Mark Wiedmer: Maybe cycling races can be a city identity

Mark Wiedmer: Maybe cycling races can be a city identity

May 28th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Phillip Gaimon leans on the handlebars of his bicycle after leading the pack but falling behind in the last leg of the Men's USA Cycling Professional Road National Championships.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

Women winners Jade Wilcoxson, center, first, Lauren Hall, left, second, and Alison Powers, right, third, spray beer after the USA Cycling Professional Road National Championships.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

Barbecue.

Not a Rock City birdhouse. Not a fish Christmas ornament from the Tennessee Aquarium. Not even a MoonPie coffee mug.

Jade Wilcoxson wanted none of those things to help her remember Chattanooga after winning the USA Cycling women's road race national championship Monday.

"I want to go somewhere and eat something Southern," said the 35-year-old Oregon native. "I want some barbecue."

Phillip Gaimon -- who won the "most courageous" jersey, despite not holding onto the men's lead in the final lap -- also was thinking barbecue late Monday afternoon.

"And I think my team (Bissell Cycling) will go wherever I want to go after today," said the 27-year-old Gaimon, who lives in Athens, Ga.

There's nothing wrong with being known for our barbecue and Southern hospitality, which apparently was abundantly on display for our cycling visitors throughout the Memorial Day holiday.

Throw in the Aquarium, Lookout Mountain, the Tennessee River, Little Debbies, MoonPies and race sponsor Volkswagen, and it all adds up to a a big chunk of who we are.

But did we deliver enough of all those things -- especially our hospitality -- to make USA Cycling want to bring its national championships back here beyond the next two springs, as guaranteed us in the current three-year contract.

Can we hope to feel good enough about our inaugural run to have a realistic hope of keeping this thing for at least seven years -- as Greenville, S.C., did -- if not longer?

Having painfully watched the SEC women's basketball tournament, NCAA FCS title game and Nationwide golf tour all drop us from their rotations, is this something we can finally keep?

"Your city's put on an amazing show," said Rachel Heal, who runs Optum Pro Cycling, which helps sponsor Wilcoxson.

Added Wilcoxson before heading off to sample our barbecue for the first time all week: "People were so nice to us. They gave us plenty of room on the road when we were training. It felt like we were really wanted here."

It certainly felt that way Monday as large, cheering crowds took over the race route atop Lookout Mountain, then gathered four and five deep along much of Broad Street to support the racers down the stretch.

Embracing a cycling tradition, the crowd rang enough cowbells near the finish line to make you think you were at a Mississippi State football game.

Nor did it hurt downtown businesses that USA Cycling staged the men's and women's championships on the same day for the first time ever, which meant the downtown crowds began gathering around 10 in the morning and remained past 6 p.m.

"Definitely one of the best Memorial Days we've ever had," said Pickle Barrel manager Ben Bowers, whose pub is less than 100 yards from the finish line.

"It was packed all afternoon. People were lining the rails upstairs. It was just great. I hope it keeps coming back."

If it can produce more comeback stories such as Gaimon, it should. When a wicked crash in California's San Dimas Stage Race on March 23 left him planted face first on the asphalt, the 148-pound rider had to be airlifted to USC Medical Center.

"I think the helicopter ride was $4,000," Gaimon said. "Expensive wreck."

Making matters more painful, he was wearing the leader's jersey from the previous day's race when he wiped out.

But Gaimon isn't your average cyclist. He didn't pick up the sport until 2004, when, according to the biography on his own website (www.philthethrill.net), "I retired from laziness and computer games and started riding a bike to lose weight."

Though his pencil-thin frame would seem to dispute the need for that, there is no arguing Gaimon's passion for his sport or his determination to compete with integrity. He even has a tattoo of a bar of soap with the word "Clean" on it inked into his right bicep to prove he'll never dope to win.

It doesn't necessarily make him a better story than the winner, 39-year-old "Fast Freddie" Rodriguez, who won his fourth USA Cycling national title in a thrilling finish.

It does give us another good story to follow over the next 12 months as we await the return of our town's newest sporting event.

On his website, Gaimon writes of his profession, "... I realize that to most people I'm still a dude with shaved legs and brightly colored tights who should really get the hell out of the road."

Not here, Phil the Thrill. From this past weekend forward, we want you and your sport to become as much a part of our Memorial Day weekends as our barbecue.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.