Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Standing by Escondido’s Grand Avenue, his gleaming silver bicycle helmet perched on the handlebars and a broad smile on his face, Alfredo Velasco remembers the high he felt the last time the Amgen Tour came through in 2009.
“Watching those athletes come through Escondido,” he said, “ride through the mountains, go over Palomar Mountain and Cole Grade Road, was inspiring to me. I bought a bike and before you know it, I was out here on the roads, in the backcountry of Escondido.“
Velasco is volunteering to help raise sponsorships to host the race again this year.
To get into the spirit, he decided to ride the course, and video it with a camera fixed to his bike. (You can see some of the footage in the attached video.) The route will take the cyclists spinning out past San Pasqual, Ramona, Lake Henshaw and back through Valley Center.
“A good friend and I did the 102.7-mile route,” Velasco said. “We took a Sunday and we did it — all 11,000 feet of elevation of climbing. I can tell you it’s going to be a great test for the pros.”
It will also be a test for Escondido. Last time the race came through, four years ago, the city was the finish line. This time, the first leg of the race begins and ends on Grand Avenue, which means many more activities to plan leading up to the start. Escondido Mayor Sam Abed is positive the event will benefit the city.
“It’s absolutely fantastic,” he said. “It’s going to be exciting for North County. It’s going to be broadcast to 216 countries, so Escondido will be on the map. It’s great exposure for our city.“
But Escondido has had trouble finding sponsors to come up with the almost half a million dollars it committed to raise to be the host city. Local businesses have stepped forward with in-kind donations for things like catering and wine. About two dozen businesses have chipped in with money, but the city has only raised about $100,000 dollars so far.
Abed said the city will subsidize the rest with taxpayer money if need be.
”We hope to raise the whole amount,” he said. "But even if we have to put in some money, I think it will be money well spent for that kind of exposure.”
Down at Vinz Wine Bar on Grand Avenue, owner Vinnie Griffin said he expects an even bigger turnout than when the race came through in 2009.
“It was incredible,” he said, taking a break at a table on the sidewalk outside. “It was one of the busiest days we’ve ever had to date.”
Griffin said a lot of people came out last time to see Lance Armstrong, but he doesn’t believe the lack of Armstrong’s name on this race will dampen enthusiasm.
“The biking community, recreational bicyclists and professionals, they’re going to come down here,” Griffin said. “They want to see the race. The race is exciting.”
Griffin still sells paintings of the 2009 race. They hang on the walls of the wine bar, keeping the race, the memories and the profits alive.
The company that runs the Amgen Tour, AEG, does not have research to show the race benefits host communities economically. As businesses benefit, extra sales tax should flow back to the city.
But Escondido’s long-time dream of building an upscale Marriot Hotel has not yet panned out, so competitors and teams will have to be put up at hotels in neighboring Rancho Bernardo, losing valuable tourist taxes for Escondido.
Some community members wonder if the city, which has had to close a library because of budget cuts, should be spending public money on a commercial sporting event.
Estimates of how many fans and spectators will show up vary:
“We’re thinking 60 thousand, possibly more,” said city employee Michelle Geller, one of a team organizing the bike tour and events leading up to opening day. There will be a Gala, a Kids’ Zone and a Food Truck Rally. Geller is out and about on a donated kick bike, visiting local businesses to raise awareness and support.
“Are you guys normally open on Sunday?“ she asked the waitress at a restaurant on Grand Avenue. “Good, because you are going to be very busy May 12th, so make sure you have a lot of people here.”
Businesses will probably be packed for race day, but once the cyclists have sped over San Diego’s backcounty hills, they will head off next day to Murrieta for the next leg of the tour.
The route will take them through Palm Springs, Santa Barbara and San Francisco before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and finishing in Santa Rosa after eight days and 750 grueling miles.
Escondido is gearing up, hoping that the people and profits that come freewheeling through town for a few days, will make this sporting gamble pay off.