Shake-down Tour

Is this what you get when a rapacious American capitalist takes U.S. bike racing for a spin?

Anschutz, Act One, prospected a billion-dollar sea of oil under a Utah farm, parlaying those profits into a railroad empire. He exploited his railroad rights of way to create a fiber-optic telecom giant, and along the way became a magnate in the fields of real estate, sports venues and teams, and movie theaters. He also earned a role as capitalist villain: In 2002 Fortune magazine put Anschutz at the top of its list of insider cash-out kings, after Anschutz sold nearly $1.6 billion of stock in Qwest in 1999. It was later reported Qwest had posted three years of artificially inflated revenues.

In his second act as a perhaps more beneficent capitalist, Anschutz continued his practice of looking for treasures on deserted islands.

Southern California erupted in smirks when Anschutz's company announced a few years ago that he would use his billions to uplift Hollywood with Christian morals. Now that his Chronicles of Narnia franchise portends a James Bond cash machine, other studio heads have straightened their faces to court God-fearing moviegoers.

In 2004 Anschutz bought from the Fang family a gutted money-laundering vehicle called the San Francisco Examiner, just as the vastly greater Chronicle was losing circulation in limb-sized chunks. Three years hence, more and more San Franciscans are adopting the habit of reading the Examiner for locally focused city news.

It's Anschutz's bike-racing investment, however, that to me seems to most vividly combine these features of apparent folly and public-mindedness. If he's successful, cycling could add an uplifting spectacle sorely missing from America's narrow offering of spectator sports.

AEG says that it will pour $40 million into the Tour of California over five years, with the hope of turning it into an event with fan fervor rivaling the Vuelta a España, the Giro d'Italia, or the Tour de France.

"Ultimately, we would like to make it a 'Grand Tour,'" said AEG's Roth, using cycling's term for the aforementioned standout events. "We have to grow it in a fiscally prudent manner, and in a way that the organization can support."

Anschutz's investment is impressive because the term "fiscally prudent" doesn't come to mind when thinking of U.S.-based bicycle racing. "Ruinous" is more apt.

A century ago, bike racing on special tracks was a top American sport. By the 1950s, it had disappeared here. But in Europe promoters added that continent's dramatic landscape to the American track-bound spectacle, birthing hugely popular multi-day "grand tours."

Waves of impresarios were subsequently sundered by the belief they could duplicate this European trick stateside.

In 1971 Berkeley bike shop owner Peter Rich lost his life savings organizing a Perrier-Tour of California. In 1983 the chief of the Tour de France, Felix Levitan, promoted a big-budget, money-losing Tour of America. Not long after, he lost his Tour de France, a 2007 obituary said.

In 1991 CBS college basketball announcer Billy Packer launched an eastern-seaboard Tour de Trump, backed by The Donald. In 1997 Packer sued his partner over control of the race; new lead sponsor DuPont bailed; race suppliers sued to get paid. The event died.

America's most recent mega-bike race, the San Francisco Grand Prix, was launched in 2001, and staunched in 2005 after a dispute with city fathers over policing costs.

That year Anschutz's legmen held discussions with the same San Francisco officials about starting an event here called the Tour of California.

By mid-February 2007, Anschutz's foray into this U.S. bike-racing's bramble patch seemed as inauspicious as his predecessors.'

Despite a media splash and hundreds of thousands of spectators, the inaugural 2006 Tour of California lost AEG nearly $2 million, company spokesman Roth told me. The race will also lose money this year, but "it won't be quite that much," Roth said without elaborating. Roth said AEG hopes the Tour will break even in 2008.

By Feb. 17, 2007, stars hadn't aligned portending future profitability.

Last year's charismatic Tour of California winner Floyd Landis didn't compete. Instead, he awaited an arbitration hearing about allegations he used artificial testosterone to unfairly win the Tour de France. Embarrassingly for AEG, Landis shadowed the race with a fundraiser supporting the cause of his supposed innocence.

Depressing news continued. On the eve of the race's 2007 San Francisco start, the New York Times reported that the race somehow failed to perform anti-doping tests designed to detect a drug produced by main-race sponsor Amgen. The company manufactures a stamina booster for anemia patients called Epogen with a shadowy off-label use as one of cycling's most abused doping agents.

In year two of Amgen's three-year contract to sponsor the event for an undisclosed sum, the company spokesman was cited expressing "outrage at the failure to test for it," according to the Times story.

The explanation offered by Anschutz's representative provided little help: In response to my question at a pre-race San Francisco press conference, AEG President Shawn Hunter chalked the snafu up to "inexperience."

And now, excluded team managers tell me AEG offered to trade spaces on the event roster in exchange for sponsorship money.

"It just kind of stunk," said Stockton, the Nevada Brewing team manager.

Given cycling's incongruities — it's a glorious sport with a reputation for sleaze — who better than an insider-payout king cum self-proclaimed Hollywood moralist to give it a lift?

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