The AMGEN Tour of California, North America’s foremost cycling stage race, kicked off in Nevada City, host to a 50-year old one-day road race and one of America’s premier cycling towns.

Photo via: John Hoeft - http://www.edhphoto.com/

The energetic and festive atmosphere saw world class cyclists like Mark Rogers and Tom Boonen walk anonymously among the public, many of whom where there to see Lance Armstrong. Before the race, I asked Mark Cavendish of Columbia-HTC if he thought he could win the race. “Are you kidding, man?” was his response drawing laughs and admiration for his brash and aggressive style.

When the familiar albeit new Radio Shack bus rolled into team row, men and women ran to it like Elvis just arrived. While Lance and his entourage drew hundreds of fans, this shrewd cycling fan waited among a handful outside the Team Saxo bus, in hopes of landing a coveted autograph from Fabian Cancellara or Andy Schleck. After 30 minutes of waiting and an uncomfortable yet successful autograph bid from 1996 Tour de France champion, Bjarne Riis, Fabian and Andy dutifully signed for the 30 or so fans and me who shunned King Lance.

At about 15 minutes before start time, team row burst into a flurry of action as riders emerged from their buses and biked down the short hill towards the start. Lance and teammates Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner along with former Lance domestique, George Hincapie, drew huge cheers as they rode towards the line. World champion, Tom Boonen, with name on bike still rode on anonymously.

Within moments, the race started with a countdown and the AMGEN Tour of California peloton pedaled off towards Sacramento. Poor anonymous Tom Boonen flatted about a mile from the start; luckily, his mechanic saw the problem and rapidly switched his front tire.

With the peloton on its way, I left Nevada City and made the 90 minute drive to Sacramento. As I grabbed a beer and burrito, the riders traversed the American River Canyon, Salmon Falls Road, and Jackson Highway some of the areas most beloved cycling routes.

I took a spot on the finishing circuit in the middle of the ¾ mile back stretch to see the riders equally coming and going. The power of the peloton really shows the athleticism and speed of the athletes and strategy of sprint cycling. On its first pass, Team Columbia-HTC sped to the front to set up Cavendish. Columbia spread the field almost single-file whizzing by at a blazing 35 miles per hour. On pass two, two riders from US-based Team Kelly, took the point with the Columbia closely following, and a bulging 10-man wide pack trailing taking up the road sidewalk-to-sidewalk.

Columbia lead pass three, and after the first 50 or so riders zipped passed, I heard a metal-scraping sound like some one was pulling sheet metal across the road. I turned and saw anonymous Tom Boonen remounting his ride, road rash coating his arms and legs. Boonen and Hincapie tangled pulling down Lars Boom and number 93, (I think it was UHC’s Andrew Pinfold). With 93 writhing in pain on the ground, legs in the air, the others remounted and quickly finished behind winner, Cavendish. Number 93 eventually completed the stage, earning the same time as the peloton and allowing him to compete in stage two.

See below for the video of the crash.