ALTURAS and WINTER HAVEN, Fla—For six years the two-day Chain of Like Cycling Classic bicycle races has received nothing but the best of Florida’s winter weather. Seven proved not to be a lucky number meteorologically.
Saturday started overcast and got worse, finally dumping hard rain driven by a cold wind on riders on the 15-mile road circuit in Alturas.
The riders were game; they pressed on despite limited visibility and dangerously deeps water flowing over the tarmac. Eventually the organizers had to cancel the part of one race and scrap the entire time trial; conditions were simply too unsafe.
Despite the soaking they got Saturday, the riders returned Sunday for the Criterium races around downtown Winter Haven Happily good weather prevailed; the thought of packs of riders slithering around soaking-wet corners at thirty miles an hour edges towards the unpleasant side of “exciting.”
Nature chose to cooperate; making up for Saturday with a truly gorgeous day, warm enough to be called the first day of spring. Riders made the most of the chance, racing like maniacs through the narrow city streets and slicing through corners leaning halfway to the ground.
One rider pushed so hard through Turn Six he couldn’t make the corner, and went rocketing onto the sidewalk Undaunted, he kept accelerating while weaving past light poles and plants, to rejoin the race a few block on having hardly lost a position.
Even though only some of the riders are racing for prize money, all seem to share this all-out, in-the-moment mindset, which is what creates so much excitement for spectators.
Seeing a pack of cyclists whip past as speeds which would get cars ticketed, feeling the wind from their passage pull at your clothing, watching them shoulder-to-shoulder heeled over at 45 degrees as the corner … as one viewer put it, it’s like watching hockey: it looks pretty cool on television, but when it is happening literally two feet away from you, the visceral impact is shocking. Stand on a corner and feel the peloton roar by, and you will be hooked for life.
Watching is a wallet-friendly pass-time. The races are free to all. Food and beverages are available on-site, or fans can bring their own. Be warned, though if you come once, you will want o come back every year.
Racing for All the Right Reasons
Since 2009 Cycling Classics Inc has focused on three criteria: Charity, Competitors, Community—when staging its events.
Formed as a non-profit by a group of friends in 2008, Cycling Classics started with the idea that bicycling was great for the riders, and bike racing should be great for the spectators, for businesses around the race track and for other sponsors, and most of all, should not be done just for personal profit.
For this reason Cycling Classics decided from the outset that every penny made would be donated to the Humane Society of Polk County (HSPC.) The Polk Humane Society got their attention because it is the area’s only No-Kill shelter; pets rescued by or dropped off at HSPC are never put to sleep. They are put up for adoption of housed on-site—a laborious and expensive but far more humane alternative.
Saving Pets, Saving Money
So far Cycling Classics has raised about $50,000 for the Humane Society. Each year seems to be better than the last, despite the economic downturn which hit hard in Central Florida not long after the corporation formed. 2015 will continue that trend: despite losing all the entry fees from the cancelled time trial, Cycling Classics will still make a near-record donation to the Humane Society this year.
(They might meet the record yet—Tim Molyneaux from TopView Sports is asking riders to directly donate their TT entry fee to support the pets So far about two-thirds have responded “Yes.”)
The Humane Society makes good use of that money It is near to opening a brand-new facility in Winter Haven, where it will be able to house and care for a much larger number of animals with much greater efficiency in terms of both staff and energy consumption.
HSPC actually saves taxpayers $600,000 annually through its public/private partnership with Polk County, in part by taking care of 3600 pets which would otherwise need to be handled (and probably put down) by Polk County Animal Control.
HSPC also provides pet food to 14000 low-income pet owners annually, to make sure that those families can afford the joy of owning a pet HSPC also spays and neuters 2200 pets each year, and best of all, finds safe, permanent homes for 1300 pets each year.
For the Riders as Well
Cycling Classics started among a group of cyclists—it is about Community and Charity, but it is For cyclists.
For this reason the Chain of Lakes Cycling Classic is acknowledged as one of the best and best-run events of the season Workers from TopView Sports, which provides timing and scoring for the event, beg for a chance to work these races, because they are so well organized.
As riders, the folks at Cycling Classics know what riders want and need, for safety, for comfort, and for an exciting event. These races might not offer the biggest purses (more money for the pets) but still riders flock from around the Southeast to participate because they know they will be taken care of.
Cycling Classics doesn’t just stage these events; Cycling Classics Director Dan Rooney also rides in the time trial. After spending a week preparing and working non-stop from before dawn until late afternoon, he hands off his duties to Co-Director and good friend Walter Newton, and puts on his helmet and spandex.
Even at age 62, Rooney is a formidable competitor: in 2014 he finished third in the time trial, beaten only by a pair of 30-year-old pros, one a Special Forces soldier. To add to the challenge, Rooney road a regular bicycle, while his competitors were on specialty time-trial bikes.
This emphasizes how bad conditions must have been for Rooney to make the call to cancel the time trial this year.
Another indication of how important the riders are to Cycling Classics is the route of the Criterium. Most Crit courses are simple squares, with four left- or right turns. Bill Cundiff, who dreamed up the race and brought the idea to his friends, proposed several different courses before coming up with the current route, a highly technical eight-corner route which challenged riders’ bike-handling and acceleration abilities.
The second corner is a sharp left preceded and followed by rights, making riders lay their bikes over in each direction in a very short distance, and Turn Six, a tight left-hander, follows a long straight Riders approach at 35 mph to find the road narrows by half in the middle of the corner.
Competitors love the course because it is challenging, while a normal Crit course can be almost boring.
It Works Because of Help From Friends
Both Saturday and Sunday, Dan Rooney and Walter Newton are on the scene and involved in every part of the event, making sure things run smoothly. (Newton travels from out-of-state just to help with the event.)
Unfortunately, Rooney is the only one of the original five members of Cycling Classics still alive and active Health issues have claimed a few—most recently, original member and driving force Bill Cundiff, who passed on in 2014. He will long be remembered for the great event he created.
While age, illness and career priorities have left Rooney alone at the helm of Cycling Classics, he gets plenty help from a host of volunteers organized by HSPC president (and Cycling Classics co-director) Suzie Moraco and Executive Director Lisa Baker. This pair has been part of the event since the start; their assistance has been and remains invaluable. (Anyone interested in helping out can contact HSPC at 863 324-5227.)
The city of Winter Haven has been an important part of the event from the beginning, setting up comes and barricades around the downtown course, and cleaning the roads of glass and gravel City commissioners are often among the crowd; this year Community Services Director Mike Stavres and Special Events & Marketing Coordinator Arin Vaughan attended.
Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce president Katie Worthington, assisted by Suzie and Sal Moraco, was indispensable, helping with everything from general organizing to caring for sponsors David West of Richard’s Coffee Shop made sandwiches for the downtown volunteers, and didn’t complain about having a bike race limiting access to his shop on Sunday morning.
Anita Strang, Executive Director Main Street Winter Haven, Inc. joined Cycling Classics’ committee to help with organizing Main Street Winter Haven is a non-profit tasked with revitalizing the beautiful downtown business district where the race is run, and getting people to visit the park and surrounding businesses help both the race and the merchants—everyone comes out ahead, the way Cycling Classics likes it.
Finally, Central Florida Polk County Sports Marketing (Mark Jackson, John Oney, Mark Zimmerman, Megan Sill and others) were a huge help, lining up digital billboards to advertise the event, listing it on their site, and getting articles about the races in both the Lakeland Ledger and the Winter Haven News Chief.
With help from a growing network of supporters, the Chain of Lakes Cycling Classic continues to thrive. For more information please visit Cycling Classics.com (warning: the site might be under construction for a while; check back often,) the Cycling Classics Facebook page, TopView Sports, or call the Humane Society of Polk County at 863 324-5227.