When Belmont hosts its first pro-level criterium cycling race on May 4, organizers say they hope it’ll be the start of a long legacy.
Part of the prestigious USA Crits Speed Week series, The Belmont Criterium is expected to draw nearly 5,000 people. Adrian Miller, assistant city manager for community services, said the men’s and women’s afternoon races are part of the biggest one-day event in Belmont’s history.
“It’s really like we’re putting on three events at once,” he said, noting the criterium is sandwiched between the 28th annual GaribaldiFest in the morning and the kickoff concert for the summer’s Friday Night Live series that night.
Belmont’s South Main Cycles owner Steve Pepitone said criterium racing isn’t just for avid cycling enthusiasts. “The notion of going to a bike race doesn’t seem as exciting as going to a NASCAR race. But the reality is, NASCAR fans can have as much fun at a bike race as they would at the race track.”
Criterium racing typically consists of lots of laps on a small circuit at high speeds. Belmont’s downtown course will be six-tenths of a mile with lots of corners and maximum speeds expected at 40 mph, said race director Thad Fischer.
Fischer said criterium racing is more spectator-friendly than other types because crowds can see “a lot of action up close,” due to their proximity to the closed course.
Belmont is the only North Carolina town on the Speed Week circuit, which consists of eight races in 10 days across three states, including Georgia and South Carolina. Fischer said that in Belmont 125 men will race 70 laps – or 40 miles – and 60 women will race 35 laps, or 23 miles.
“Their skill levels are pretty high. The average speeds are 25-27 mph, which is pretty quick on a course like this,” Fischer said.
“You see a pretty big pack (of racers) moving around at high speeds, a few people trying to escape. Sometimes they’re successful, sometimes it’s a big sprint for the finish.”
Pro-level participants include Olympic hopefuls from around the U.S., as well as countries like Australia, Russia, Great Britain and Canada, Fischer said.
“That’s the beauty of Belmont connecting with an existing series. … It’s our job to deliver a national-caliber event.”
Together with city officials, Pepitone said they’ve been working to get a pro-level criterium race since early spring 2012. He called it dumb luck that the town was able to secure the Saturday race slot.
“If it was one of the weekday affairs, it would have been pretty tough in terms of getting spectators out. Our ability to land a Saturday spot was critical,” Pepitone said.
“We set our sights high. We knew we wouldn’t pull the largest cash purse in the nation, but we wanted to shoot for a pro-level event rather than amateur,” he said, noting there’s $125,000 in prize money at stake over the course of Speed Week.
Fischer has more than a decade of experience with cycling races – including 10 years as the race director for Charlotte’s Presbyterian Hospital Invitational Criterium, which annually brings close to 35,000 people uptown – and said he’s been impressed with how engaged the entire Belmont community has been in recruiting the race.
“It’s the perfect venue for an afternoon criterium,” he said. “Belmont put a proposal together. … The city and cycling community, they all seem to be embracing it.”
Miller said it’s hard to estimate the economic impact the race will have, since it’s part of a larger day of activities. But more than two dozen hotel rooms have been booked and other local businesses have gotten involved with everything from catering to criterium-related merchandise.
Pepitone said Athens, Ga., and other towns on the Speed Week circuit have been hosting the race for decades, a tradition he believes Belmont will fit into easily.
“Some of the other places on Speed Week are 30 years in making. It would be cool to have a similar legacy for Belmont,” he said.
“We’ve done everything to make this a success and the expectation is this is the first annual. We’ll continue to do this as many years as we can.”
Trenda: 704-358-5089; Twitter: @htrenda
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