Backstage Pass to the Amgen Tour of CaliforniaBy Rick Scott
"Pack your bags," read the email from AEG's online wizard Andrew Lim and AEG senior director Kristin Bachochin. After writing for the Amgen Tour of California website for nearly two years, the 2008 edition of the race marked the first time I was invited to be your eyes & ears for the entire race by writing the official website’s play-by-play. Although I had attended stages of the race during the first two editions as well as every edition of the now defunct San Francisco Grand Prix/T-Mobile International and the USPRO Road Race Championship in my hometown of Philadelphia dating back to the first year in 1985, I had never before been a part of the broadcast team that covered an eight-day stage race live for an international audience.
The literature distributed to race staff two weeks prior to departure by Medalist Sports, the race organizers, read, “Do not under any circumstances bring a bike on tour.” You have got to be kidding me. As a cyclist and an amateur racer, I wondered how I’d ever survive being surrounded by best cyclists in the world without being able to ride for ten days. Thankfully I got cleared to bring my bike as long as I drove myself, which was a “home field” advantage I’d take advantage of as a Southern California resident. I packed the Cervelo and waaaaaay too much clothing and drove over six hours north to Palo Alto two days prior to the prologue.
After checking into the hotel, I headed to the race headquarters located at a hotel a few miles away. As I walked into the lobby, it was swarming with activity. In one corner sat Astana director Viatcheslav Ekimov pounding away on his laptop computer. Other directors and cyclists sat in the dimly light room in overstuffed lounge chairs with their laptops. I spun around and nearly ran into the entire Slipstream team moving in what seemed like a paceline procession after disembarking from the team bus after dinner. Everyone in this beehive was wearing team gear: hats, jackets and shirts. I knew I was in the right place.
I found my way to the race staff “in-processing” where I obtained my security pass and was loaded up with Amgen Tour of California tour attire – four crisp navy blue button-down shirts, three vibrant blue long sleeve polos, two white long sleeve T-shirts, a white baseball cap and a thick black fleece, which I would seldom be without for the duration of the tour. Later that evening, my car was transformed into a race vehicle as three immense Amgen Tour of California stickers were placed on the doors and hood.
The morning before the race began with a meeting for the race announcers at which Amgen executives explained to us the details of their Breakaway from Cancer initiative and the Breakaway Mile rides. It was surreal to walk into the meeting in which I’d be briefed alongside legendary cycling broadcasters Phil Leggett, Paul Sherwin and Bob “Tour DAY France” Roll. It was during this session that I met our online broadcasters: the dynamic duo of Frankie Andreu and Fantastic JoE Silva.
After the meeting, I rolled with Andreu and Silva to a pre-race press conference that featured almost a dozen of the marquee riders, including defending champion Levi Leipheimer. From there, we hit the parking lot where all the teams had set-up camp. Never having done something like this before, I decided to follow the Andreu’s lead. He not only was a rider who finished nine Tours de France and was a top 10 finisher at Paris-Roubaix, and was former director of Toyota-United and Rock Racing, but he is a veteran Versus television reporter of many Tours de France. We made it a point to visit each team’s camp where mechanics were tweaking and washing the time trial bikes for the prologue as riders milled about after an easy spin to open the legs. Paolo Bettini rolled gingerly through the parking lot so unassuming that you’d never imagine this was the two-time World Champion and reigning Olympic champ.
Andreu knows many of the team directors and riders and he kindly made it a point to introduce us to everyone. Thankfully I know quite a few of them as well so I didn’t feel too much like a third wheel. Occasionally Silva would break out his recorder to collect interviews with riders. Sagely Andreu asked the directors and riders who was “going good” and whom we should watch for during the race. We got quite a few hot tips, the best of which came from Toyota-United’s director Len Pettyjohn, who spoke like a proud papa about his young charge, the powerhouse Dominique Rollin, who went on to win the merciless stage 4 and the Herbalife Sprint title.
After making the rounds, I had time enough to squeeze in a short ride. I rode to Stanford University to scout our broadcast position for the next day and tried to figure out how I’d be able to get there once the roads were closed for the race. We had a dress rehearsal scheduled, but the technical aspects were coming together a bit slower than expected so the rehearsal was aborted. We’d have to roll live in a trial-by-fire the next day during the prologue. The evening before the prologue, more than 300 race staffers were welcomed in a pep rally of sorts led by Medalist Sports’ partners Jim Birrell and Chris Aronhalt. After viewing video highlights from last year’s race to get everyone excited about what was to come, we were briefed about logistics, protocol, security, transportation, public relations and medical procedures. We learned that approximately 950 people in total were part of the race entourage that was prepared to tour California over the next eight days from north to south, east to west.
Somber gray skies and cool temperatures gave way to brilliant blue skies and warm sunshine for the prologue. When I arrived at our broadcast trailer that would serve as our office for the duration of the tour, it was humming at a feverish pace in anticipation of our first live broadcast. I was seated in front of 20 small video monitors and three larger monitors that provided approximately 10-12 different views of the race, including the start and finish lines and a helicopter shot from the friendly skies (we’d later learn that helicopter shots were only available when there were friendly skies). Four of us were crammed into rigid chairs with laptop computers and very little room to maneuver. To my left was Dan Scott (no relation), who captured video highlights and uploaded them to the site. To my right was Tracy Beach, who pretty much served as a director of the broadcasts and the man whispering in the ears of Andreu & Silva during the broadcasts via earpieces. Both Scott and Beach are technical marvels who made sure everything was operating as it was supposed to and that everyone had what they needed to perform their duties. At Beach’s right was Lim, who served as producer and executive in charge along with being shouldered with the responsibility of the overall look, design and operation of the website and its many features, including the functionality of the Adobe and CSC tour trackers on behalf of AEG, the sports & entertainment conglomerate that presents the race. Back in their respective offices, Lim and Beach had crews of technical people posting things to the site, monitoring servers, handling emails, and other vital website tasks.
Running in and out of the trailer was AEG’s Lauren Mirson, who assisted Lim and all of us. In addition, she served as floor manager of the broadcast by working closely with Andreu & Silva and with the guests interviewed during the broadcasts. The broadcast compound was always positioned near the stage finish; Andreu & Silva were stationed in a tent even closer to the finish line. The other half of the trailer was home to teams of video news recorders and editors who assembled race highlight reels, which were beamed out via satellite daily to news outlets everywhere. At the end of the stages, Leggett would record voiceovers for video packages as well.
Time trials are difficult to cover live because riders are starting every minute, which means at a certain point, riders will be starting AND finishing every minute. Beach and Scott had a nifty program on their computers that displayed the results as the riders finished, which made things much easier for me to report who finished in what time. It was a very stressful baptism into race broadcasting. There were some technical glitches for us to overcome during the prologue, but we knew it would get better and less stressful during Stage 1.
When the stage ends, I’d write a race recap and a preview of the next day. Others were assembling highlight reels. Approximately ten minutes after the podium ceremonies end, the stage winner and a couple of the stars of the day would arrive at the post-race press conference to field questions from the media. Michael Roth and Steve Brunner kept the proceedings flowing so that the media could get their sound bites from the athletes in an efficient and orderly fashion. Afterwards, it was time to travel to the next city. The broadcast teams are always stationed in the finishing cities so after a full day of work “in the office,” we’d have a drive of up to 195 miles to do. By the time we’d arrive in the next city, eat dinner and get into the hotel room, it was time to prepare for the next day and turn in to get some rest. All the clothes I brought for nights out remained packed in my suitcase the entire week.
With an entourage as large as the Amgen Tour of California’s, the various niche groups were spread amongst five or more hotels in each city. It was a bit strange when we’d arrive in the trailer in the morning to view the racers at the start line up to 135 miles away in another city, sometimes experiencing very different weather conditions than we had. The stage would end with the riders right outside our trailer. To be honest, I watched virtually every mile of the race, but it was all on video monitors. By Stage 6, I was so anxious to see the race in-person that I grabbed Scott, who had never seen a pro bike race before, and ran outside to catch the peloton fly by during the Santa Clarita finishing circuits. We watched for a few seconds and then dashed back into the trailer to report news of the crash involving Mario Cipollini, Fred Rodriguez and Mark Cavendish. Things happen in an instant in bike racing so you can’t take a break or you’ll miss something (yes, we did take “natural” breaks during stages like the riders do).
Stage 1 in Santa Rosa ran a bit smoother for us, but there were still technical glitches. It rained during Stage 2, but watching eventual stage winner Tom Boonen and the legend who returned from retirement, Cipollini, at the post-race press conference in Sacramento was a thrill. It was during that stage that they finally got me wired up with race radio, which enabled me to report exactly what was happening during the race to compliment the pictures I was viewing. In turn, I fed that information to Beach who passed it along to Andreu & Silva so they could report it to you on the air.
Another source of information during the tour was my friend, chief race doctor Ramin Modabber. He rides in a car at the front of the race so he’s got perhaps the best seat in the house. I called Dr. Modabber to check on friend George Hincapie after his crash in the Stage 1 sprint as well as later in the week to get the scoop on Jackson Stewart (early signs of hypothermia), Fred Rodriguez (banged up after two crashes) and Vladimir Gusev, who had surgery performed by Dr. Modabber to repair a broken collarbone.
Everyone in our crew wore multiple hats. Since I was the resident cyclist and race fan in the trailer, I was called upon to explain race strategy and tactics to the crew, identify riders and teams, come up with interesting polls for the website, and offer my inside word for the office “pick of the day” pool of who would win the stage.
We awoke to rain in San Jose the morning of Stage 3, the hardest climbing stage of the race, yet not only did it dry out by race time, but the sun was shining brilliantly. An impromptu meet & greet between Leggett, Sherwin and Roll ensued after the stage finish as the accommodating broadcasters visited with and signed autographs for fans outside the broadcast compound.
Stage 4 wasn’t just a miserable endurance test for the riders, but it was a test for us, too. Our live coverage began daily thirty minutes prior to the race starts and finished about fifteen minutes after the finishes. The riders were in no hurry to ride the 135 miles from Seaside to San Luis Obispo in cold, windy and rainy conditions. It took them almost seven and a half hours, which meant we were reporting for well over eight hours. The pace was quite a bit slower than the slowest anticipated time, which caused a real problem for the race organization. Flying high above the race every day is a “satellite” airplane that makes race radio and television pictures possible. The airplane can not stay in the air seven hours and they certainly could not risk missing the finish. Thus at about the five-hour mark, the airplane landed and the race continued in “dark silence” for approximately forty minutes until the airplane could land, refuel and return to position over the race.
During that period, no one other than the race officials in the caravan following the riders could see or know what was happening nor could they report it to anyone. It was incredibly frustrating to not be able to report to you what was happening in the race. When communication was interrupted, the break was up the road, but was losing time with each mile. We anticipated missing the inevitable catch, but were surprised to learn when race radio and video coverage resumed that the gap actually grew during “radio silence.” Thankfully we were able to cover the exciting finish for you, including the pivotal moment when Rollin launched his winning attack.
Since we were the advance crew that arrived in the finishing town the night before the majority of the race entourage, we would checkout of the hotel rooms in the mornings long before the rest of the entourage arrived. The morning of the crucial Stage 5 time trial in Solvang, I headed out for a ride in the rain. When I finished, competition director and former pro Kevin Livingston kindly offered me a bucket and cleaning supplies for my soiled bike. Shortly after I entered my room to remove my wet and muddy clothing, the phone in the room rang. I didn’t quite know what to expect as it was the first time all week the phone in my hotel room rang. It was operations director Elaine Keller on the other end. She wanted me to checkout of the hotel immediately because riders needed to check-in. Yikes! After a decathlon effort that included packing my clothes and bike, showering, eating, running my bike and bags down three flights of stairs, and loading my car all within 20 minutes, I checked out so that Astana’s Jose Luis Rubiera and Jani Brajkovic could have my room. Okay…now how many times has that ever happened to YOU?
After another challenge covering the time trial, we had time to kill in Solvang because our entire broadcast crew planned to go out together for dinner before traveling to Santa Clarita. Knowing I had a filthy bike in the car, I deiced to wash it while I had time. In the hotel parking lot, the CSC and Astana mechanics were washing the time trial bikes and preparing fleets of road bikes for the next day’s stage. After fidgeting around for a while trying to summon the courage, I asked the Astana mechanics if I could use their hose. After a few grunts in what I think was Russian from a heavily muscled and tattooed man wearing fisherman’s waders, permission was granted. I stood by my car with one rag and a bucket washing my bike to the amusement of the mechanics from both teams.
When Stage 6 ended in Santa Clarita, we signed off reporting that Cavendish had won the stage for High Road. But then we saw Saunier Duval-Scott’s Luciano Pagliarini on the top step of the podium. Huh!?!?! Word finally got back to us that Cavendish was relegated after utilizing illegal assistance from the team vehicle. Off to the press conference we rushed to get the official explanation and ruling from the officials. As I wrote earlier, things happen in an instant in bike racing so don’t turn your back and learn to expect the unexpected.
That evening, with the weather expected to turn nasty, especially on the massive Millcreek Summit, officials were preparing in case the stage had to be re-routed due to snow and ice. With everyone on high alert as we headed for home and the final stage, officials drove the course and were relieved to find the roads completely passable. Although rain pounded the riders during the finishing circuits around the Rose Bowl, they managed to get up and over the precipitous mountain pass without any trouble.
The final press conference included stage winner Hincapie, overall winner Leipheimer, 2nd and 3rd place GC finishers David Millar and Christian Vande Velde, the special category winners (King of the Mountains, Sprint Points, Best Young Rider and Most Aggressive Riders) and as a sign of respect, the Lion King himself, Cipollini. After more than 650 miles of racing over eight days, everyone - from the riders to the race staff - felt tired. Yet there was race director Birrell and AEG Sports president Andrew Messick up on stage during the press conference. Both men were beaming proudly with childlike smiles that spoke more eloquently than anything either man could have said. They clearly love what they do. Their passion, enthusiasm and commitment to the sport of cycling are infectious and inspiring. Despite numerous obstacles, challenges that were difficult to anticipate, and uncooperative weather, AEG and Medalist Sports adeptly staged a spectacular bike race that showcased and tested some of the best two-wheeled warriors in the world on the golden roads of California. They orchestrated their respective crews like masterful conductors leading orchestras in exquisitely performed symphonic arias with precision and aplomb. It was a marvel to behold, an honor to be a part of.
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Rick Scott is president of Great Scott P.R.oductions, an entertainment and sports public relations, marketing and management boutique. He can be contacted through www.greatscottpr.com.