At the time on May 15, the cancellation of Stage 1 of the Amgen Tour of California, which had been planned to circle Lake Tahoe one and a half times, seemed like the punch line of a very bad joke… “and the good news is that Tahoe got 4 to 6 inches of new snow.”
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La Niña had delivered cold temperatures and snow one too many times in the seemingly unending winter of 2011, overloading the Tahoe basin with cold weather right at the moment when it was about to get a well-planned boost of worldwide attention.
Carol Chaplin, executive director of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, who had spent nearly a year planning to host the race, was surprisingly philosophical about the loss.
“There’s no point rubbing salt in the wound, or snow in your face about this,” she said. “We looked at the weather all that week and knew from past experience that it could be the mother of all storms, sunny or split across the lake. We live with such uncertainty all the time. That’s part of the beauty of the destination, part of its intrigue.”
Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports, which presents the Amgen Tour of California, said that when his organization moved the race from February to May two years earlier, it did so to avoid rain, not at all expecting snow in May.
When considering Lake Tahoe, Messick had looked closely at weather patterns, noting that the statistical probability of winter weather was low in May, and even though it might rain, the combination of snow, wind and cold wasn’t likely.
Had the race been held a week earlier, many locals said, Messick and his tour would have basked in Lake Tahoe’s legendary sun-drenched springtime, just as past weather patterns had indicated would occur. Instead, the stage had to be canceled for the safety of riders and support personnel who would be racing on unseasonably slick, icy and snow splattered roads.
On the upside, the Tour was an “unprecedented cooperative venture” Chaplin explained, “involving five counties, two states and one incorporated city. We needed their willingness to engage, though I’ve never seen so unanimous a response. They all said, ‘Let’s go get it! What do we need to do?’” Although the Stage 1 cancellation was disheartening, Chaplin described bringing the Amgen Tour of California to Lake Tahoe as a “tremendous experience,” one that has set the stage for future north/south cooperation at Tahoe for other major events of substantial financial benefit to El Dorado County and South Lake Tahoe.
“From $1.5 million to $3 million in economic impact is generated by cities that host a stage. Destinations like South Lake Tahoe are at the higher end of these projections, because they attract overnight stays, not just local spectators,” Chaplin explained.
Lake Tahoe, unlike other stage hosts, had the added advantage of a powerhouse team to maximize the return for the region… Julie Mauer at Squaw Valley USA, John Wagnon at Heavenly Mountain Resort, Mindy Befu at Sierra at Tahoe, PR dynamos Petit Gilwee at North Lake Tahoe and Phil Weidinger at South Lake Tahoe, not to overlook Chaplin and her staff at the LTVA, as well as the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association and countless others on both shores.
“It was awesome the way the whole Tahoe region came together to organize the event,” said Lynn Saunders president and CEO of Truckee Donner Chamber of Commerce. “I can’t even begin to tell you how hard the locals worked on this.”
“Other cities that hosted stages along the tour just didn’t have the horsepower we could apply,” Chaplin added.
With Stage 1 passing through South Lake Tahoe twice, the impact would likely have been higher as spectators went to restaurants, bars and casinos to watch the riders loop the lake after the start, then return outside to see them pass by again. It was a brilliant strategy that was designed to multiply spending at the lake while gaining international attention through broadcasts that would have been watched worldwide over the Versus channel (owned by NBC Sports).
Bob Warren, CEO of the Redding Convention & Visitors Bureau, who was manning the California’s Great Outdoors visitor center, a customized Airstream trailer sponsored by California’s rural regions, including the High Sierra and Gold Country, agreed.
“Most important to Redding is the demo of the attendees. They’re perfect for us… high income folk… those who watch cycling make a lot of money and are willing to spend it. A moment ago a guy from Australia stopped for information. He came all the way to Lake Tahoe just to see this event and he wanted information on where else to go while in California. It gives us the chance to reach opinion leaders in this sport and introduce them to the fabulous cycling options in our area.”
As evidence of Warren’s view, spectators were overheard saying they’d come from Seattle and Los Angeles, while asking locals for recommendations of how to turn the cancellation into a day to explore the area. Saunders was hoping they’d see her town as the “fabulous bike mecca” that it is and choose to return. “We’ve got tons of mountain bike trails and wonderfully challenging road bike routes like Highway 40, which travels beside Donner Lake and over the old pass,” she exclaimed.
As for the future, the Lake Tahoe basin demonstrated they know how to hold big events and how to respond gracefully and cooperatively when conditions warrant a change of plans. The biggest loss may not have been Lake Tahoe, but the spectators, competitors and sponsors who, too, were dealt a setback by Mother Nature.
Amgen, the tour’s title sponsor, develops medical products based on advances in recombinant DNA and molecular biology; it inspired the biotechnology industry’s first blockbuster medicines. Their Breakaway From Cancer initiative — a featured component of the Amgen Tour of California — helps cancer patients understand they don’t have to go it alone, that there are important resources available to people affected by cancer from prevention, to education and support, to financial assistance and survivorship.
To the tourism professionals at Lake Tahoe, it was bad luck and perhaps a bad joke, but to those suffering from cancer, it was one less day to become aware of support provided by Amgen, and no one can put a price on that.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.