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Cycling event draws talented riders to the Capital City

Tour LeFleur gearing up, back on national radar

JACKSON — After last year’s grassroots event, the Tour LeFleur Bicycling Championship is back on the national scene. On April 12, 2003, some of the most talented riders from throughout the U.S. will be in Jackson racing for a $10,200 purse. While that’s good news for a lot of folks in the Jackson area, as well the bicycle racing community nationwide, one man is especially thrilled.

“We’re really excited about reviving this event,” said Tim Jacobs, race director. “The metro Jackson area is the perfect setting for a first-class competition, and the cyclists really love coming here.”

It is a triumphant return for an event that was dropped for a lack of sponsorship just two years ago. The race traces its roots back to the early 1900s when Jackson hosted the Patty Peck Criterium. (A “criterium” is a bicycle race, usually approximately one mile in length, that winds through city streets.) The event was held for two consecutive years, but then it was dropped. According to Tom Martin, Tour LeFleur’s technical director, racers enjoyed the event so much that they petitioned for its return. So, in 1994, the Tour LeFleur was born as a regional one-day event, but it quickly picked up speed from there.

“It’s a challenging course,” Martin said. “Part of the course is run on bricks, which is also challenging. The way the course is set up gives the racers a great view of the new capitol as well as the old, so its very scenic. And racers like the two-way traffic — it gives them a chance to keep tabs on where certain riders are. It’s just a unique course.”

In 1998, Tour LeFleur, by then a two-day event, became a national race, and the following year VeloNews ranked the event one of the 10 best of its kind. However, all of that was topped in 2000 when Tour LeFleur was honored by hosting the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Road Cycling, as well as the National Time Trial Championship and United States Cycling Federation’s (USCF’s) National Championship Road Race for elite women.

Unfortunately, the euphoria from the 2000 event was not meant to last. The national sponsors that were eager to get in front of the racers and spectators when the race was of national importance in 2000 were gone.

Lack of sponsorship forced the cancellation of the 2001 race.

Just as the racers clamored for a return of the Patty Peck Criterium a decade before, so it went with Tour LeFleur. So in 2002, the race returned to Jackson, though it returned to its more humble regional beginnings. Due to its downgrading, the 2002 race, which was back to a one-day event, drew less than 200 bicyclists.

But Tour LeFleur Criterium is back in Jackson and part of the national racing picture again this year, as the USCF has listed it on the National Race Calendar. Thus, Jacobs and others are expecting at least double the racers that the 2002 criterium brought. (The Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau said the number of spectators the race draws is hard to gauge. Martin agreed, giving an estimate of roughly 2,000 people.)

“This is the next step in rebuilding the reputation of the Tour LeFleur, and we plan to bring the National Championships back to Jackson as soon as possible. People know the Tour LeFleur and look forward to it every year,” Jacobs said.

Martin said that he and the other organizers are thrilled with the support that has come forward from area businesses. Sponsors for the Michelob Ultra Tour LeFleur 2003 include Southern Beverage, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Pizza Hut, the Bike Rack and SouthTrust Bank. Also helping this year is Squires & Company, Netdoor (which is hosting the race’s Web site, www.tourlefleur.com) and Gil Ford Photography. The host hotel is the Edison Walthall.

The event is not all about Jackson or competition. The City of Ridgeland will hold the Ridgeland Natchez Trace Century Ride April 12 beginning at 7:30 a.m. The non-competitive ride begins in a mass start on Ridgeland’s streets before transitioning to the Natchez Trace Parkway.

The ride, which is supported by the Tour LeFleur organizers, is meant for all levels of riders. Beginners may opt for the 25-mile ride, while more seasoned and conditioned bicyclists may attempt 50 miles, 100 kilometers or the “Century” — 100 miles. Rest stops stocked with water and refreshments will be provided.

Neal McCoy, special event coordinator with the City of Ridgeland, said last year’s event drew 260 participants from five states. This year, the city is hoping to draw 300 or more.

“It’s a great, fun event, and the Natchez Trace is just a beautiful ride” McCoy said. “I think that’s why the event has been so successful, that and the value. For $30, you get a T-shirt, have a fun ride, and when it’s over enjoy music and barbecue (supplied by Corky’s).”

For more information on the Tour LeFleur, visit the race’s Web site. For more details on the Ridgeland Natchez Trace Century Ride, contact McCoy at (601) 853-2011.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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