Shake-down Tour

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

Mauro Gianetti, the elegantly thin, fashionably bald Swiss former pro racer who runs the Spanish Saunier Duval-Prodir cycling team, engages me by cellphone in a game of fantasy racing.

"The Tour of California is a big race, a hard race, and it's not impossible for him," said Gianetti, referring to his star rider David Millar, a three-times Tour de France stage winner who'd made a goal of bagging the multistage race that began Feb. 17 in San Francisco and ended Feb. 25 in Long Beach.

Gianetti hoped his big Scottish rider, who excels in the type of time trials that were crucial to winning the Tour of California, would win the 2007 event.

"It's got mountains, but not such big mountains. And I believe Millar would have been able to manage them," then clinch victory in the Feb. 23 time trial stage in Solvang, Gianetti said.

Kurt Stockton, a goateed former U.S. professional champion who manages California's Kodakgallery.com/Sierra Nevada cycling team, also has a fantasy version of the Tour of California. In it, Ryan Trebon, the spindly giant who holds America's 2006 cyclocross and cross-country mountain biking titles, storms up to Coit Tower for a stage-one win, putting a California team stamp on this Golden State spectacle.

But, to adapt Mother Goose: If wishes were bicycles, then spectators would ride.

And these two team manager's scenarios will remain sporting daydreams thanks to a game of payola these team managers say they were asked to play by the owners of the event, AEG, a subsidiary of the Anschutz Company, the private conglomerate of secretive Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz.

Gianetti says Tour of California organizers told him his team's invitation to compete depended upon whether Prodir, the Swiss pen-maker that co-sponsors Millar's team, paid to have its advertisements appear along the Tour of California route as they had done the previous year.

"The comment was, maybe when you come, you can bring many thousands of dollars with your sponsor, and then we can look at the question of your participation," Gianetti said. "But I won't go pay for racing in the Tour of California."

A report in the cycling publication VeloNews said Prodir contributed $25,000 to the race in 2006 as an event co-sponsor, but made the marketing decision to not sign on in 2007. Gianetti said Tour of California organizers told him either Prodir re-ups, or the team stays home. It was the first time he'd heard a race make such a suggestion during four years as a team director, 16 as a pro racer.

"This has never happened. It's not customary at all. Even if their organization has financial problems, they shouldn't link that to my team's involvement. They're two separate issues," said Gianetti.

For his part, Stockton, Kodakgallery.com/Sierra Nevada's team manager, says his team's non-selection in the Tour of California makes it hard to keep sponsors such as Chico-based Sierra Nevada Brewing.

"One of our main sponsors was called up and told, before the selection of teams was made, 'Your team was not in the event, but if you sponsor the event, we can give you a sponsor's exemption,'" Stockton said. "This was like an extortion call. They were so taken aback that they said, 'Is this how it works?'"

Michael Roth, vice president for communications at AEG, says it didn't work this way. Teams were selected based on prowess, not payouts, he said.

"I can't comment on a conversation made between somebody else. I can only say the decision was based on the performance level of the team," Roth said.

Make no mistake: I'm a big fan of Phil Anschutz's late-life entrepreneurial dabbling. He seems committed to making chicken salad out of businesses that have the potential to make life better for the rest of us, businesses that everyone else seems to view as chicken feed. He bought the failed S.F. Examiner and turned it into a valid source of local news at a moment when investor bearishness was killing the newspaper industry.

With the Tour of California, Anschutz has bet on an even iffier proposition. U.S.-based bike racing is a beautiful, exciting spectacle that's nonetheless proven a 40-year quagmire for investors.

I'll remain unconvinced Anschutz has begun a late-life stage of enlightened investing, however, unless he transcends his nature as a former wildcatter, railroad baron, and telecom-insider cash-out king, and runs the Tour of California like a mensch.


Tycoons such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have received much credit lately for donating fortunes to charitable causes such as decimating teachers' unions under the guise of sponsoring charter schools, and ensuring profitability for U.S. drug makers as the supposedly best way to fight AIDS.

But it's easy to forget in this socialist-minded city that for-profit entrepreneurialism can sometimes advance the commonweal at least as well as charity. In that spirit, Anschutz has behaved in the past few years like a modern version of a robber baron with an epiphany, launching well-meaning business ventures after having spent his life making money as a rapacious capitalist.

If Anschutz's autumn-years projects, such as the Tour of California, don't convincingly smack of a robber baron's atonement, they do seem to represent a change of pace.

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 Kodakgallery.com/Sierra 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?

Indeed, the race proceeded magnificently from a fan's point of view. The 2007 Tour of California may not have been a nail-biter; Santa Rosa's Levi Leipheimer led from beginning to end. But top European teams such as CSC, Gerolsteiner, T-Mobile, and the Quick Step-Inngergetic team of reigning world and Olympic champion Paolo Bettini dogged Leipheimer harrowingly along the way. An estimated million-plus fans made the Tour of California the state's most-watched-ever spectator event.

So the question looms: What do fans see in a sport tainted by doping, and now, accusations that Tour of California roster spots were up for sale?

I put this to Gianetti, the Saunier DuvalÐProdir team manager. He didn't miss a beat.

Cycling's "a beautiful sport; look at the amount of effort it requires. Cycling is a sport of truth, a real sport. It's a school for living. We don't see violence among racers. They're loyal to each other and to the public," Gianetti says. "It's a sport where one can enjoy it alone just by going for a bike ride. Or you can enjoy it with friends, or with a group of competitors. It's a sport you can join just by going out your front door."

Given that turn of mind — one any fan will describe given a moment to reflect — Phil Anschutz the profane profiteer takes on something of a sacred trust.

He should welcome this as an opportunity to transcend his old robber baron self, and make sure AEG doesn't require that teams must pay to play in next year's Tour of California.

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