The neon-green-and-white-clad rider crossed himself as he sat on his bicycle, while a pair of riders behind him in red-and-white jerseys leaned over their handlebars and stared intently ahead, as the voice of the announcer boomed overhead.
“Three. Two. One.
And then the 140 cyclists were off, zooming down the Pismo Beach Pier to start Stage 4 of the 2015 Amgen Tour of California, which would take them 107 miles through northern Santa Barbara and southern San Luis Obispo counties, ending up in Avila Beach about four hours later.
The annual bike race, which covers eight days and 724 miles across the state, came to Pismo Beach on Wednesday, and with it several hundred people eager to watch the 11:30 a.m. start.
“We’ve seen at least one stage in all of the Amgen races, so we try and come each year,” said Kathy Stone of Paso Robles, who was at the Pismo Beach Pier with her husband for the start. “It’s great to be able to see them go by slowly — get a good look at them. Normally, they go by so fast.”
By 10 a.m., the parking lot adjacent to the pier was filled with tour buses, vans and bikes as fans milled throughout the area snapping pictures with favorite riders or discussing the route.
“The route this year is much more beautiful than last year,” said Doug Newberry of Santa Maria. “It’s going to be a beautiful ride for them.”
Newberry, along with his wife, Carol, and friend Bea Kephart, also of Santa Maria, biked to the event Wednesday morning to share in the excitement of a leg start, before riding on to Avila Beach to grab a beer at a family member’s house and watch the finish, he said.
The excitement was palpable as the official start time neared, with sporadic cheering and clapping erupting whenever a rider passed the assembled crowds to sign in.
By 11:29 a.m., all the riders were in place on the pier, and the official countdown began. By 11:33 a.m., the cyclists were on the road.
Good for tourism
The race brings with it a boost to tourism in whatever cities host a start or an end to a leg, but that boost doesn’t come cheap.
The city of Pismo Beach committed to spend about $57,000 in 2014 to host the start of a leg. In 2013, the last time Avila Beach hosted a leg, the Avila Beach Tourism Alliance agreed to spend $30,000. The money generally pays for hotel rooms, hospitality and meals for racers and their groups, as well as for public services such as toilets and more police. No totals were available for this year’s race.
Pismo Beach Mayor Shelly Higginbotham and District 3 county Supervisor Adam Hill have said the city and Avila Beach were not expected to spend any more for this year’s race than in past years.
The cost is worth it, Pismo Beach City Manager Jim Lewis said, because the race brings international attention to the Central Coast through its riders and their fans.
“I love the riders and seeing their reaction to Pismo Beach,” Lewis said following the race start in the city. “I love hearing that this is their favorite place to visit, and this is the best stage of the race. They just fell in love with our city, and they’re going to talk about it, and that’s great for our city.”
At the finish line
Not long after the race started, people began lining up near the finish line in Avila Beach in preparation for what some predicted would be a dramatic end to this leg.
Kathy Cunningham of Pasadena was at the finish line shortly after noon, sitting in a beach chair with an attached umbrella and quietly passing the time.
“I people-watch,” Cunningham said at 1:50 p.m., as a large group of people walked by. “You see everyone, every kind of person here — people with dogs, people with their grandchildren.”
Cunningham and her husband have made it a tradition for several years to watch all eight legs of the race, she said. So far this year, she said her favorite thing at the first four legs has been the weather: sunny, but still cool.
“The weather has been perfect,” she said. “Normally, it is so hot, but this is just right.”
Soon after that, however, the weather in Avila Beach took a turn for the worse, with high winds whipping the Amgen banners overhead and sending bystanders huddling together for warmth.
The winds didn’t delay the riders as much as race organizers expected, however, and at 3:42 p.m. the cyclists came flying around the corner onto Front Street to the sounds of applause, yells and cowbells (which had been sold throughout the day by roaming vendors).
As the competitors raced up the street, the leg winner was unclear until the last second, when Peter Sagan of the Tinkoff-Saxo team shot to the front to take first place. Wouter Wippert of Drapac Professional Cycling and Mark Cavendish of Etixx-Quick Step came in second and third, respectively.
After a few minutes to catch their breath — Sagan was seen leaning over his handlebars, gasping immediately following the race — the trio were presented with flowers and paused for a photo op.
To end the day’s ceremonies, Hill, the supervisor, took to the stage to thank all the attendees for coming to the city and said he would welcome the race coming back to the area next year.
“Let’s do it next year! We’ll do it every year!” he said to a loud round of applause.