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Behind the scenes at the San Francisco Grand Prix

By Chris Baldwin, Cyclingnews correspondent in San Francsisco

Photo: © R.Karman
Click for larger image

Robin Williams rolled up to the line with serious expectations in the San Francisco Cycling Classic. "The race is one mile," he told a television reporter. "I’m expecting one mile. The dope tests this morning just came back and here were traces of Viagra found in my urine, but that’s okay. It helps me to ride hard and long, and I don’t need a kickstand."

Eric Heiden was impressed. The former Olympian and current surgeon could not predict a win in the celebrity challenge against Nelson Vails and Gary Fisher, much less the formidable Williams. "He’s going to make me laugh so hard I might fall off my bike," he said.

Indifferent cops waved the press vehicles through the racecourse and Bay Area joggers ran obliviously amid the standing crowds. Homeless people bundled up on benches and helicopters hovered like seagulls at the dump. The fog was clearing, sailboats raced in the bay, and what looked like all the city of San Francisco lined their hilly streets to watch this race.

Photo: © Jeff Tse
Click for larger image

Meanwhile the pro riders were cruising out to Crissy Field, facing into a headwind and an absolutely vibrant crowd. US Postal, Saturn, Prime Alliance and Navigators kept their colors in the front, steaming up Fillmore to the sounds of 50,000 screaming voices and the clenching of 100,000 fists. Motorcycles leading the peloton literally lifted their front wheels from the pavement while lipping the three-tiered climb, their gears clacking down to manage the grade.

Around the bend and going downhill, Oscar Pineda of 7Up-Nutra Fig chased a press car to catch the escaping group. At a speed impossible to achieve in any vehicle on any other day in San Francisco, Pineda shifted his weight just a bit and sprinted for a corner, frightening the determined driver and thrilling the passengers.

The road flattened out, turned right and cruised towards the Taylor Street climb. There the crowd was eight deep on the sides and a hundred deep on top. Where the riders turned left and headed back to the start-finish, tens of thousands of very interested, very loud cycling fans stood and cheered. The air was electric and the noise was deafening. Perhaps Fillmore had more people, as it was a longer distance overall, but Taylor Street was without a doubt the nexus of San Francisco’s universe on Sunday.

At the start-finish line cycling’s pageantry was in full force. Two television trucks, several VIP tents, a vendor’s expo, a massive video screen, and a crowd of 50,000 standing on bleachers were all pinched in to just two city blocks. The race announcers were cheering as Viacheslav Ekimov launched by Lance Armstrong with less than a kilometer to go. The fans were cheering as Henk Vogels powered through the last two turns to the finish. The entire city of San Francisco was cheering as Charles Dionne, like a quiet field mouse, pipped his competition and won the day.