When the esteemed announcer of the Tour de France for 41 years, Phil Liggett, took the stage at Sacramento, California's historic Memorial Auditorium (May 9) to kick off the ninth year of the Amgen Tour of California at a black-tie gala, he said what the state Capital crowd wanted to hear. The cycling race should always kick off in the Capital city.
Amgen was returning to Sacramento after a much missed three-year absence. Excited fans had turned out by the tens of thousands in the past when Lance Armstrong made his debut at Amgen in Sacramento (and got his bike stolen.) Then- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was at the finish line and on the podium to congratulate the cyclists along with actor Patrick Dempsey. It was a glamorous time for a new event that in just a few years had grown to one of the top cycling races in the world.
But after Armstrong and three-time Amgen winner Levi Leipheimer admitted to doping just less than a year and a half ago, would the crowds still return? Would the sport be tainted? Many noticed smaller crowds this year around Capitol Mall. Liggett talked about how the Lance Effect affected the Tour de France.
"Yes, it took a drop as far as our television viewers when Lance confessed to his seven Tour victories all being done on drugs. But we seem to have ridden that out."
It was a conundrum. Lance Armstrong, the very man who introduced so many people to cycling with his unprecedented seven Tour de France victories and courageous battle back from cancer -- turned out to be the same person who turned many of those fans off to the sport.
James Raia, co-author of "Tour de France for Dummies," agreed the sport took a hit due to Lance.
"I think the mainstream public that might see one bike race a year...I think the sport was hurt."
Others I talked to in the cycling world murmered the same sentiment.
Race officials are not yet releasing attendance figures along the stages as they have in the past. But even if crowds are smaller, there's huge excitement for world class sprinter Mark Cavendish and Tour de France winner and gold medalist Bradley Wiggins in the field and both in California in May instead of the Tour d'Italia.
Liggett is not worried. After a festive Stage Two in historic Folsom, home to Folsom Prison and Johnny Cash fame, Liggett liked what he saw -- so many people on bikes and endless bike lanes for them to ride in.
"Whatever you think of Lance Armstrong and everyone does have an opinion and yes, he cheated. But what he did do was bring an awful lot of people to the sport over his 10-year reign. These people have not gone away. They found something they like doing and I'm not talking about the racing cyclists -- the people who found fitness and pleasure just riding a bicycle."
Liggett and Raia think the crowds will return. The Tour de France remains the largest sporting event in the world with 3.5 (b) billion television viewers over its three-week run in July. We just need some time to get over the Lance doping anger and cynicism. To see Cavendish win in a photo finish after circling the state Capitol and Wiggins leading the peleton in the near 4,000 foot ascent up Mount Diablo are sights rarely seen in the United States.
I think I saw the best sign of renewal when I was backstage in downtown Sacramento after Stage One calling the race for my radio station KFBK and standing next to the winner -- Cavendish. A little dark-haired girl, about seven or eight years old, slowly walked up to him and asked with a big smile if she could have a picture. Cavendish, now the father of a little girl himself, smiled back and posed with her.
A new fan was born. The next generation of cycling fans are already out there.
KFBK Senior Editor Judy Farah has more than 25 years news experience in New York, Los Angeles and Sacramento. She's edited the KFBK Afternoon News with Kitty O'Neal the past 16 years while also directing the newsroom by assigning stories to reporters and scheduling guest interviews. Farah started out as a newspaper reporter on the East Coast, covering major stories as a reporter and editor for The Associated Press in Los Angeles, including the 1984 Olympics, the Oscars, Emmys, the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the criminals trials of the Night Stalker and the Hillside Stranglers.
Farah came to KFBK in 1996, and has helped direct coverage of five presidential elections, five governor's elections and the killing sprees of Yosemite Killer Cary Stayner and Scott Peterson. She reported live for two 13-hour days for KFBK from the 9-11 terrorist attacks. She was also the editor on KFBK's 2011 exclusive report that the Sacramento Kings were considering moving to Anaheim.
A graduate of William Paterson College in New Jersey, Farah has won three Edward R. Murrow awards, including one for Best Writing, while at KFBK. She's also earned three awards from the Northern California Radio Television News Directors Association for Best Series, Best Newscast and Best Sports Segment. She has also written for the Wall Street Journal, TV Guide, Los Angeles and Parents magazines. She was honored with a Jefferson Fellowship in 2009 and traveled to Japan, China and Hong Kong to study the Asian economy. In 2010, she was awarded a RTNDA RIAS Fellowship to travel to Germany, Belgium and Prague to study the European economy.
Farah currently is a national blogger for The Huffington Post and often speaks on news and social media. You can find her on Twitter @newsbabe1530
In her free time, Farah enjoys the outdoors by hiking along the American River bike trail and kayaking. A wine enthusiast, Farah's produced a monthly wine segment on KFBK the past five years and enjoys visiting our local foothill wineries.