The focus of American cycling returns to Chattanooga starting today as the city welcomes the Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial National Championships back in the second year of a three-year contract to host the event.
More than 200 of the nation's best men and women cyclists will compete in today's time trials at the Volkswagen plant and Monday's road race, which will begin and end downtown and take riders up Lookout Mountain, along the North Shore and through the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke highlighted recent good economic news and national publicity the city has received, and said events such as the USA Cycling pro championships are a big part of what makes this city so attractive to visitors and potential employers.
"The eyes of the world are on Chattanooga," he said. "The main reason for that is because we have world-class events right here on a regular basis, and there certainly are none we are more proud of than this weekend's national championships."
As well as the elite cyclists, some of the nation's top paracyclists are in town to compete in a time trial today and in Monday's handcycling criterium national championships. These inspiring athletes, some of whom are wounded military veterans, will be competing for points toward qualifying for the 2016 Paralympic Games.
On Friday afternoon, last year's champions joined city leaders and officials from Volkswagen and USA Cycling to kick off the weekend and highlight what's at stake for the athletes.
"It's great to be back in Chattanooga for a second year," said Rob Borland, chief marketing officer for USA Cycling. "We had fantastic event last year.
"What the riders will be doing here this weekend is battling it out for the Stars and Stripes jersey. This is a really prestigious national championship jersey that separates them from their peers. ... They get to wear this jersey for the next year as they compete both in the United States and around the world, so it's very special."
The courses are mostly the same as last year, except for the addition of a short, steep climb up Kent Street in North Chattanooga to Monday's road race. Fans will have more viewing options, with big-screen viewing areas added on Frazier Avenue and atop Lookout Mountain as well as at the start-finish area at the intersection of M.L. King Boulevard and Market Street.
New for 2014, the men's and women's road race winners will be given a one-year loan of a 2015 Volkswagen GTI, and VW's newest offering was on display at Friday's news conference at Miller Plaza.
Last year's women's road race champion, Jade Wilcoxson, who rides for Team Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies, said she's happy to be back to defend her title in Chattanooga and is impressed with the emphasis placed on active living in the area.
"Chattanooga really is an awesome city," she said. "At Optum, we really push our platform of human-powered health wherever we go. We try to encourage regular people to get out and be active and be proactive about their health.
"Chattanooga seems to be living that lifestyle."
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger encouraged spectators at today's time trial to also visit the mountain biking and recreation area at Enterprise South adjoining the Volkswagen plant, and he also said how important USA Cycling is to getting the word out about this area.
"We thank you for bringing your event here to help us showcase all the amenities that make Chattanooga and Hamilton County a site that people want to come back and visit time and time again," he said. "We're so privileged to be able to host this event."
Tom Zirbel will attempt to defend his 2013 men's time trial championship today, and he said that his wife and new baby are here as well and enjoy spending time enjoying the city.
"I like this area," he said. "People are so friendly, and it's just a beautiful area with the mountains and the river and a nice community. It just has a nice vibe to it."
Contact Jim Tanner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6478. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JFTanner.