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Shake-down Tour 

Is this what you get when a rapacious American capitalist takes U.S. bike racing for a spin?

Wednesday, Feb 28 2007
Mauro Gianetti, the elegantly thin, fashionably bald Swiss former pro racer who runs the Spanish Saunier Duval-Prodir cycling team, engages me by cellphone in a game of fantasy racing.

"The Tour of California is a big race, a hard race, and it's not impossible for him," said Gianetti, referring to his star rider David Millar, a three-times Tour de France stage winner who'd made a goal of bagging the multistage race that began Feb. 17 in San Francisco and ended Feb. 25 in Long Beach.

Gianetti hoped his big Scottish rider, who excels in the type of time trials that were crucial to winning the Tour of California, would win the 2007 event.

"It's got mountains, but not such big mountains. And I believe Millar would have been able to manage them," then clinch victory in the Feb. 23 time trial stage in Solvang, Gianetti said.

Kurt Stockton, a goateed former U.S. professional champion who manages California's Nevada cycling team, also has a fantasy version of the Tour of California. In it, Ryan Trebon, the spindly giant who holds America's 2006 cyclocross and cross-country mountain biking titles, storms up to Coit Tower for a stage-one win, putting a California team stamp on this Golden State spectacle.

But, to adapt Mother Goose: If wishes were bicycles, then spectators would ride.

And these two team manager's scenarios will remain sporting daydreams thanks to a game of payola these team managers say they were asked to play by the owners of the event, AEG, a subsidiary of the Anschutz Company, the private conglomerate of secretive Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz.

Gianetti says Tour of California organizers told him his team's invitation to compete depended upon whether Prodir, the Swiss pen-maker that co-sponsors Millar's team, paid to have its advertisements appear along the Tour of California route as they had done the previous year.

"The comment was, maybe when you come, you can bring many thousands of dollars with your sponsor, and then we can look at the question of your participation," Gianetti said. "But I won't go pay for racing in the Tour of California."

A report in the cycling publication VeloNews said Prodir contributed $25,000 to the race in 2006 as an event co-sponsor, but made the marketing decision to not sign on in 2007. Gianetti said Tour of California organizers told him either Prodir re-ups, or the team stays home. It was the first time he'd heard a race make such a suggestion during four years as a team director, 16 as a pro racer.

"This has never happened. It's not customary at all. Even if their organization has financial problems, they shouldn't link that to my team's involvement. They're two separate issues," said Gianetti.

For his part, Stockton, Nevada's team manager, says his team's non-selection in the Tour of California makes it hard to keep sponsors such as Chico-based Sierra Nevada Brewing.

"One of our main sponsors was called up and told, before the selection of teams was made, 'Your team was not in the event, but if you sponsor the event, we can give you a sponsor's exemption,'" Stockton said. "This was like an extortion call. They were so taken aback that they said, 'Is this how it works?'"

Michael Roth, vice president for communications at AEG, says it didn't work this way. Teams were selected based on prowess, not payouts, he said.

"I can't comment on a conversation made between somebody else. I can only say the decision was based on the performance level of the team," Roth said.

Make no mistake: I'm a big fan of Phil Anschutz's late-life entrepreneurial dabbling. He seems committed to making chicken salad out of businesses that have the potential to make life better for the rest of us, businesses that everyone else seems to view as chicken feed. He bought the failed S.F. Examiner and turned it into a valid source of local news at a moment when investor bearishness was killing the newspaper industry.

With the Tour of California, Anschutz has bet on an even iffier proposition. U.S.-based bike racing is a beautiful, exciting spectacle that's nonetheless proven a 40-year quagmire for investors.

I'll remain unconvinced Anschutz has begun a late-life stage of enlightened investing, however, unless he transcends his nature as a former wildcatter, railroad baron, and telecom-insider cash-out king, and runs the Tour of California like a mensch.

Tycoons such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have received much credit lately for donating fortunes to charitable causes such as decimating teachers' unions under the guise of sponsoring charter schools, and ensuring profitability for U.S. drug makers as the supposedly best way to fight AIDS.

But it's easy to forget in this socialist-minded city that for-profit entrepreneurialism can sometimes advance the commonweal at least as well as charity. In that spirit, Anschutz has behaved in the past few years like a modern version of a robber baron with an epiphany, launching well-meaning business ventures after having spent his life making money as a rapacious capitalist.

If Anschutz's autumn-years projects, such as the Tour of California, don't convincingly smack of a robber baron's atonement, they do seem to represent a change of pace.

Anschutz, Act One, prospected a billion-dollar sea of oil under a Utah farm, parlaying those profits into a railroad empire. He exploited his railroad rights of way to create a fiber-optic telecom giant, and along the way became a magnate in the fields of real estate, sports venues and teams, and movie theaters. He also earned a role as capitalist villain: In 2002 Fortune magazine put Anschutz at the top of its list of insider cash-out kings, after Anschutz sold nearly $1.6 billion of stock in Qwest in 1999. It was later reported Qwest had posted three years of artificially inflated revenues.

In his second act as a perhaps more beneficent capitalist, Anschutz continued his practice of looking for treasures on deserted islands.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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