Brian Hamilton: ‘Energetic’ fans help make race a Classic |

Brian Hamilton: ‘Energetic’ fans help make race a Classic

So that’s what the Nevada City Classic used to be like in its heyday.

And maybe now that Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer have breathed some life back into the second oldest race in the United States, Sunday’s grandiose celebration is just the first of more to come.

“What we did today,” said Leipheimer, “is show that Nevada City deserves to be on the route of the Tour of California.”

And really, who’s going to question the wisdom of that race’s three-time defending champion?

The quality of cycling has never been in question over the Nevada City Classic’s 49-year history. Some of the top domestic pro riders have raced here, offering performances to remember.

Sure, Armstrong, Leipheimer and Greg LeMond all raced here.

But so did Justin England, Burke Swindlehurst and Scott Moninger.

OK, maybe the latter three are not exactly household names among the sports fans who were caught up in the cycling craze Armstrong created with his unprecedented seven Tour de France championships.

But ask Armstrong, Leipheimer and the rest of this nation’s elite cyclists and they’ll tell you many of the past Nevada City champions to be among the best.

What’s been missing from Nevada City is not elite athletes.

It was the community coming out to celebrate the race.

In this very column space on Saturday morning, I encouraged even the most casual fan to come out and “embrace the race.” Although I know there was quite a crowd of out-of-towners on hand, western Nevada County clearly represented this community in impressive fashion Sunday.

The course was so thick – typically four or five folks deep behind the fencing – that it was not only difficult to walk the entire 1.1-mile course, but to even take a bathroom break just a block away. And with apologies to the folks dealing with claustrophobia or small bladders, that was a good thing.

With an economy that has left tourism lagging in our Gold Rush-era community, a crowd like Sunday’s – estimated around 30,000 by the Nevada City police – certainly pumped some quick cash into the hands of downtown merchants.

But it also could lead to many of those fans making a return trip to enjoy our incredible surroundings. Whether they come back to take in the outdoors on a mountain bike or a hike, or perhaps to cozy up on a carriage ride at Victorian Christmas, anyone making their first trip to town Sunday now knows about one of the best kept secrets in Northern California.

And then, of course, there are those hopes for the likes of Armstrong, Leipheimer and the top cyclists in the world to come back next May for a stage of the Amgen Tour of California.

Nevada City race organizer Duane Strawser said he’d consider Sunday’s race as sort of an audition for the Tour of California. Let me just say Strawser’s team of volunteers, who had about five days to prepare for the circus that follows Armstrong around the world, pulled the thing off in impressive fashion.

If our community does land a leg of the Tour of California, Strawser and company deserve the majority of credit – and not just how they handled this year’s race, but the fact they’ve helped keep the Classic cruising along for 49 consecutive years.

While a big thank you is also due to Armstrong and Leipheimer for simply deciding ‘Why not?’ race Nevada City again, the world’s most celebrated cyclist pointed out who really deserved some praise Sunday.

“It’s very rare that we get a circuit this tight and that is this energetic,” Armstrong told the crowd in a post-race interview. “I’ll put this crowd up against anything we race against in Europe.”

And if Armstrong races the way he did in Nevada City, that crowd knows that anything he races against next month won’t likely be able to stop him from conquering France an eighth time with his comeback tour.

Brian Hamilton is sports editor at The Union. Contact him via e-mail at or by phone at 477-4240.