Cycling ‘Final Four’ returns to WNC

Racers in the 2015 Criterium. Photo by Joshua Cole
Racers in the 2015 Criterium. Photo by Joshua Cole

Teams from across the country will soon descend on Western North Carolina for the 2016 USA Cycling Collegiate Road National Championships. After years of dominance by Western locales, last year’s event was held here under a two-year contract with USA Cycling. This year’s edition, slated for Friday to Sunday, May 13-15, will see top college athletes face off in Division I and Division II competition in Madison County and nearby Burnsville.

“It’s like the Final Four of cycling,” says volunteer Connie Molland, who’s been heavily involved in organizing both the 2015 and 2016 events. “This is our equivalent in the cycling community.”

Until recently, the West Coast was widely considered the go-to U.S. cycling destination. Increasingly, however, the Southeast is in the spotlight for national championship events. The 2016 Criterium & Team Time Trial National Championships took place in Greenville, S.C., April 16-17, and in early January, the weeklong 2016 Cyclo-Cross National Championship was staged at Biltmore Estate. Later this month, the Masters & Para-Cycling Road National Championships (May 24-28) and the Road Race & Time Trial National Championships (May 27-28) will both be held in Winston-Salem.

Here in WNC, three separate competitions will play out over the weekend: a road race on Friday, a criterium on Saturday, and the team time trial on Sunday. Amateur, noncollegiate criterium and time trial races will take place as well, and a 5K charity run will be held in Burnsville before the criterium. After Sunday’s finale, the teams whose men and women have performed the best will be declared the national champions in their respective divisions.

Criteriums feature some of the most exciting, high-speed, adrenaline-filled bike racing around. Racers compete for a specified amount of time, usually 50-70 minutes, on a course that’s less than a mile long, typically in a city, town or parking lot. In the cycling format that most closely resembles NASCAR, racers fly through tight corners on the edge of traction, occasionally resulting in crashes; bumping elbows is commonplace.

Economic impact

But racers and cycling enthusiasts aren’t the only ones who’ll benefit. The presence of the athletes, spectators and others coming in for the weekend will give local businesses a big boost. Last year’s road nationals brought in 77 teams and 388 athletes, says Kevin Loughery of USA Cycling. “Most riders did at least two, maybe three events. This means they likely stayed for an average of three nights.”

And for Zuma Coffee in Marshall, that resulted in “our best weekend that we’ve enjoyed in the last 14 years,” notes owner Joel Friedman. The town, he says, has begun to make a name for itself as a cycling destination. On weekends, large groups of cyclists are a common sight, and many stop in for an espresso and a snack.

Molland, who serves on the local organizing committee as the community relations director for Madison County, has been a huge advocate for both the county and the town. An informal economic-impact survey she conducted after last year’s road nationals revealed that the event was a real boon for local small businesses.

“Connie Molland has been spectacular in bringing the community together; she’s been quite a champion for the area,” says Friedman.

A scene from the 2015 USA Cycling Collegiate Road National Championships. Photo by Joshua Cole
A scene from the 2015 USA Cycling Collegiate Road National Championships. Photo by Joshua Cole

Shining a light on WNC

Hugh Moran, who was Mars Hill University’s cycling coach from 2008 until last August, says road nationals had been held out West for so many years that he felt it was time for the Southeast to highlight its own beautiful roads and trails. Coincidentally, in 2013, the Asheville Bicycle Racing Club and the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission had been hoping to hold the Masters National Championships in Asheville but missed the application deadline. Moran, who also serves on the local organizing committee, saw an opportunity to elevate collegiate cycling in the region. He shared his ideas with the sports commission, which subsequently mounted a successful bid for the 2015 and 2016 Collegiate Road National Championships.

Local organizing committee member Tom Ratajczak was a key player in the unsuccessful push to get the masters nationals. Thanks to his experience helping to promote the French Broad Cycling Classic, he’s been able to advise the committee on logistical issues.

Last year, the road race and time trials were held in Marshall, while the criterium was staged in downtown Asheville. The challenging road race included a good mix of climbing and flat-to-rolling sections, offering something for every type of racer, says Moran. It didn’t make sense to change a good thing, so those events will be basically the same this time around.

Last summer, though, the sports commission, recognizing that it wouldn’t be able to host the event again this year for financial reasons, decided to step down. But with the road nationals’ return to WNC in doubt, the local cycling community came together to avert the crisis. The Madison County Tourism Development Authority stepped in and, together with the WNC Bicycle Dealers Association, supplied a generous sum of money, says Moran. Meanwhile, he and Molland worked on raising additional funding.

Rescuing the race

Alan Brookshire of the Asheville-based VeloSports Racing Team has been deeply involved in the cycling community throughout the Southeast for over 15 years. He has three kids who race both collegiately and professionally; he also serves on the local organizing committee.

Jimm McElroy, one of VeloSports’ lead members, heads up the committee. Brookshire spoke to him last summer, proposing that the racing team become the 2016 road nationals’ primary organizer. VeloSports had been heavily involved with the previous year’s event. Team members, including Brookshire and his family, worked tirelessly — helping with course setup, serving as marshals and assisting race officials — to help ensure the weekend’s success.

One of the most active teams in Asheville, VeloSports stages the annual Ring of Fire criterium series, which runs throughout the spring and into the summer at the Carrier Park “Mellowdrome.” “We didn’t want our local cycling community to look like we weren’t capable of hosting national-level championship events, so we decided to step in as the main organizing force,” McElroy explains.

Because it was a two-year contract with USA Cycling, VeloSports felt that allowing the event to leave the area was simply unacceptable, says Moran. “Madison County and the town of Marshall stepped in and said, ‘This was such a positive experience for us that we really want to see it back.’” The organizers say they’re excited about hosting a national championship-level event in two communities that have shown so much enthusiasm about collaborating with the cycling community.

Forging new partnerships

Things couldn’t stay exactly the same as last year, however, since the local organizing committee needed to find a new site for the criterium. Due to logistical difficulties and other concerns, downtown Asheville didn’t seem interested in hosting it again.

So, after talking with a number of municipalities, the organizers settled on Burnsville. The only condition was that they work around the Fit Families 5K, an established event that benefits Graham Children’s Health Services. VeloSports and Fit Families organizer Schell McCall saw an opportunity to create a mutually beneficial partnership.

“We’re helping them out by making the event a little bit bigger,” says McElroy. “Schell has been a huge help in terms of connecting us with local people, giving us ideas on how to make the event more successful, more smooth in terms of where we can host things, and who to talk to to help facilitate things. Brian Buchanan, the police chief, has been amazing as well; all the Town Council in Burnsville and the mayor have been extremely supportive,” notes McElroy. “They were so excited when we came to them in January. They really rolled out the red carpet for us, asking what we need and really being on top of things. Burnsville has just been a pleasure to deal with.”

McCall says her organization’s goal for the 5K “is to get the entire community active, healthy and connected, particularly children, so anyone under 18 can run for free.” She believes the two events are a good fit. To create a family-friendly atmosphere, McCall and VeloSports are jointly sponsoring a free kids bike race in between the Saturday morning run and the criterium.

Sierra Nevada is one of USA Cycling’s biggest sponsors, and a beer garden featuring its products will be set up adjacent to the town square, where spectators can cheer on the racers. The expo area will include a bike rodeo for kids as well as space for local racing teams, many of which will be providing volunteers throughout the weekend. Retailers including Youngblood Bicycles, Liberty Bicycles, Asheville Bicycle Co. and Solstice Cycles will be represented along with local cycling product manufacturers like Cane Creek and DeFeet.

Mars Hill University is providing affordable housing for collegiate racers, coaches, family members and USA Cycling officials. The campus is mere minutes away from Marshall, and Burnsville is not much farther. The school will also be serving a hot breakfast for racers before their events, and Asheville resident and Olympic medalist Lauren Tamayo, the recently crowned women’s national criterium champion, will speak at the Saturday evening banquet.

The return of the Collegiate Road Nationals is just the latest evidence of a growing trend. These days, says McElroy, “WNC is one of the biggest cycling meccas in the country.”

 

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