Pedersen On Sports

This weekend's downtown bike race features high speeds, competition and yes, even some crashes

I like my downtowns vibrant, with a diversity that is as much about the people as it is the entertainment choices.

To have that diversity of options requires more than just an ever-growing stable of trendy bars and restaurants; it also means holding events that run the gamut of a community's interests.

Translation: a good downtown needs sporting events.

You see this in Phoenix, where the Diamondbacks, Suns, Mercury and Rattlers play their games downtown, providing a year-round dose of sports to draw people to the center of the city and spend money at nearby food and drink establishments before and after the events.

This could have been easily accomplished in Tucson a long time ago had the powers that be made the smart choice to put a stadium downtown. Admit it, a nice baseball diamond would look so much better where the federal court building is now, but that just couldn't get done.

So that means we're mostly stuck with whatever sports offerings the Tucson Convention Center can supply, whether it be club ice hockey or the occasional demolition derby or tractor pull.

Which makes this weekend's Old Pueblo Grand Prix that much more of an enticing sports-viewing opportunity: part high-level athletic competition, part chance to wander the streets and soak in the atmosphere of people actually enjoying downtown beyond the eateries and watering holes.

The third annual event is a series of cycling races that will take over a section of the downtown grid—amazingly, away from all of the streetcar construction — and turn it into an urban velodrome, with riders hitting speeds of up to 35 mph. It's known as criterium racing, and a 0.6-mile course has been carved out along Stone and Sixth avenues from Jackson Street to 14th Street to form a trapezoid of whiz-past-your-face action.

"It makes it much more spectator-friendly because there's no more than a minute that action doesn't pass you," race organizer Kurt Rosenquist said of the closed-course format criterium racing is known for. "It's like NASCAR."

And, just maybe like NASCAR, fans might see the kind of epic crashes that bring most people to a road race, regardless of the vehicles involved.

"There are definitely a lot more crashes in this style of racing," Rosenquist said. "It's why spectators tend to congregate on the corners. But there's also a lot of amazing maneuvering to avoid crashes. The pro racers are obviously good at what they do."

Rosenquist and his wife and business partner, Susan Frank, are hoping 10,000 to 15,000 people will catch at least a glimpse of one of the races, which begin at 5:20 p.m. Saturday, March 9, with a kids' race and a community bike parade before the women's and men's pro races go off at 6:30 and 8 p.m., respectively.

The model for the Old Pueblo Grand Prix is a longtime urban race that Rosenquist helped get started nearly 30 years ago in Philadelphia. (Ironically, organizers of the Philadelphia International Cycling Championship have announced that they won't hold the race this year but hope to have it back in 2014.)

About 10,000 spectators watched all or part of the previous two Old Pueblo Grand Prix renditions, the first of which was mostly a regional race drawing cyclists from Arizona, California, New Mexico and northern Mexico.

Last year's race got more popular from a competitor's standpoint after becoming part of the USACrits pro-level racing schedule. The 2013 race serves as the kickoff event for that circuit as well as for the National Criterium Calendar schedule.

"We're now on the second tier of this style of racing," Rosenquist said. "Each year we try to bring it up another level. Every year it grows."

Rosenquist said he might try to get tier-one status for future races or expand the Old Pueblo Grand Prix into a multistage event.

For now, though, he's just hoping to keep it interesting enough to blend in with the slowly increasing downtown nightlife. Not a bad plan, considering he and Frank are co-owners of downtown businesses O2 Modern Fitness and Fitworks Cycling. To help draw people already downtown on Saturday, a two-story-high video board will stream the event live so people checking out the accompanying vendor village expo won't miss the action. The Grand Prix will be held concurrently with downtown entertainment staple 2nd Saturdays.

"Having (entertainment) diversity ... just makes downtown seem more vibrant," Rosenquist said. "More variety attracts more people. Right now, the emphasis seems to be on restaurants."

The long-term goal would be to meld the Grand Prix with other events, possibly weaving the racecourse through areas where 2nd Saturdays is operating, to make everything more compact.

"We'll try to go by the most amount of downtown businesses with the least amount of streetcar impact," Rosenquist said, noting the current course is "not as quite an urban environment as in the first year, when it went by 17 bars and restaurants."

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