Putting cycling on the California map

Fittingly enough, San Francisco, capital of the west’s cycle culture, has been named as the start-point for the inaugural Tour of California next February.

Oddly enough, its main sponsor is Amgen, the local biotechnology group. Eyebrows were raised because the company makes erythropoietin, a perfectly reputable drug that is often abused in endurance sports as “dope” to enhance the oxygen-carrying capacity of participants’ blood.

The quasi-controversy took some of the shine off the unveiling of an adventurous initiative by Anschutz Entertainment that is dedicated to everything wholesome, from sport to family-friendly film.

Anschutz says it will spend $35m over the next five years to bring international cycling stars to the state’s highways. The Discovery Channel team, formerly home to seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong – sadly, sans Lance – will be among the 16 taking part in the week-long, 750-mile outing up and down the Pacific coast.

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The provisional route promises some spectacular views of a fabled coastline and street-side thrills for the inhabitants of stopping points such as Monterey, San Jose and, of course, Amgen’s base in Thousand Oaks.

Armstrong’s feats in the French classic are widely credited with rousing US interest in cycle racing.

Yet, despite Anschutz’s lofty claims, there is a long way to ride before US cycling events rival the Tour de France, which last year covered about 2,200 miles and drew an estimated 15m to the roadside. The newcomer’s organisers are hoping for 1m – a modest total for the union’s most populous state.

Buying votes

If Arnold Schwarzenegger is true to his word and comes back next year with another batch of reform initiatives, California’s advertising media may expect another dousing with campaign cash.

They are already awash because the proponents and opponents of propositions on tomorrow’s special election ballot have spent about $300m battling one another.

And to what effect? Polls show that the issues at stake do not interest the voters, who consider the $45m cost to the state budget a waste of money.

The result, surveyors say, will be a low turn-out. Estimated price per vote: $80.

Finding lost souls

Civic interest in tidying up Los Angeles has peaked following recent revelations that the city centre’s notorious skid-row is being used literally as a dumping ground for human flotsam.

It has become routine for police to drive transients – be they addicts, insane or merely homeless – and drop them off in the shadowlands. A series in the LA Times brought attention to the practice, spurring official action.

William Bratton, the city’s police chief, had a plan. Delivering the homeless to shelters had worked when he used the tactic in New York’s subways. The only snag to bringing the plan to LA was that there were neither enough cops nor enough shelters to deal with the region’s estimated 90,000 lost souls.

But help is on the way thanks to United Rescue Mission, which has spent $7.5m on a 70-acre gated estate beneath the mountains of Angeles National Forest. With room for up to 300, it is a far cry from the desolation of downtown, where the mission maintains a 40-family shelter. The grounds, expected to be ready early next year, include meadows, waterfalls and fish ponds.

There may be a cruel irony in the fact that the shelter borders a former LA landfill where millions of tons of garbage lie buried, but it will doubtless be lost on eyes more accustomed to the flicker of crack pipes than starlight.

The usual suspects

A comedy of errors is unfolding on the star-studded Hollywood Boulevard, known for its low-grade tourist shops, landmark cinemas and hustlers of every stripe.

Bratton provided undercover cops in the guise of French tourists to curb the nuisance occasioned by alleged “aggressive begging”.

Their target was the troupe of costumed oddballs trawling among tourists visiting the hand- and footprints of the celebrities set in cement outside Graumann’s Chinese Theatre. Actors on the lowest rung of the profession, they dress as film characters such as Count Dracula, Chucky and Spider-Man, and scrape a living from “tips”.

It is a downmarket variant on the practice in local theme parks (except that Mickey Mouse does not speak, let alone demand a pay-off) in an area that is working hard to polish its image. Angelenos are beginning to adopt the place as their own and business is looking up. But retailers are not happy with the costumed characters, who have been rounded up, ticketed and told off.

As is the way with things fashionable in LA, it is only a matter of time before the locals move on to the next super-duper-hyper-mall, and Chucky & Co will be left to carry on business as usual.

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