Looking Behind the Scenes: Chief Harris sold Amgen on including Auburn

By: Jim Ruffalo
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Just about everybody in the village is looking forward to May 16, that day when the Amgen Tour pedals its way through our friendly confines. What’s not generally known is that Auburn came within a few hours of not being included in that stellar tour. Granted, we all were salivating over the possibility of being part of the big event, and kept our collective hopes high even after we learned that Nevada City got the nod to be the starting point for that statewide bicycling tour. Still, rumors were whispered that even if Auburn got shut out from the route, maybe Amgen would send a sprint or some other ancillary event this way. But as time grew short, it was becoming apparent that Auburn just couldn’t be squeezed into the route. Fortunately for the growing ranks of local bike fans, Auburn refused to take “no” for an answer. Even after the Amgen officials let it be known that Auburn would be bypassed, some city folks asked for one final meeting. “The Amgen people gave us a brief meeting on their way to the airport,” City Manager Bob Richardson remembered, then added, “In the short time we had to prepare for the meeting, (Police Chief) Valarie Harris came up with an idea.” Harris reluctantly confirmed the events, explaining that she was told the tour very much wanted to go over the Foresthill Bridge, but did not want to re-use any streets already ridden. “I got the map out and came up with a route that did not use Highway 49, but instead used the Walsh Street underpass (behind the Holiday Inn). However, I was concerned over the some short, narrow turns,” she added. Richardson said Harris provided more than just a possible route. “She was also, off the top of her head, able to enumerate just how the city could solve any problem related to the tour, then added a brief history of how the city handled other special events. She made it evident that Auburn could do its part very well, if allowed. Her presentation was very impressive,” Richardson said. The caper was Harris piling Amgen’s Eric Smith and his party into a car and driving them over the proposed route. “They loved it, including the tight turns,” she recalled, adding that the Amgen party also liked the notable scenery, such as the Historic Court House, Clock Tower and Old Town. “We had a good feeling about our effort that day, but still had to wait several weeks for an official announcement,” Harris said. On the other hand, maybe she should have been careful what she wished for. “Sure. There will be a lot of work involved for this one-day event, but it’ll be worth it. We have excellent planning in place and good people to pull it off. We’ll be ready,” she insisted. And as long as we’re looking at untold stories, allow me to provide a vignette of how Nevada City scored its opening-day hosting role. I’m told that Chico, which was the early favorite to be the host, had suggested that Nevada City might be a good addition to the route. But when Amgen officials showed up there, they fell in love with the area. Nevada City City Manager Gene Albaugh confirms that part, but hastened to add that some local folks really made it happen, especially Duane Strawser, a former rider who now owns the Tour of Nevada City bike shop. “He knows everybody in that world, and has the personality to make things happen,” Albaugh said, adding that having the tour move from its former February dates to mid-May made Nevada City a natural. “We were also told by the Amgen folks that the friendliness of the people they met here helped inspire them to choose us. While we’re very sorry for Chico (which now has no part in the tour), we’re very grateful it recommended us to Amgen,” he added. Albaugh, who includes a stint as the Colfax city manager on his lengthy resumé, says one big selling point to use Nevada City was its history of the famed Nevada City Classic. “It’s obvious we know how to do bike races. That alone shows we’re capable of managing an event of this magnitude, although the scenery didn’t hurt our chances, either,” he said. Albaugh points out the tour not only will be a significant monetary windfall on race day, it also will provide some long-range benefits. “When people all over the world see what our part of the world looks like, they’ll want to come here and see it in person,” was the way he put it. Jim Ruffalo’s column runs Sundays in the Journal. Reach him at