The cowbells always ring when our favorite racers pass through a picturesque town in California. But how do they get there? The logistics, planning, and negotiating for the Amgen Tour of California routes is an ongoing process and one that we chatted with Vice President Sheri Morales and Technical Director Eric Smith about.
At what point do you start searching for cities to be a part of the Amgen Tour of California?
Sheri Morales: It’s an ongoing process. Eric and I work year-round to pull together various route options. We take pride in building long-term partnerships with cities throughout the state of California. Each year, we have cities who reach out to us, some several years out, but really it works both ways. I also do a lot of outreach to cities and invite them out to see a stage of the race. Eric can speak more to the technical part of it because it’s a huge piece and where the process begins. He’ll call me and say ‘Hey, XYZ city fits in the plan, we’ve never been there before, can we contact them?’ I’ll reach out to them, usually to the city manager. I’ll start at that level, if they have a sports commission or CVB, I’ll loop them in. That’s with new cities. We’re going into our fourteenth year, so we’ve established strong relationships with many, many cities throughout the state.
It’s not a simple process to select our host cities. And, there are many variables that go into the selection of our cities and overall route. We like to make sure that we speak with our partners, teams, fans, etc. to understand what they would like to see from either a competitive or commercial standpoint. We also like to change up the overall composition each year and showcase new roads and communities to our international broadcast. It’s a priority of ours to first select our “anchor cities”. Those would be our overall start and finish locations. Once they are established, we start looking at the potential host cities for the balance of the race. Each host city has different goals and objectives. Some can only host a start. Some are only interested in a finish or perhaps a time trial. Others can only host on a specific day during the week.
Another important consideration is the overall operations and the city’s ability to house and feed our teams and staff. We’ll book close to 1,000 rooms each night of the tour.
Eric Smith: We have to make sure that the distances between the cities are something that we can race. We need to be mindful of the distance each day and the transfer times between the stage finish and the next day’s start. There are also specific route characteristics that we are seeking. You need to strike a balance between stages that will produce a field sprint at the finish and those that have significant climbing and a possible mountain top finish. We try to keep a balanced set of stages that showcase California and provide ample opportunities for the fans to have access to the routes. We also keep in mind that many of the racers are using our race for preparation of the Tour de France. We do our best to replicate the types of roads and climbs they will encounter at the TdF. The Mt Baldy stage is a good example of the climbs they encounter in France in the Alps.
After we have all the cities in place, we work with them to establish the start or finish line and the best route in or out of their city. From the start to the finish of each stage, racer safety is always paramount. We follow all of the UCI regulations for the route, with increased focus on the finish. We avoid RR tracks close to the finish, as well as narrow roads, traffic circles, and tight turns. The race is broadcast globally so there are also TV production considerations.
Once we agree on the start line to the city limits, we do the same thing with the finishing cities. With the finish cities, we know there are some things we have to avoid, such as going past schools. The stages typically finish at around 3:45 PM so final bells being between 2:00 PM to 3:30 PM can present a challenge for creating a race route.
That’s something people don’t usually consider.
ES: No, they don’t. But the race could have an impact on parents driving in and out to pick up their kids and school buses going back and forth. But there is a silver lining, when the schools hear we’re coming by, many of them work with us to ensure the kids see the riders whizzing by. Some of my fondest memories in the past 13-years are going past schools and seeing the reaction and excitement from the students.
So what are you looking for when you design a route?
ES: There are some technical things we also look for in a finish city. We ideally want a long straight away for the sprint finishes, 600 meters is ideal, so the riders don’t have to deal with corners right before the line.
We always try to avoid railroads. Railroads don’t alter the bike races. Same goes for light rail coming into the cities. We try to avoid those, but if we can’t, we call ahead of time to let them know we’re coming and plead our case. Sometimes they work with us and sometimes they don’t. We also try to avoid freeway closure. That shuts down people’s travel and also adds expense to the race because it’s not an inexpensive thing to shut down freeway ramps.
We are keenly aware that a total road closure event like the Amgen Tour of California can have an impact on traffic, businesses, and residences. We do our best to minimize these potential impacts. It’s critical and we do a great job with notifications, our signage plan, and having a toll-free number that people can call with questions about traffic on race day.
What are some things you deal with that some may not consider?
ES: Another big thing is working with the cities the race will pass through. Each stage goes through these cities and communities that aren’t affiliated with the race, so we have to request permission and secure police to help us come through. We have built a strong relationship with local and state law enforcement. Most of the cities, especially if they know they’re going to be on TV, get behind it. Some of them plan celebrations, festivals and picnics to watch the race coming through their town. I have had numerous calls from cities requesting that we bring the race through there town.
When we’re racing around the Sacramento area, we’re racing on drawbridges crossing rivers and sloughs. These bridges are owned by Caltrans, but are controlled by the Coast Guard. We have to let the Coast Guard know dates and times of the crossings so the bridges don’t go up as we are about to cross one of the waterways[KK1] . We also encountered several RR tracks on each stage. We do our best to avoid tracks, but sometimes they cannot be avoided. We try our best to avoid tracks that are within 10-miles of the finish (for obvious reasons).
How have things changed for you since the first race in 2006?
SM: It was much more difficult when we first started, back in 2006. Cities and counties didn’t know who we were. Now it’s become a lot easier because we have established ourselves as the largest annual sporting event in California and people know who we are and they know we produce on a high quality event.
ES: Fortunately, we have the resources required to bring the race down the road in a safe manner. It takes a significant number of people in front of the race working road closures and ensuring that traffic is not pulling out of driveways and parking lots and heading into the race.
California Highway Patrol (CHP) does an incredible job in managing the traffic. They’re the agency that closes the road for us and escorts the race down the road. They have a tremendous amount of credibility with the cities. We’ve worked with them for all 14 years and couldn’t do the race without them.
What happens when the weather takes a turn for the worse, which has happened a few times during the Tour of California?
ES: We develop alternative routes for those stages that could be impacted by snow, flooding, and landslides. There are weather protocols that we must follow. These have been established to protect the safety and well being of the racers and the overall staff. Between the two races, we have 10-stages, but we also have two alternative stages.
We watch the weather. Right now, I’m paying close attention to what’s been happening in Santa Barbara with the rain and if it will have any impact because our route goes through Montecito and the area that was recently effected by the fires.
And once the route is in place, how do you draw it?
ES: It starts on the computer with mapping programs. The current technology allows us to actually put our eyes at street level right from our desktops. Once we have that done, then I travel with two people from Amaury Sport Organisation (A.S.O.). A.S.O. is our race production partner and the owner of the Tour de France and several other World Tour races. I spend about ten days driving the routes with the A.S.O. team. We call it logging the routes. We measure the course to a hundredth of a kilometer and record every street, every railroad crossing, every traffic sign. We also establish the climbs, sprints, and feedzones. That data is then entered into an Excel spreadsheet that calculate the average speeds and the time we will reach any given point along the route. This is invaluable information for us that we share with the cities, police, and our TV production crew. We’ll drive the routes two or three times to confirm road conditions and our mileage. CHP will drive the route several times to ensure the roads are in good shape and to confirm their plans to manage safety and overall road closures.