May 13 2012
The Tour of California has an image problem. Mercifully, it’s nothing to with jersey zips—it’s more that the race’s marketing material is absolutely incomprehensible.
Let’s overlook the fact that “Eight Days of Epic” uses the most cored marketing term in recent memory (it’s been a joke on Archer for crying out loud)—the Tour of California is anything but. The race has struggled to find hilltop finishes that don’t end in a bunch sprints and Phil Liggett once described the peloton as “lost at sea” on the state’s enormous swathes of tarmac. There have been some interesting crashes, but beyond that, not a whole lot of drama—unless you count hockeygate.
And to use what appears to be the image of Mario Cipollini? While Cipo’ may have had his share of deep-dug, gritty wins, the man spent his career cultivating his image as an effortless winner who abhorred suffering: being literally towed to the start line in a chariot, flamboyant wardrobe changes up to three times a day at press events—heck, in 2003, Domina Vacanze bought his entire team to use the Italian’s reputation for getting in the beach time in their advertising. To grit him up and label him “epic” is almost insulting.
I won’t deny that there was a time when the ToC could have branded itself like this (and did). At its inception, the race was an early-season tune-up, complete with miserable early-season weather. But it offered riders way to suffer through the rust, torch those last few pounds, and get in some valuable race miles, all with the creature comforts of wide American roads, reasonably well-equipped, American-sized hotel rooms each evening, and the support of racing-starved American fans.
This isn’t to say that the Wellie-clad fanbase lining the bergs and cobbles in Belgium each spring is any less enthusiastic than its American counterpart, but yo-yoing at the back of a lined out field and trying not to swallow too much pig dung while fully-tuned classics specialists trade haymakers appeals to a relatively small segment of the peloton. The first Tours of California offered suffering, but on a much more sensible scale for anyone seeking peak fitness in July.
But the fact is, the Tour of Cali is no longer a boots-and-rain-cape affair. After a few rainy seasons, the race has grown up, taking a mid-season place in the cycling calendar where it fills a vital niche rebooting the campaigns of weather-beaten classics riders coming off rest, and providing a vital step in the training of Tour contenders who don’t want the full-on physical beatdown of the Giro. It’s a warm-weather, safe, comfortable retool, and—without intending the slightest disrespect—it’s about as non-epic as you can get.
And frankly, going whole-hog on that “glamor race” branding would be a perfect fit. It’s California, after all—land of movie stars, palm trees, sunny days, and legislative indulgence. I’m not denying that there are some awesome stages planned for this year’s race, or that there’s no glory in winning them. But no one with their eye on the Champs Elysees is going to make a redline effort to secure the Tour of California title.
I suppose the website banners and the San Jose poster almost have a sense of what I’m getting at; though the gleam-and-gradient on the lettering is a little more Las Vegas than Los Angeles, there’s at least some attempt to portray glamor. But the rest of the poster—a bunched peloton riding through a landscape that looks more like Mount Doom than the Pacific Coast Highway, falls back into the “epic” trap.
All that said, I do understand what the ToC organizers are going for with their “Eight Days of Epic”. But the fact is, it still doesn’t quite work. It’s a half-measure. And it doesn’t have quite enough mass appeal for the passive fan. So I’ve whipped up a little something that should snag the eyeballs they’re targeting with aplomb, all while trying to maintain the questionably-intended imagery they’ve chosen for themselves.