Tour of California blasts off in S.F. 

Even though the prologue of the second annual Amgen Tour of California closed streets and caused traffic snarls in downtown San Francisco on Sunday, the hundreds of thousands of spectators thronging the course didn’t seem to mind a little congestion as they watched top athletes expend themselves on the short but brutal course.

Race organizers estimated the crowd at close to 300,000, nearly 100,000 more than last year. A press of fans remained almost unbroken throughout the 1.9-mile course as riders broke out of the starting gate one by one.

In what appears to be shaping up to be a successful annual sporting event, the roughly 650-mile Tour of California kicked off Sunday with a sprint down the flat Embarcadero and then a steep climb up Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower. The race will next take riders north through Santa Rosa and then through the Central Valley and south along the coast, where they will finish in Long Beach.

In San Francisco, where cyclists flock to the Golden Gate Bridge and scenic green spaces, many in the crowd Sunday were taking in the race after completing a morning ride of their own.

Near the Discovery Channel team’s trailer, Cody Wendling, 5, of Mill Valley, said he enjoys cycling and likes to watch pro racing but doesn’t want to race himself. He came to the race Sunday "because [he] wanted to," and he waved a cowbell to show his enthusiasm.

Course designer Chuck Hodge said the short prologue, which is meant as a sort of introduction of the riders, was designed to showcase not only the athletic skills of the racers but also the scenery of The City.

"The steep hill is great for spectators," he said. "Generally, cycling fans like to watch riders suffer. The uphills are good for that." Riders also climb slower than they would ride on a flat or downhill, so fans can see more of them, Hodge said.

San Francisco Police Sgt. John Nestor said that, despite traffic delays, the race went smoothly. "There were no reported problems. It was a large, but well-managed crowd," he said.

amartin@examiner.com

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