Wiedmer: Tough to say goodbye to cycling event

Wiedmer: Tough to say goodbye to cycling event

May 26th, 2015 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Gallery: Men's USA Cycling Pro Road & Time Trial National Championships

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Gallery: Women's USA Cycling Pro Road & Time Trial National Championships

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Maybe it was all my 8-year-old daughter Ella Beth's fault, this soggy Monday evening conclusion to USA Cycling's national championship road race for its professional men.

She's the one who insisted on wearing her "100 Percent Chance of Rain" T-shirt, which was actually the title of a recent church play she performed in. And, boy, did it rain during the race's final 75 minutes, though not nearly enough to dampen the enthusiasm of both the riders and the fans, who thickly lined streets from the North Shore to Lookout Mountain to cheer our nation's best cyclists.

Or as bronze medalist Kiel Reijnen noted, his finish all the more amazing given the flat tire that his UnitedHealthCare team had to change on the next-to-last lap: "When the crowd's cheering you, you know it. It gives you energy you can't get on your own."

Then again, perhaps my 10-year-old daughter Julia Caroline and her friends can take the blame if it's proven 100 percent true that USA Cycling is moving its premier event elsewhere next year. After all, they're the ones who picked up all those semi-valuable water bottles the racers discarded on Lookout, then decided to keep them as souvenirs rather than attempting to return them to the cyclists.

Maybe the next city or town to host this event will demand that its citizens return such items to their rightful owners, given that such bottles are surely worth more than the sweatbands and headbands most pro athletes toss to the crowd.

But if this really was the last pro cycling hurrah for our Scenic City, it went out with a bang, regardless of the weather or the impish water-bottle thieves. It went out the way we expect events here to be conducted, with class and style and Southern hospitality as plentiful as those rain drops.

"One great memory I will take away from the trip to Chattanooga was the pre-race tech meeting, where the athletes were treated to a reception," noted Jill Walsh, who won the T2 class for both the paracycling time trial and road race. "We sat at a table with some of the sponsors of the event, and I kept thinking to myself, 'This is true Southern hospitality.'

"They treated me great and left me with a super impression of Chattanooga. On my ride home, my husband and I were already planning things to do on our next trip to the city."

Wrote fellow para-athlete Jamie Whitmore -- who won her division's time trial and road race, which qualified her for the world championship team that will travel to Switzerland in July -- in a Monday email: "From the moment I walked off the plane until the morning I left, everyone was incredibly friendly and helpful. In all my travels I have never had so many people on a daily basis say hi and ask how my day was going. ... A huge shout out to Volkswagen for putting on such a great race. ... It was neat to have the Para-cycling Nationals coincide with the (pro) race."

Para-athlete Beth Deloria didn't compete this weekend, but she was in town to promote awareness for mobility-impaired athletes, especially those suffering from foot drop.

"(When we finally had free time) to explore downtown Chattanooga, we realized why it's called the Scenic City," she responded by email. "Both my husband and I left the city knowing that we want to come back and stay a few days when we don't have to work most of the time while there. In our minds, Chattanooga is a destination city for sure."

Maybe this sways those awarding next year's USA Cycling national championships and maybe it doesn't, but the memories for those who crowded the race route -- especially the North Shore's Kent Street climb and Lookout Mountain -- deserve extra recognition.

It started with those who wrote inspirational messages in colorful chalk all the way to the top of the sinisterly steep Kent Street. Ten-year-old Mary Alice Lane, who raised more than $200 for cystic fibrosis -- which she suffers from -- while manning a lemonade stand with 12-year-old friend Tressie Chandler, also deserves mention.

As do Owen Saunders and his Tiki Loo Band, which cranked out some wonderful Bluegrass, country and Southern rock at the American Dudes Bikin' Party atop Lookout.

In fact, whether it's a positive or not, the lasting memory of the Lookout Mountain course from last year and Monday may be Aaron Maynard dressed as the American Dudes logo -- complete with blue jean cutoff shorts, a sleeveless white T-shirt and a mullet wig Billy Ray Cyrus would envy -- running 50 yards or so beside the leader at the apex of each of the cyclists' four trips up the mountain.

"I had at least 50 people take selfies with me," beamed Maynard, who also wore sunglasses that featured lenses framed by miniature red, white and blue guitars (Sir Elton John, eat your heart out!).

Said Reijnen with a slight grin: "We don't notice much -- you better stay focused on the course -- but that guy's tough to miss."

If our three-year run with USA Cycling's signature event is done, a good portion of our city certainly will miss it. Cycling is an outdoor sport, and with the Scenic City having reached the semifinals of Outside Magazine's "Best Town Ever" contest this past weekend after winning the contest in 2011, holding onto the cycling national championship could only enhance our outdoors reputation.

"We're definitely going to miss it if it's gone," Reijnen said. "(Chattanooga) has done an amazing job the last three years. It's been awesome."

Regrettably, there seems to be a 100 percent chance that the key word in that quote is "been." As in, past tense. As in, all those American cycling dudes leaving only their water bottles behind as they move out and move on.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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