BELMONT Instead of a skin-tight bicyclists outfit, Belmont City Council member Bill Toole sports a coat and tie when he pedals around town.
Hes making a point: Cycling is cool, no matter how you dress.
On the way to council meetings, wind in his face, tie flapping, he stops and talks to strangers.
For Toole, a Charlotte lawyer, bicycling is a passion. And whether its the casual kind that he does or the serious, long-distance variety, he wants to make small-town Belmont a cycling destination.
I see it as another way to create a sense of community that is unique, said Toole, 54. It harkens back to people knowing each other, stopping to talk, listen and learn the news of families in the community.
On any given day, especially on weekends, bicycles can be spotted in and around Belmont in ones or twos or groups of 50 or more. They zip down city streets and onto outlying roads, sprinting down the South Point peninsula or up the winding Cramer Mountain Road. They come from Gaston County and from surrounding areas like Mecklenburg County and York County, S.C.
The towns efforts to become a destination include developing a bicycling master plan (a public hearing will be held Wednesday), developing a mountain bike park, and hosting a USA CRITS Speed Week race in the spring.
Toole is one of those who helped Belmont land the May 4 USA CRITS race. The tour with professional cyclists starts in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Plains, Ga. Other host cities include Athens, Ga., and Spartanburg and Beaufort, S.C.
When the race reaches Belmont, competitors in separate events for men and women will clock speeds of more than 30 miles per hour as they streak around a half-mile or so loop through downtown.
Its a great spectator event, said Belmont Police Cpl. Doug Huffstetler, 56, whos been cycling for 30 years. Its a very fast pace, and you see laps frequently. Its very exciting.
A criterium is a short course typically in an urban setting with lots of tight turns. In April, the ninth annual Presbyterian Invitational Criterium in Charlotte brought in cyclists from as far away as Australia.
Thousands of fans are expected at the Belmont races, which will take place near the end of the all-day GaribaldiFest, a city-sponsored celebration that also attracts thousands.
Huffstetler, the citys bicycle patrol officer, said the races will help establish our credibility in the biking world.
Biking master plan
Over the years, amateur bike events have spun through Belmont including races organized by H.A. Humpy Wheeler, a local boy who went on to become a legendary NASCAR promoter and longtime president of the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
In his 2010 memoir Growing Up in NASCAR, Wheeler wrote that he was 13 when he promoted his first event: the Great Belmont Bicycle Race of 1951. It was held at Belmont Abbey College football field, but weekly races that followed were held at Belmonts community center.
The riders would smash and bash and crash, and every once in a while thered be a fight, Wheeler wrote. But it was a lot of fun.
In recent years, Belmont has promoted healthy lifestyles with pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, jogging and cycling.
In 1991, Belmont became the first city in North Carolina to adopt New Urbanism or neotraditional zoning to manage growth and development. The neotraditional style features neighborhoods with narrow streets, a central park, shops, schools and businesses within an easy walk.
Belmonts revitalized downtown with shops and restaurants became a regional attraction.
In 2008, the city got a $300,000 grant from the N.C. Department of Transportation for sidewalk improvements and the creation of the citys first designated bike lanes.
The lanes on Belmonts Central Avenue painted stripes on the pavement are a visual separation between bicycles and motor vehicles, making it safer for both.
The grant money also built sidewalks so students could walk to Belmont Middle and Central Elementary schools. Another grant provided educational programs on street- and school-crossing safety.
The nonprofit Walkable and Livable Communities Institute recognized the citys efforts at encouraging walking.
Meanwhile, the city recently got another state grant to create a bicycling master plan. Assistant City Manager Adrian Miller said the plan will look at where more bike lanes are needed, along with parking issues, educational programs for cyclists and drivers, and bike safety programs.
A public hearing on the plan will be 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday on the Kimbrell campus of Gaston College in Belmont.
Also, the city is developing a mountain bike park about five blocks off Main Street.
Im excited about establishing an identity as a bike-friendly city, said Belmont Mayor Richard Boyce, who bicycles with his wife. It will make us a more neighbor-friendly place.
Steve Pepitone, owner of South Main Cycles and member of the local criterium committee, feels Belmont is headed in the right direction.
A former Charlotte resident and 20-year employee of Microsoft, he moved to Belmont 10 years ago. Hes been a key player in the criterium project along with local cyclists and city officials. Theyve connected with Thad Fisher with the Presbyterian Criterium and Speed Week officials.
In August, the Belmont City Council approved the bicycle race. The Downtown Merchants Association is a sponsor and is helping find other sponsors.
Its a huge event, Pepitone said, that will be great for the community and great for business.
Downtown Belmont with its reinvigorated retro look and central park is a home base for cyclists, who respond to its charm and welcoming feel.
Were on the fringe of a metropolitan area, Pepitone said. Theres a little less traffic. And we have quality, well-surfaced roads.
We also have great elevations: Cramer Mountain, Spencer Mountain, Crowders Mountain. Weve got some fabulous rides.
As Belmont prepares for the race, Pepitone said, its just one part of a greater plan to make the city a destination for cyclists of all ages and abilities.