Memorial Day weekend in Chattanooga is traditionally a time for gathering with family and friends at the lake or for a backyard picnic. Starting this year there's a new game in town — elite level professional cycling.
USA Cycling and Outdoor Chattanooga announced Wednesday the time trial and road race routes for the USA Pro Championships, which will be held May 25 and 27 with Volkswagen serving as the primary sponsor and host.
"We couldn't be more excited to be coming to Chattanooga, working with Volkswagen and all the other partners here today," said USA Cycling chief operating officer Sean Petty. "You're going to see literally some of the best athletes in the world competing in Chattanooga."
The US Pro Championships were held for the first 20 years in Philadelphia before its just-completed seven-year run in Greenville, S.C., and this year will be the event's debut of a three-year commitment in Chattanooga as part of a four-year partnership between USA Cycling and Volkswagen of America.
"I know that Greenville ... hated to see it go, and we're glad to see it come," Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said. "It puts us on one more list of superlative cities, taking advantage of the great outdoors that we have and the somewhat unique terrain that we have."
Some of the top American pro cyclists will make the trip to Chattanooga for a chance to win a national championship, including many top Tour de France competitors. Among those who could be participating are Dave Zabriskie and Timmy Duggan, the defending U.S. time trial and road race champions, as well as Taylor Phinney, who finished fourth in both the road race and time trial at the Olympic Games in London last summer.
New to the event for 2013 will be the first-time inclusion of a pro women's U.S. championship, with equal prize money as that awarded to the male race winners. Also, a hand cycling time trial and timed criterium will be held that weekend.
The time trial, in which riders compete against the clock, will be May 25 with a start and finish at the Chattanooga VW plant. The route will take racers twice around a 9.5 mile route along Hickory Valley Road.
On Memorial Day -- May 27 -- the road race portion of the championships will focus on downtown Chattanooga and several climbs up Lookout Mountain.
Riders will cross the Market Street and Veterans bridges, and the route will go through the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus as well as along Market and Broad streets with the start-finish line being at Market and M.L. King Boulevard at Miller Plaza.
The men's race will encompass 11 circuits through downtown and five climbs up Lookout Mountain via Ochs Highway with a descent down Scenic Highway, while the women, in the first-ever women's pro championships will complete five circuits and three ascents of Lookout Mountain.
In Greenville, the event regularly drew thousands of spectators, and Chris Aronhalt of Medalist Sports said that he anticipates "tens of thousands" of spectators lining the roads over the two days of racing.
Chattanooga organizers hope to build upon the event's previous success when the racing comes to the Scenic City, and Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Bob Doak estimates thousands of participants, race officials and spectators will be in town that weekend spending money in local businesses.
Area companies such as the American Bicycle Group, which manufactures Litespeed and Quintana Roo bicycles, have partnered with the race and will use the event to bring vendors to Chattanooga and promote their products.
For Volkswagen, the partnership with USA Cycling and sponsorship of the US Pro Championships is part of a larger marketing plan to emphasize its commitment to promoting a sustainable lifestyle. The Chattanooga VW plant is the only LEED-certified automotive production facility, and recently opened a solar energy farm to help provide power for the plant.
"It transcends what we do with our product, although that's a part of it," said Brian Thomas, Volkswagen of America's general manager of experiential marketing. "Alternative modes of transportation like cycling are tangible demonstrations of that philosophy of sustainable living."
"Plus, it's one of the sports that, for a brand like Volks-wagen which is a bit of a challenger brand, that we can own from the grass-roots level all they way up through national championships such as this event."
With the racing taking place on city streets, traffic control will be a major challenge during a busy holiday weekend. Littlefield said that traffic engineers have been involved with the route planning process and will continue work up until race day to ensure a smoothly run event for everyone.
"These sorts of events are challenging, but it's the sort of challenge that we like to rise to," Littlefield said.
"We will work to keep the main lines open to traffic except when bicycles are passing," he said. "That's the usual way we do these things. So it should minimize the disruption for the general public, but I think most people will want to join in the fun and watch the contest."
Littlefield said the cost to the city for putting on the event hasn't been finalized at this time, but that he expects the publicity and tourism generated will be worth the investment.
Outdoor Chattanooga executive director Philip Grymes also said that his group and others will begin working with businesses located along the routes to help them plan for how to use the US Pro Championships to boost business from the thousands of visitors that will be in town over the holiday weekend.
"We learned from the Tour de Georgia days [in 2007] when we didn't do a good job of explaining how the event interacts with every day life here.
"We don't want anyone to look at this as something that will impact their business negatively. This is going to be great for local business because you have the opportunity to hold onto a crowd for an entire day."
Jim Tanner has worked as assistant sports editor at the Times Free Press since late 2006. He started at the Times Free Press in 2001 and worked as a news copy/design editor from 2001 through 2006. In addition to working as a night and weekend editor producing local and national sports coverage for print and online readers, Jim occasionally writes local sports and outdoors stories. Jim grew up in Ringgold, Ga., and is a graduate ...