine Alex Rodriguez or Allen Iverson just walking around the stadium and standing in line at the hot-dog counter talking to spectators before a game? Probably not.
There was more of a commotion around the start line as the riders signed in, getting shouts from the crowd and stopping to sign autographs. The more well-known riders were held up quite a bit by this process and a commissaire actually had to tell Tom Danielson to stop signing autographs or else he would miss the deadline to sign the racebook.
Curious side note - a well-rounded, platinum blonde that was standing next to me inside the fences near the sign-in area was calling out to all of the Quick-Step riders and planting big kisses on them as they sheepishly rode past. The riders seemed obligated to address her for some reason and I have to assume that she may have been hosting them at her house or something. It made for a funny scene though because of the faces on the people in the crowd watching her displays of affection. Lots of smiles and sideways glances. And no, I did not get a kiss...from her or the riders.
The race began quickly and the riders shot out of town without any parade laps. This was unfortunate in my opinion. It would have been fairly easy to give the spectators a chance to see more of the neutral start by winding them up and down Shoreline. The reason I say this was disappointing was because of the number of people I overheard saying how quickly the event departed. In particular, a couple of young boys asked their father, "Was that it?" to which he responded, "Yeah, wasn't that exciting?" Their response in unison, "Not really."
Not knowing all of the logistics of the event, it is difficult for me to criticize the organizers for the rapid exit but Santa Barbara is a strong enough cycling community to deserve a bit more action - even if it is only an extended neutral start. The Tour of California has been a great success for the most part but the key to the longterm growth of the sport will be dictated by the sentiments of many children like the two dissatisfied boys I overheard.
Due to the action of Saturday's Stage 6 and the fact that the 1890 House does not get Versus, I will recount the events of the day with another running diary when I return to Boulder Sunday afternoon. Please stay tuned.