Cycling race returns to downtown GJ

From right, outgoing Colorado Mesa University cycling coach Richard Geng and Stephan Cochran lead the pack of cyclers at Sixth and Main streets.

The sound comes on like a swarm of bees at first.

It starts with the distinctive hum of dozens of finely tuned, airy, light, wheels spinning fast.

In seconds, the cyclists appear, decked out in a peacock range of colors as they jockey for space on city streets, angling around corners and setting up their positions in the straightaways. And, just as quickly as they arrive, they’re gone, racing to loop back again.

It’s been years since Grand Junction residents have been treated to a downtown cycling race, called a criterium, or crit for short. The Maverick Classic at 5 p.m. Saturday is being hosted by Colorado Mesa University’s cycling team as an opportunity for students to race against other college teams from around the state. A range of categories and race times also allow citizens to ride and test their skills.

“There are a lot of racers coming in,” Colorado Mesa University cycling Coach Rick Crawford said. “It’s going to be pretty competitive.”

As momentum is growing for cycling events lately, so has the enthusiasm over such races that have long been largely absent from America’s downtowns. It was while watching the thrill of racers tear by during a crit that first got Crawford interested in cycling, he said.

“That’s how I got stoked on cycling,” he said. “I just stumbled across a race one day. We want people from the community to come down and watch this.”

Crawford stressed that while some downtown streets may be closed to traffic for a few hours, merchants may be pleasantly surprised by the amount of pedestrian traffic and local business a race can attract. And, if the race format becomes popular and continues annually, the economic impacts can be impressive, Crawford said.

He points to the wildly successful Athens Twilight Criterium in Athens, Ga.,  which started in 1980 with 40 competitive cyclists. It has grown to include 150 cyclists, several open categories and an 80-kilometer race around the downtown. More than 30,000 spectators come out for the event, often to say they were there to see cycling’s hottest names zoom past.

Colorado Mesa University’s cycling team has been flourishing during the past few years and its strength may only be increasing. The team this year is defending its two-year, team-time-trial, first-place national finishes. Residents can watch cyclists during that race at 9 a.m. Saturday at K and 21 Roads.

The cycling team which transformed from club status a few years ago to varsity, now offers $13,000 in scholarships, said former coach Richard Geng, a soon-to-be-graduating student who trains with cyclists.

“We’ve pretty much doubled in quantity and quality,” he said.

The team is always seeking new members. One goal is to start next fall’s season with 20 new cyclists, Crawford said.

One of this year’s new cyclists is 18-year-old Natalie Cortez of Denver. She didn’t decide to attend Colorado Mesa University because of the cycling program, but since coming to CMU she has become hooked on the sport. On a recent sunny afternoon, she and her teammates had just returned from a training ride along back roads toward Fruita.

“Everyone gets along,” she said. “There’s always someone to help you.”

Cycling team member Cullen Easter, 24, said some of his roommates plan to attend the race with air horns in tow.

“It’s going to be so cool,” he said. “It’s right when all the students will be going to the bar.”

Having more visible bicycling events may help the university someday get a race on Colorado National Monument, Crawford said.

“That’s going to be a lot of politics,” he said. “I think it can be done. It was done in the past. It’s just a matter of developing relationships.”

A few years ago, Colorado Mesa University students raced up a limited portion of the west side of the monument for their time trial college race event.

More recently, the university applied for and was denied the opportunity to host a race across the monument. That denial was on the heels of another rejection to a local committee seeking a route across the monument for the large-scale USA Pro Cycling Challenge, in which professional cyclists race in stages across the state.

Grand Junction, despite placing a bid last year to host the event along other routes this summer, was not chosen as a host city in the lineup this year.


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