It was more than easy to find my way to the Stage 4 start of the Amgen Tour of California bike race. Cyclists clad in traditionally brightly colored jerseys led the way, groups of them making their way up Highway 1 from San Luis Obispo to the starting line in Morro Bay.
Although, really, navigating past riders in the area is never out of the ordinary, I’m finding. The fact that the Tour of California, the United States’ biggest competitive bike race, made a stop in our backyard was just a bonus for an already passionate local cycling community.
“I feel like it’s a great cycling community; that’s why I moved here, honestly,” said Lisa Starr, of Los Osos, who rode her bike along with a group of friends to the start.
Starr moved to the area six years ago after first falling in love with the cycling opportunities here as a collegiate racer at San Jose State University.
“When I got here and I was riding, I thought, ‘I’m going to move here one day,’” she said. “There’s just the most spectacular cycling here.”
New to the area myself, it didn’t take long before I realized that road riding was a big deal here. As Starr told me on the foggy morning at the base of Morro Rock, the roads around here really provide a cyclist’s dream playground. There are winding roads in the North County that take you through hills and around lakes such as Santa Margarita Lake or Nacimiento. There’s Highway 1 north out of Morro Bay, the route the race took all the way to Monterey County, that provides beautiful coastal scenery. There’s riding along the beaches in the southern part of the county.
And that’s another thing that struck me when I first moved to this area, which I wrote about in my first column about a month ago: This isn’t your traditional sports community. It’s more doing than watching, meaning people here ride their bikes, hike, fish, surf, etc., and all the above in many cases, I’m sure.
“It’s big per capita, since we don’t have such a large population to begin with,” Eric Benson, owner of Art’s Cyclery, said Wednesday as he straddled his bike right before the riders took to the course. “It’s big, out of 10 people probably six or seven of them ride bikes.”
Cycling isn’t exactly the easiest sport to get into, with everything from the Lance Armstrong-era doping scandals to the fact that it’s not exactly a spectator friendly sport — for the fans that congregated Wednesday morning, they had a whole minute or two before the riders made their way out of view — alienating more than its fair share of casual sports fans.
But, like I said, this is an area of doing rather than watching. And as the professional riders hopped on their bikes and hit the road, so did the hundreds of fans who were there for the start. And when you’re a fan of a sport, no matter how fringe, the chance to see the best in the world up close and personal is something not to be missed.
Before the race started, there was plenty of interaction among riders and fans and an emcee conducting pre-race interviews with riders.
“The Tour of California is very important because it shows American cyclists that they can actually pursue their passion and be represented,” said Drake Murphy, a freshman at Cal Poly from the Bay Area and a rider on the school’s club cycling team. “It shows Americans that cycling is a really legitimate sport.”
And the riders that came through here are some of the best in the world, the same ones you’ll see when the rest of the country pays attention briefly during the Tour de France. Riders like Slovakian Peter Sagan, last year’s Tour of California winner and Stage 4’s winner, current race leader Julian Alaphilippe of France, Great Britain’s Mark Cavendish, a 26-time Tour de France stage winner, are among the world’s best.
So while it’s not for everyone, there’s no denying that for Central Coast cyclists, Wednesday was a big day.
“I see it, and it’s inspirational, and it makes me think that if I really continue to pursue my passion in college, then maybe someday I could be in this race,” Murphy said.
Dan Itel, sports editor, The Tribune: 805-781-7989, firstname.lastname@example.org, @dan_itel