Let's face it, in the peloton of American spectator sports, cycling got cracked off the back on the first climb out of town and is just now working its way back into the rear of the pack. Even with eight straight years of Americans winning the Tour de France, the biggest event in the cycling world, cycling has only the most tenuous of holds on the American consciousness. O'er the pond, the Europeans have more than a century of rich road racing history and cultural lore out front making a passionate pace.
One of the problems is that American race promoters and fans haven't quite figured out how to wrest maximum entertainment value out of a professional cycling race. Organizers of the 2007 Amgen Tour of California (TOC) understood this issue and came up with a great solution: circuit laps to finish the stages. Brilliant.
Circuit laps tap into a key metric in spectator sports: crowd density. You can have 300,000 fans at an event, but if that event is strung out over 100 miles then how do you maximize the entertainment value and the revenue potential? You don't. Only the diehards turn out, nobody makes any money, and the event withers.
JJ Haedo crosses the finish line with his third TOC stage win in the last two years. Note lead-out man Stuart O'Grady celebrating his teammate's victory in the background. Photo from velonews.com.
Ah, but take that 100-mile course, shorten it to 95 miles, have the riders circle around a town plaza or downtown area two or three times to make up the extra 5 miles, and now we're talking. Most people are just interested in the finish anyway, the fans get to see the riders up close and personal for much more than one 20-second rush of faceless jerseys, organizers can cluster fans into favorable viewing areas, and volume sales make the local merchants happy.
Regardless of the neutralization, race organizers had the right idea and it worked. On Monday, thousands of fans witnessed some of the most entertaining racing in the history of American stage racing -- and the circuit laps carried the day.
Tuesday was more of the same, with the state capitol building as the iconic background for three 3.2-km laps around Capitol Park in downtown Sacramento to finish the 186.4-km stage. It was all there: intense teamwork and tactical maneuvering in the lead outs, individual courage and tenacity in the violent rolling scrum to the finish, and thousands and thousands of jacked-up fans. When the dust had cleared, Juan Jose "JJ" Haedo was the stage winner and Santa Rosa denizen Levi Leipheimer remained the overall race leader.