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Can the Tour of California be both Boring and Successful?

Maybe a better question is, "Can the Tour of California be successful without being boring?"

This year's Amgen Tour of California had all the suspense, excitement, and drama of - well, of 8 days in a row of races. But with a wire-to-wire victory and any meaningful order in the race determined almost wholly over less than 20 miles of prologue and time trial, the event was decidedly unlike the grand tours it aspires to be.

The pre-race favorites were guys like Fabian Cancellara, Michael Rogers and David Zabriskie, simply because they're time trial specialists. These guys are all amazing racers. I'm a huge Zabriskie fan and know that he's one of the world's fastest men on a bike (when he can stay on it). But he's not an all-arounder. Granted, Levi Leipheimer is an all-arounder. But he won because of his time trialing. And his team, who were challenged, and rose to the occasion.

But they were only challenged by the other teams. In the Grand Tours, racers are challenged by the terrain and the result is a continuing narrative about the race's outcome. The major distinction between the Tour of California's climbs and those in the grand tours is not their length or pitch or category or quantity - but their location. The Tour of California had no mountaintop finishes, meaning that even stages with the area's most epic climbs were won by sprinters. J.J. Haedo conquers Trinity Grade and wins Stage 2 of the Amgen Tour of California!

The answer to every "why" question you can conjure up about American cycling is the same: "Because of the economics." No cities in California with big tourism budgets are on top of mountains. And stages have to begin and end in sizable towns to draw in enough spectators to satisfy event sponsors, and enable the race to receive the continued funding it needs to grow.

The only reason The Tour of California wasn't brutally insipid to American cycling fans (or at least the American mainstream media) this year is because an American won. Again. What happens next year if Paolo Bettini comes as a racer instead of a tourist, or Sergei Gonchar shows up at all?

A boring race with world class riders and deep-pocketed sponsors is a huge win for a race promoter, and a coup for any mayor whose city is a host. But another ingredient is essential if the race wants to achieve Grand Tour status, and not plateau as a training stage race, like the Dauphine Libere (no offense, Levi). If it's not a true battle for the racers, challenging legitimate GC contenders to come fit and race earnestly, the Tour of California - like its stages - will peak early and end predictably.

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