The Tour of Cali

17 May 2013

On the morning of September 14, 1847, brilliant sunshine burned off the haze in Mexico City. A mild breeze sprang up to blow away he smell of gunpowder lingering from the bloody battle of Chapultepec. unshaven, mud-stained soldiers of the United States army in threadbare uniforms marched into the Plaza de Armas, formed a ragged line, and stood weary attention as a shot-torn American flag rose over the ancient capital of the Aztecs. Civilians looked on in disappointed wonder Were these tattered gringoes the men who had vanquished the splendid hosts of Santa Anna? Martial Music suddenly blared from a street entering the plaza. Jaunty dragoons with drawn sabers cantered into the square escorting a magnificent bay charger ridden by a tall general resplendent in full-dress uniform with gold epaulets and white-plumed chapeau. the Mexicans broke into involuntary applause. if they must endure the humiliation of conquest, they preferred their conquerors to look the part. As the band played Yankee Doodle and Hail to the Chief, General Winfield Scott dismounted and accepted formal surrender of the city. Cross-belted U.S. marines soon patrolled the Halls of Montezuma while at nearby Guadalupe Hidalgo the American envoy Nicholas Trist negotiated a treaty that enlarged the territory of the United States by nearly one-quarter and reduced that of Mexico by half.
Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson

As the remnants of the shattered peloton crossed the line on the Palm Springs Tram Way on Monday, there was a shortage of helpers to catch the stricken riders. A makeshift triage area had been established in the finishing area as ashen-faced competitors were being cooled by any means before the descent back into town. An Omega Pharma rider, Pieter Serry, had succumbed to the heat on the obsidian-black tarmac and was taken down the hill in an ambulance. He was just 500m from the line. A peloton so complete and dynamic a half an hour earlier was gutted by 45 degree heat on a 10% hill. I thought immediately of Milan-San Remo — the withered faces and dislocated stares were the same despite the contrasting conditions.

It wasn’t always like this. It was only a few years ago that snow was the overriding meteorological concern for the Amgen Tour of California (ATOC). The race was awkwardly held in February which limited the geography it could explore and indeed its intensity. It wasn’t until a move to May in 2010 and the broadcast backing of the ASO that the race came of age. The 2011 and 2012 editions of the race had glorious mountaintop finishes and gobs of bold California scenery. When the Tour of California shifted to May there was large chorus of derision from Europe — a lack of respect for the Giro d’Italia being a common refrain. Yet far from damaging the Giro, the ATOC has challenged RCS to make their race more progressive and inclusive for fans and riders. Michele Aquarone has revitalised the event through social media and an inclusive attitude to international broadcasters and publishers. He has helped build the international audience of a race that was already well-loved but much paler in comparison to the Tour de France. The Giro is never going to draw legitimate Tour de France contenders, but the character of the race more than fills that void. Equally, the ATOC is a third way for GC protagonists, both neophytes and incumbents, to prove themselves. I would rank this race fourth in importance after the three Grand Tours and, with the decreasing relevance of the Vuelta, it could ultimately displace the once-great Spanish race.

I’m not sure when I first became aware of California as a child, but I do distinctly remember that I considered it apart from the United States. Yet isn’t that the overwhelming narrative of the past 175 or so years — a land apart? Somewhere beyond the Rockies, in what was once Mexico, lay the answer to all your problems. Manifest Destiny meant that it would soon be part of the United States, but in my mind it always retained the spirit of the Bear Flag Revolt. It has, in turn, offered abundances of fertile land, gold, oil, technological innovation and celebrity. From the Forty-Niners to Mexican immigrants and the Silicon Valley hopefuls of this century, millions have arrived in the Golden State since the 1840s. Calfironia’s economy, the twelfth largest in the world, is routinely examined on its own

I was continually intrigued by exotic-sounding names, both Spanish and Native American. I grew up watching American television and no show I remember was set East of the Rockies. California really came alive for me during he 1984 Olympics. I was very young, but this bright new world, in such contrast to my cloistered life in South Africa, was mesmerising. Watching Alexi Grewal win the gold medal in the road race is a faint memory, but I quite clearly remember the sound of the names: Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, and Vista del Lago. Your suburban mundanity is my exotica.

I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse. I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea. You may bury my body in Sussex grass, You may bury my tongue at Champmedy. I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass. Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.
American Names, Stephen Vincent Benét

What the Tour of California lacks in cycling mythology, therefore, it delivers in New World intrigue. Whilst the other Grand Tours are heavy with legend — and they really have all the best kinds covered: bitter rivalries, breathless courage, defiant collective action — the countries themselves have a thick fog of history. Walking through Paris or Rome can be like wading through treacle if you consider a millennium of history. California since 1840 forms a key part of the compelling narrative of American independence and exceptionalism. Isn’t the American Dream simply a re-imagining of Manifest Destiny and frontier expansion? We have all of us been part of the American century, and the race is compelling for all the dusty cultural artifacts piled up in our memories. I do wonder, however, if the Coors Classic would have endured had it represented a state in name, too. It is much easier for fans to “own” a race if it is not named for it’s title sponsor.

If the Tour of California seems older than its eight years, it is because we have been waiting for it for a long time. Or perhaps it is just me — finally a confluence of my love of bikes with my deep admiration for American cultural output and a lifelong fascination with its geography. The race has already worked Frank Lloyd Wright into its parcours, and I can almost imagine a race report by Steinbeck, Hemingway, McCullers or Faulkner. Or the brochure illustrated by Edward Hopper or Norman Rockwell. You see I find the breadth of post-colonial American history just narrow enough to grasp in its distillation of cultural and political identity. I can view the Tour of California through the same lens. The tours of Italy and France, however, stand apart as silos — a narrow, deep store of facts and mythology where the greater arc of national history is too broad to contemplate as the same time. The great European races provide enough to satisfy the curious in and of themselves. Hopefully, this time, Americans can nurture and sustain a great stage race to be one day mentioned in the same breath as the Giro and the Tour.

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” ― John Steinbeck, East of Eden
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