Some of the top athletes in their sport were in St. Louis last weekend.
They weren’t wearing the birds and bats of the Cardinals, and they didn’t draw the crowds of a weekend series at Busch Stadium. But the contest known as the Tour de Grove is slowly but surely becoming a big draw in the world of professional cycling.
The atmosphere on a warm spring Saturday afternoon in the Grove has the feel of a gigantic street party. People line Manchester Avenue sipping beer, snacking on the wares of street vendors, and listening to music.
But every few minutes, their attention turns to a group of men and women doing nothing more than pedaling their bikes as fast as they can for as long as 75 minutes straight. It’s known in cycling as a criterium race, or a crit - and this particular one, the Tour de Grove, has developed quite the reputation.
Mike Weiss started the race in 2005 in the planned St. Charles County community of Winghaven.
"We put on a lot of events like grass roots to a certain level, and we always thought that this missing piece was this capstone event, like a major professional race in Missouri, or the Midwest, and we didn’t have anything," says Weiss, who owns Big Shark Bicycle and is the head honcho of cycling in the region. "The sport looks at the country nationally, and realizes that there’s definitely a bias toward the coasts, and so there’s this desire to have sort of this narrative about American racing that includes the Midwest, and so we’re that."
Weiss’s little crit got overshadowed for three years by the Tour of Missouri, which brought well-known riders like Levi Leipheimer and Christian Vande Velde to the state. After Governor Jay Nixon pulled state funding for that race in 2010 amid a political dispute, Weiss moved his criterium to the city, and started attracting some big names.
"This year, we're getting six or seven of the teams that are also racing in the Tour of California," Weiss said. "We're getting stage winners from the Tour of Missouri. We have national champions coming from Australia, Hungary, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Netherlands. The first Tour de Winghaven, we had probably 90 competitors in our professional/Category 1 race, of which 10 were legitimate professional."
Josh Rodgers loves the changes. An aerospace engineer in "the real world," Rodgers is also a Category 4 amateur road racer (Category 1 is the top) and the vice president of Momentum Racing, a local team.
"When we see the pros come out here, we learn a lot from them because they really don’t break around the turns a lot, they’re really smooth, they save energy. It’s just kind of an uplifting thing for us as a team," he said.
Amateurs move up in the ranks by finishing in the top 10 a certain number of times. The Tour de Grove's growing popularity makes that a harder feat to accomplish, but Rodgers wouldn't trade it for the days of smaller fields.
"They get kind of boring because you kind of know everybody, and you know the same guy is always going to win," he said. "The more people that you don’t know the more fun it is for me anyway because I don’t know what’s going to happen out there."
This is the third year that riders from a developmental team sponsored by Gateway Harley Davidson have competed in the Tour de Grove. Team director Jim Schneider – a former racer himself – says the quality has improved every time. That increases the likelihood of top teams attending - good news for Schneider’s young guns.
"If I’m riding for a domestic pro team, and I keep running into this guy, and he always seem to be in the mix of the race and always seems to be placing well, eventually I’m going to go 'hmm. I’ve got an open spot on my team; this guy might be a good person to fill it,'" Schneider said.
Schneider says it's unlikely that a criterium race would attract well-known cyclists like Leipheimer or Vande Velde. Cyclists that ride the major European tours have "grown out" of crits, he says - it's a natural progression that most cyclists make. But high-quality crits do give fans the chance to see cycling's next big thing.
"Kevin Livingston is a local rider who cut his teeth in criteriums in St. Louis and throughout the Midwest and things like that," said Schneider, who coached Livingston. "He was the guy who led Lance up the mountains the first two years he won the Tour." (Lance as in Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner.)
Tour de Grove race director Mike Weiss says he’ll continue to build the event gradually. It’s already expanded to a full weekend of racing, and he’d like to get all three days on the national criteria calendars. That would draw even more pro teams.
Most importantly, he says, he’ll keep finding ways for the races to give neighborhoods in transition a way to show people their better sides.