Inside the San Francisco G.P.
The first edition of the San Francisco Grand Prix was by all accounts a huge success, attracting over 300,000 rabid spectators and captivating many more in the bay area through the live regional TV coverage. Talk of George Hincapie’s epic solo victory could only be rivaled by the equally epic course, an 125 mile race of attrition through downtown San Francisco, the winner separating himself from the rest only on the final climb of the day. Sufficed to say, when I was offered the opportunity to cover the race for PezCycling News, I jumped at the chance to see the “Toughest Race in the U.S.” live.
After a long, coffee and doughnut fueled drive from Eugene, OR and a couple hours of sleep in the back of my car, I arrived in downtown San Francisco bright-eyed and ready for anything. I picked up my media credentials at the swanky Hyatt Regency Hotel on the waterfront and made my way to the press conference being held at Niketown SF. I’ve never seen so many hip looking urbanites before, even the girls working in the coffee shops wore Prada! The colorful and entertaining mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown was on hand for the press conference and gave a few words before turning the mike over to a question and answer session with Chann McRae, Eric Wholberg, Kevin Livingston, and George Hincapie. The thing that struck me the most was how short these guys are in real life, even Hincapie who seems such a daunting giant in magazines photos.
Saturday was originally planned to be spent racing the men’s event at the San Rafael classic, but a nagging injury caused by a recent change in my position on the bike sidelined that idea, so I drove across the Sierra mountain range to visit my girlfriend who had recently moved to the Mammoth area. The Eastern Sierra’s are incredible and anyone planning on coming out to see the S.F. Grand Prix next year should consider make a trip throuhg there. Just make sure to give yourself a couple of hours and 20 bucks to get through Yosemite!
The race started 12 minutes late to allow a time delay for the live coverage being provided by the Outdoor Life Network and by 8:30 in the morning the waterfront was already crowded with fans clamoring to get a peek at the most popular man by far, four time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong. The race began with 3 parade laps around the waterfront before beginning 8 laps of the long course and then moving on to do 5 laps of the short course. Attacks began from the gun and after 5 minutes of racing the first break of the race was established. I ran into some friends from Oregon and we decided to check out the two major climbs on the course, Taylor and Fillmore street.
A Cliff Bar booth passed out free samples and bells to the huge crowd on Taylor St., every time the race would come by all the clanging sounded like an earthquake in a china shop. We got to the top of the climb after only one lap of the long course had been completed, but the crowds were already so thick that we couldn’t see the race at all. Taylor street was rumored to have an average grade of 15% and it looked every bit that steep.
After some dubious directions and confusing shortcuts through Chinatown, we found Fillmore Street. If Taylor street had seemed hard, then Fillmore seemed completely unridable. At an average of 18% it was easily three times as long as Taylor Street; it was so steep that there were stairs instead of a sidewalk! The crowd was at least 7 or 8 people thick along the entire climb, fans were climbing all over the fences and buildings that lined the street, much to the chagrin of the inhabitants that lived there.
We made it back to the finish just in time to watch the final couple of laps on the giant TV screen in front of the finishing pit. My press pass got me into the photo pit so that we could watch the incredible finale. A huge roar would erupt from the giant crowd at the finish line each time that Lance would appear on the TV monitor or ride past the finish line. The final sprint was incredible with 22 year-old Charles Dionne snatching victory from the big hitters U.S. Postal, an upset the likes of which hasn’t been seen since a certain 21 year-old American captured the World title in 1993 at Oslo.
After the race was over I got the chance to talk to third place Massimo Giunti who races for the Italian Acqua & Sapone squad. Massimo speaks no English, but I recently graduated with a B.A. in Italian from the University of Oregon, a degree that until now hasn’t been too useful in the real world. He seemed happy to be able to speak to someone and express how impressed he was with this race and I’ll admit that I felt pretty damn cool being able to interview him while the other journalist had to wait for his translator to arrive.
From all that I saw, this race was even more popular this year than it was last year with almost 500,000 spectators, live national TV coverage, and an impressive international professional field. My advice to you: talk to your boss now and schedule your vacation so that next year it lands on the second week of September.