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Rural Missouri Magazine

The return of the tour
Missouri rolls out the red carpet as the international cycling race returns

by Jim McCarty

The colorful uniforms worn by the racers are a blur as they sprint to the finish line in Columbia during Stage 4 of last year’s race. Fans have good access to the racers, who speed by just inches from the cheering crowds.

It could have been the defining moment for the 2007 Tour of Missouri. Early in the second stage, as a mighty group of international cycling sensations raced out of Clinton, native son Dan Schmatz hit a wayward armadillo and crashed hard.

When the race was first announced, naysayers questioned whether a state more at home wearing camouflage than Lycra could embrace an event similar to the Tour de France. But organizers pressed on, bringing the world-class event to rural areas with an “if you build it, they will come” attitude.

Schmatz bowed out, but the tour continued. American George Hincapie became the tour’s inaugural winner. And the armadillo was upstaged as the entire world agreed — Missouri was a fine destination for a world-class cycling race.

“We do get a lot of publicity from that,” Stacy Blomberg, project manager for the Tour of Missouri, says of the ill-fated armadillo. “I hated it for Dan because it was his retirement race. But if the armadillo brings them to Missouri and reminds them of our race, we’ll take what we can get.”

Fans like this pair from Springfield turned out by the hundreds of thousands to be a part of the inaugural Tour of Missouri. A survey conducted by the University of Missouri showed more than 367,000 spectators turned out for the tour in 2007.

The international cycling community, along with many Missourians who last year didn’t know the sport existed, will be focused on Missouri as the tour returns for the second time Sept. 8-14. The tour will bring 120 world-class cyclists — including those fresh from the Tour de France and the recent Olympic games — to the state. They will compete over seven stages covering 600 miles of tough terrain to crown the eventual champion.

Most of the route goes through small towns and along rural roads, including Platte City, Deepwater, Swedeborg, St. Thomas and Defiance. The tour features some of Missouri’s finest tourist destinations, from the Pony Express Museum in St. Joseph to Branson’s music and the Lewis and Clark attractions at St. Charles.

Those who turned out for last year’s tour will see new attractions for the 2008 edition. Gone is Team Discovery, made famous by Lance Armstrong, which made its farewell tour in Missouri. In its place is up-and-coming Team Columbia, featuring Hincapie and other elite riders.

Another team coming to the event is Rock Racing, known as the “Bad Boys of Cycling” for their on- and off-bike antics. Rock Racing, sponsored by the Rock and Republic clothing line, shows up in outrageously decorated Cadillac Escalade SUVs.

“Without a doubt, this is a deeper field than last year,” said Chris Aronhalt, managing partner of event organizer Medalist Sports. “We have three teams that played major roles at the Tour de France this year.

We have all the top clubs in North America, and two top European continental teams that will surely be hungry. It is an interesting and talented mix.”

Add to that a northwest Missouri start, a nasty 12 percent climb near Waynesville, visits to the state’s three largest cities, a spin through Fort Leonard Wood to honor our nation’s armed forces, visits to wine country around St. James and Hermann and an additional day, and the 2008 Tour has organizers hoping for an even bigger event than last year.

The peloton passes one of MoDOT’s Share the Road signs as it prepares to cross the Missouri River at Jefferson City. Cycling enthusiasts and bicycle commuters alike appreciate how the Tour of Missouri raises awareness for them among motorists.

“Last year’s Tour of Missouri was the largest sporting event ever held in Missouri,” says Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, tasked by Gov. Matt Blunt with organizing the event. “We are thinking this year will be bigger and better.”

Kinder says building excitement for the tour was more difficult last year since so few Missourians were familiar with professional cycling. “They now know what to expect,” he says. “You add on another day, we can only build on the success of last year.”

And successful it was, by anyone’s standards. An economic impact study conducted by the University of Missouri showed more than 367,000 watched the tour. Of those, about 76,500 were from outside Missouri.

Those watching spent $26.2 million, the study reported. That compares favorably with the Tour of Georgia, now in its fifth year, which brought in $27 million.

“The state invested $1.7 million, and we had an economic return of $26.2 million,” Kinder says. “We averaged more affluent visitors, and they stayed longer and spent more than the average visitor. These are the people we want to return to Missouri.”

But the tour’s organizers wanted to do more than just host a race and boost tourism.

Flat tires and mechanical problems plague cyclists just like they do motorists, but motorcycles equipped with spare wheels help cyclists get back in the race with little lost time.

Organizers last year used the tour to promote healthy lifestyles for the citizens of Missouri, and that mission continues. At each host city, a Healthy Living Expo will be set up. Local hospitals and civic groups will use the tour to promote exercise and proper nutrition, two things the racers must practice.

“We certainly think the tour teaches great lessons to young people,” Kinder says. “At a time of concern over childhood obesity, what could be better than a bike race where people burn 6,000 calories a day?”

Host cities — St. Joseph, Kansas City, Clinton, Springfield, Branson, Lebanon, Rolla, St. James, Jefferson City, Hermann, St. Charles and St. Louis — are rolling out the red carpet to make the tour visit memorable.

Clinton, for example, is hosting a non-competitive bike ride Sept. 6. The Stage 2 start town is also offering a Tour of Missouri kickoff party on the downtown square and a bike rodeo where kids can be fitted for helmets.

St. Charles Mayor Patty York will challenge other area dignitaries in a tandem bike race and kids can take part in a Big Wheel race.

A German rider gets some attention after riding from Lebanon to Columbia during the 2007 Tour of Missouri.

“There’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm when you are looking to see cycling of this caliber,” says Carol Felzien, public relations/communications coordinator for St. Charles. “Get there early would be my recommendation — and stay for the duration.”

The race will be televised, and fans worldwide can tune in via a Webcast streamed live from cameras carried on motorcycles.

Coming at a time when many commuters are turning to bicycles as transportation to combat high gas prices, bike shop owners are excited about the awareness the tour will give to those sharing the road with cars.

“Having the tour come through town is a huge boost for the cycling community,” says Joe Ferguson, who recently opened Revolution Cycles in Washington, Mo., where the tour returns during Stage 6.

“It draws attention to cycling as a hobby and a sport as well as a way of life. It increases awareness and excitement for everyone whether they are a cycling enthusiast or a recreational rider. It makes everyone else say, ‘That’s cool, I’m going to ride a bike.’”

In the wake of last year’s tour, many Missouri towns have embraced cycling as a new source of tourism dollars. Hermann, for example, has a new Missouri River bridge that links visitors to the Katy Trail State Park, the nation’s longest rails-to-trails hiking and biking trail.

A rider from Mexico’s Team Tecos signs autographs during last year’s Tour of Missouri.

“I think we are using cycling as a way to carve out a niche market,” says Jim Grebing, Hermann’s tourism director. “Cyclists tend to like the types of lodging we have in Hermann and the wineries. It’s just a great place for cyclists.”

While throngs of Missourians will no doubt turn out in force for the event, the cyclists themselves are eager to return to Missouri.

“Some of the cyclists were just amazed at the hospitality,” Blomberg says. “They have raced all over the world, and they said one of the coolest things they saw was farmers going to the edge of their fields to watch the race during the Clinton to Springfield stage. We had more teams want to come than we had invitations for.”

For more information on the Tour of Missouri schedules and events, call 573-522-9594 or log on to the tour’s Web site, www.tourofmissouri.com.

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