Cloud Descends on Cali Cycling

The news came at the worst time.

As the Amgen Tour of California—the largest cycling event in the U.S.—was hitting its stride, the Wall Street Journal broke the story that former Tour de France champion Floyd Landis admitted to doping. He also implicated others, including some riding in this week's Tour, like Lance Armstrong. Armstrong again denies the allegations.

The Tour is an 8-stage, 800 mile grueling racedown California. Now in its fifth year, AEG made a bold move and moved the Tour from winter to spring. "The Tour of California has moved into prime time," is how the San Jose Mercury News described it, as the race could take better advantage of mountain passes in May, positioning itself as a popular warm-up to the Tour de France in July.

Lance Armstrong
Joel Saget | AFP | Getty Images
Lance Armstrong

Armstrong is racing in California for the second year in a row, and his picture is splashed across nearly all of the publicity material.

Armstrong's personal victory over cancer ties in nicely with sponsor Amgen , based in Thousand Oaks, where the Tour ends on Sunday.

AEG owns the tour, but Amgen has promoted and supported it from the beginning. "None of us had any idea what to expect," said Mary Klem of Amgen Corporate Communications. I spoke with her by phone Wednesday before the Landis news broke, as she was monitoring Stage 4 from San Jose to Modesto. She says when the Tour launched in 2005, Amgen had already started its Break Away from Cancer initiative. Since the company has one of the largest corporate cycling clubs in the country, sponsoring the Tour seemed a natural fit. Amgen now uses each stage of the Tour to promote the four organizations it's partnered with "covering the continuum of cancer care from prevention to survivorship."

Klem won't say how much Amgen spends to promote and sponsor the tour, but she admits it takes a whole team. "We're more efficient now than we were in the beginning," she says. The sponsorship has raised awareness about Amgen "significantly" over the last five years. "We're able to educate the public about our company."

This year many smaller companies have joined in. A food and wine festival on Saturday at Malibu Family Wines is using the Tour and celebrity chefs to draw in paying customers. A lot of money is being spent to try to create something special which could be an annual event tied to the Tour. One of the sponsors is 805 Living Magazine(805 is the area code in much of that part of California), which also published a special issue for the race. "This is our biggest issue since December 2008," says publisher Carla Blanco. The magazine donated three full pages to the Tour, and her staff is working much of the festival for free. "This is huge for us in terms pf exposure."

It's also a big investment by cities which fought to host each stage of the Tour. Every year they have to compete to convince AEG to run the race through their streets. This year, for the first time, three cities combined together to make a single pitch: Thousand Oaks (Amgen's home town), Westlake Village, and Agoura Hills. It worked. The entire final stage will begin and end in their communities, instead of down in Los Angeles.

It's a fortuitous choice for Amgen. The area is home to thousands of cyclists who take to the streets on weekends (you can often tell which ones work for Amgen by their jerseys decorated with platelets).

But with the cloud of doping again hanging over cycling, will this year's Tour prove to be a good investment? Sunday will tell the story. "I think it's fabulous that Lance has been part of the race," Amgen's Mary Klem told me before the Landis story broke. Then she paused. "But it would be successful with or without him."

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