World class cycling, right here

Ron Wilson

You don’t need to travel to Beijing this summer to witness world-class cycling. In fact, you don't have to go far at all.

Starting this Friday, Rochester and the Finger Lakes will host three days of world-champion and Olympic cyclists competing in an individual time trial, the Rochester Twilight Criterium and the Rochester Road Race.

All three events combine to create The 2008 Rochester Omnium — part of the most prestigious race schedule in the world, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Pro Tour.

It’s on the same schedule as the Tour de France.

“It definitely is a world-class event,” said race organizer and Director Scott Page, owner of Full Moon Vista bicycle shop in Rochester. “There are over 4,000 competitive cyclists in the U.S. Only 11 of them are at this level. There is no race at a higher level in the U.S. Usually you would think that a road race weekend like this would be held in Los Angeles or  New York City. To have this event in Rochester is huge.”

An Omnium is a cycling event held over multiple days involving different styles of racing —hence, the event's new name. Criterium defines a looped course that is between 1 and 3 kilometers long.

It was the Saturn of Rochester Twilight Criterium that first brought elite professional bicycle racing to Rochester in 2004. Riders pedal speeding loops around downtown — often neck and neck, with the ever-present danger of crashes — at night. The short-course had been so successful that Page has expanded it for 2008.

“With the success of last year’s race, a three-day race was a natural progression,” said Page.

According to VisitRochester, the Rochester tourism agency, more than 35,000 spectators lined the streets to see the Criterium last year. An estimated 85,000 are expected to turn out over the three-day event this year.

“I like the technically advanced and fast course and of course the amount of the people that come out and support the race,” said Don Staffo, 37, of Farmington, a member of the J.W. Dundees Ale and Lager team. “Twenty-five to thirty-thousand people cheering can be pretty motivational.”

This will be Staffo’s fifth Criterium. He’s competing in the masters 3-4 division, and raced two years in the pro category. There are also divisions for masters and amateurs.

Not a biker? No problem. All three days of cycling are family-oriented with children’s activities, food and drink, live music and a professional bicycle stunt performance on Saturday night. And, it's free.

At a time when it costs more to travel (and to do most anything) and people are vacationing closer to home, you don't have to go far to be part of a world-class cycling event. It's right in our backyards.

International athletes and teams from around the world are expected to saddle up for the Aug. 8 weekend, including Olympians and world and national champions from Argentina, Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Ireland, England, Russia, Serbia and Uruguay.

Events begin with the Rochester Time Trial on Friday. It’s a 3.9-mile sprint, with racers taking off from the Port of Rochester on Lake Ontario. A major portion of the route runs up and down Lake Avenue and the Lake Ontario Parkway.

On Saturday, Twilight Criterium racers streak past spectators, who are just a few feet from the action.

The Rochester Road Race is on Sunday. Cyclists cover 110 miles, starting in Honeoye and finishing on Rochester's south side.

“We are expecting 120 men’s pro racers,” Page said. “We actually already have a sold out field. It’s full. You have to be on a team to participate and each team usually has four to six guys. So drafting and team order— racing tactics — will be in full force.”

Organizing the race is a natural for Page, 44, who has been long been involved in cycling. He was a manufacturer’s representative in the industry for quite some time, moving on to manage a bike shop for a few years. Now he runs his own shop on St. Paul Boulevard and figures he has put in as many as 60 hours a week getting the Ominum off the ground this year.

“I’ve always done all different kinds of cycle racing growing up in Rochester, graduating from Hilton High School," he said. “I started the 2004 Criterium four years ago and I wanted to get into something bigger and that’s why I went to this year’s three-day event.”

There are 440 UCI International road racing events worldwide scheduled for 2008, but our local one is in exclusive company. Just 13 are in the United States.

“It doesn’t get any better than this, yet each year the event gets bigger and bigger,” said Staffo. “It’s all about the sport of cycling growing bigger and bigger each year.”

It also has Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy’s seal of approval: Duffy and the city of Rochester are the title sponsor of the 2008 Rochester Omnium.

So, who is the cyclist and team to beat? According to Page, that is Hilton Clark from Team Australia.

“Clark has won the Criterium event the past two years and he tells me he his gunning to come back and three-peat,” he said.

Ron Wilson can be reached at (585) 394-0770, ext. 271, or rwilson@messengerpostmedia.com