ATLANTA — The Tour de Georgia is looking for some big names and big bucks.
The seven-day race billed as North America’s premier professional cycling event begins Monday. There is renewed optimism about the Tour de Georgia’s economic health and ability to rise above the sport’s blood-doping scandals.
The Tour de Georgia must clear three obvious hurdles:
The event is still searching for a household name to replace the void left by Lance Armstrong’s retirement.
The race still seeks a sponsor’s name to place in front of its Tour de Georgia logo. For the second straight year, there is no $1 million title sponsor, though AT&T earned prominent billing with its $500,000 investment. This year, it’s “Tour de Georgia, presented by AT&T.”.
Finally, it’s impossible to avoid the blood doping stories that cut into the sport’s attempts to build momentum the way a flat tire stops a Stage 6 climb on Brasstown Bald Mountain.
Even Wednesday, when an agreement was reached to add the Rock Racing team to the field, there was a reminder of the sport’s ugly association with performance-enhancing substances. Rock Racing’s big name for U.S. fans is 2004 Olympic gold medalist Tyler Hamilton, who served a two-year suspension for blood doping.
Floyd Landis, the 2006 Tour de Georgia winner, returned as a spectator last year as part of his unsuccessful campaign to clear himself of doping allegations. Landis, banned from cycling by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency until the end of January 2009, has made a last appeal to have his 2006 Tour de France title restored.
No Tour de Georgia winner has had a positive test for doping, but Chris Aronhalt, event director of the race, says the Georgia tour hasn’t dodged the sport’s black eye.
“Of course it’s a concern,” Aronhalt said. “It’s reality. There’s an effort from the teams and from the governing bodies and from the events themselves to do everything they can do. Cycling is one of the most stringent sports in terms of the amount of testing and the frequency, certainly more frequent than in the major sports.”
Added Aronhalt: “We’re very proud in the Tour de Georgia we have not had a positive test five years running.”
Aronhalt said the onsite testing of all athletes in Georgia “is standard as implemented by requirements of the International Cycling Union and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.”
The Tour de Georgia’s climb up Brasstown Bald Mountain, the defining stage of the week, can be brutal, but elite cyclists apparently haven’t resorted to rule-breaking tricks to take on the weeklong tour through the state.
By contrast, the greater demands and more lucrative rewards of the three-week Tour de France have led to the positive tests that have tarnished so many careers and the sport’s reputation.
AT&T spokeswoman Sage Rhodes says the doping scandal hasn’t tainted the company’s support for the Georgia event.
“We really think this is a professional sporting event run by a professional organization,” Rhodes said. “We have a great deal of confidence that they know this issue and are capable of appropriate oversight.”
Rhodes said enthusiasm for the week is based on the event.
“People who come to Georgia get to see how gorgeous the state is and experience our hospitality,” Rhodes said. “And it supports economic development across the state and cities and towns all over Georgia.
“Importantly, it spotlights health and exercise, not just through the cycling but through the beneficiary of the event, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, so we’re just delighted to be a part of it.”
The race begins with Monday’s 72-mile course from Tybee Island to Savannah. It ends next Sunday, after more than 590 miles, in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park.
A new feature of the race comes in Stage 4 on Thursday, when the field takes on Road Atlanta’s 2.54-mile track in Braselton.
Tybee Island also is a new Georgia venue, as are Statesboro, Suwanee and Washington.
Georgia is represented by the Athens-based Jittery Joe’s team, which features captain Trent Wilson of Australia and Neil Shirley of San Diego. Shirley was a surprise third-place finisher last year at the USPRO road championships, while Wilson finished third at the Athens Twilight Criterium and seventh and the U.S. Open championship.
However, the team’s only Georgia native, Tim Henry of Atlanta, won’t be able to take part in the Tour de Georgia.
“It’s unfortunate that he’s not able to do the Tour de Georgia,” said Jittery Joe’s team general manager Micah Rice.
Instead, Henry will compete in the Athens Twilight Criterium next weekend.
“He actually had a bit of a knee injury in March and he’s coming back from that,” Rice said.
“Unfortunately he’s not ready to do such a big stage race. It would’ve been nice to have him in the tour.”
Rice said he expects on the most competitive fields in the six-year history of the race, leaving his relatively new Jittery Joe’s team with somewhat modest goals.
“What we want to get is some visibility,” Rice said. “We’ve gotten a lot of support as the only Southeast-based team that’s in the race. So we’ve got a lot of fans that want to see us do something, so we’re really going to try to be aggressive and try to get in some breaks. We’d love to get on the podium in a stage or two and I think we’ve got some guys that really have that ability.”
Top Americans in the field include Tom Danielson, Christian VandeVelde and David Zabriskie of Slipstream Chipotle; Astana’s Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner, the 2003 Tour de Georgia winner; three-time USA Cycling road champion George Hincapie of Team High Road and 2004 Olympic bronze medalist Bobby Julich of Team CSC.
Even so, no U.S. star has emerged who is capable of capturing the attention of casual fans as did Armstrong.
“Losing a superstar like Lance Armstrong and taking him out of the spotlight, there’s no question you lose that impact or that awareness value with the general spectator,” Aronhalt said.
“Purely from a sport we do continue to have the best of the best ... We still have the tens of thousands of fans who come out to see pro cycling.”
The Tour de Georgia is still pedaling uphill, but Aronhalt says he sees flat land ahead.
Only one year after the lack of a title sponsor threatened the future of the event, Aronhalt said the event enjoys a more firm financial foundation.
“We will have a financially solvent race,” he said.
“If you were to ask me to compare the status financially today to where we were last year, I would say much better. ... The projection is to break even but it’s not just about breaking even. In addition to that there will be a significant contribution to Children’s Healthcare. We’re in a much better position than last year.”
But the climb continues.
Said Aronhalt: “The title sponsor is still needed.”