WINTER HAVEN, Fla.—Once a small, quiet town halfway between Orlando and Tampa (and not close enough to either to be much noticed,) Winter Haven is being thrust into the Florida spotlight as it hosts the 2009 Chain of Lakes Cycling Classic, on April 18 and 19.
The two-day Chain of Lakes Cycling Classic, organized by Cycling Classics Inc., will feature professional riders from all around the region, plus amateur racers in every age group.
There will actually be two separate races forming the Chain of Lakes cycling weekend event: a road race on Saturday, where cyclists will race for five laps over a fourteen-mile course laid out on rural roads, and Sunday’s Criterium, where cyclists will lap a very short circuit laid out on the streets of downtown Winter Haven. The road race is in the city of Fort Meade, just south of Winter Haven down Highway 17.
Both races will be attended by Steve Johnson, CEO of USA Cycling, the premier cycling organization in the country, and a man instrumental in picking the U.S. Olympic cycling team. The Chain of Lakes Classic is as serious as cycling gets.
But there is more to this event than just another bicycle race. The Chain of Lakes Cycling Classic is coming to Winter Haven courtesy of one very motivated and very generous man, and several of his equally driven, and giving, friends.
Cycling Classics: A Great Way to Do a Great Amount of Good
Winter Haven resident Bill Cundiff discovered bicycling three years ago. And almost immediately, he grew to love cycling so much he decided to bring a world-class cycling event to Polk County and to downtown Winter Haven.
“When I started riding, I did some research. I watched the Tour de France; then I started watching cycling events all over the world,” Mr. Cundiff explained. “I found out that the United States has a ton of cycling events. I thought, why not have one in Winter Haven? We’ve got a beautiful park, we’ve got a lot of open country; we could do a nice two-day event.”
The cost and complexity of promoting and organizing a professional cycling race proved to be too much for a single person. So Mr. Cundiff enlisted four friends, all equally passionate about cycling and about their community, and formed a non-profit organization, Cycling Classics Inc.. Because their interest was in helping the community as well as seeing more people enjoy the sport and activity of bicycling—not on making profits—the five decided to donate all the proceeds from the event to charity.
The five friends: Bill Cundiff, Dan Rooney, Bob Rayburn, Scott Miller, and Howard King, realized that Polk County would be the perfect location for a world-class cycling event, and decided to make it happen.
The team started contacting sponsors, local and national cycling organizations, city and county governments. Organizing an event of this size was a gargantuan task, but after a year of hard work, it has all paid off. The first annual Chain of Lakes Cycling Classic is finally a reality.
World-Class Cycling in Winter Haven
Cycling Classics had three goals: to create an event that would be both challenging and rewarding to the participants; to provide spectators with excitement and enjoyment; and to raise enough money via the event to significantly aid a local charitable organization.
Mr. Cundiff and the other organizers decided not to have just the classic road race—which is wonderful for racers and less good for spectators. To get the community fully involved, Cycling Classics decided to run a Criterium, a race right through the heart of downtown Winter Haven.
A criterium is challenging for the racers, as they have to negotiate their way through slower riders while riding at extreme speeds around a very narrow course. And is exciting for the spectators, because the pack of riders passes frequently; there is racing action almost everywhere on the course almost all the time, and spectators get a close-up view of the action.
By laying out the course around a park in the heart of Winter Haven, Mr. Cundiff and his crew ensured that the spectators would have both a comfortable and a beautiful setting, while getting a front-row seat to the kind of cycling excitement associated with events like the Tour de France.
There will be amateur races for every age bracket, from age ten, to Masters over fifty-five, as well as five categories for professional men and three for professional women riders. All races are fully accredited by the United States Cycling Federation or the Lance Armstrong Junior Olympic Race Series Event (branches of USA Cycling.) The amateur races will count towards the Florida Points Series of the Florida Road Cycling Association.
Mr. Cundiff and his friends decided that to properly involve the community, their event should offer races for every age group: even toddlers on training wheels would be welcome to take a lap and be a part of the pageantry.
“We are going to have two kids’ races for the local children—ages four to six, and ages seven to nine. Each one of them receives a medal for participating, plus we have trophies for the top three finishers in each division,” Mr. Cundiff said. “The kids will learn about cycling safety, and we will be giving away free bicycle helmets. Plus there are going to be a lot of kids’ activities in the park all day long.”
Partnering With the Humane Society
Because Cycling Classics is devoted to cycling and community, all of the proceeds from the 2009 Chain of Lakes Cycling Classic will be donated to the Humane Society of Polk County.
“I chose the Humane Society,” said Mr. Cundiff, “because my mom was a great animal lover—she was a contributor—and I like what they do.”
The Polk County Human Society is devoted to preventing cruelty towards animals, and aiding suffering animals. The Human Society is a community service that shelters lost, abandoned, and abused pets, offers them care and tries to find those pets new homes. If no one adopts the pets, the Human Society houses and cares for them.
“The Polk County Humane Society the only no-kill facility in the county,’ Mr. Cundiff explained. “None of the animals they take in ever get euthanized. They can live the rest of their lives there. The Humane Society is in dire need of funds because they are trying to put up a new building, so this comes at a good time for them.”
Of course, Cycling Classics has goals beyond setting up an annual race weekend. The organization wants to promote bike safety, including teaching about gear, riding techniques, and bike maintenance; advocate for bike lanes and trails; and to set up a junior cycling competition program where youths can be coached and trained to advance as competitive cyclists.
Anyone can enjoy bicycling. From toddlers to their great-grandparents, there are bikes for every possible variety of rider, and in Florida, cyclists can ride year-round.
When he first discovered cycling, Mr. Cundiff rode on two bicycle tours to benefit Multiple Sclerosis. He liked the people he met. “I enjoy the cycling community,” he said. “It’s made up of a lot of great people.” Mr. Cundiff decided that part of the mission of Cycling Classics would be to help expand the cycling community, as well as benefitting the general community.
Competitive cycling is growing in the United States, also. According to USA Cycling, the governing body for all cycling events in the U.S., the sport of cycling has been growing steadily for the past six years.
USA Cycling has seen a 48% increase in the number of licensed competitors and a 50% increase in the number of sanctioned events since 2002, while the number of affiliated clubs has grown by 30% in the same period.
As cycling continues to grow, Cycling Classics will be perfectly positioned to help Polk County residents have the best possible experience.
Realizing the Dream
For three years Bill Cundiff dreamed about bringing a charitable, world-class cycling event to Winter Haven; now, with the aid of his friends at Cycling Classics, and a whole host of sponsors, supporters, and friends, that dream is a reality.
By focusing on including the community as well as pleasing the racers, Cycling Classics has created an event with far-reaching effects. Not only will Winter Haven residents get to see professional cycling for free, in their own home town; residents will also get to see the beauty of downtown Winter Haven, and get to sample some of the wares of downtown businesses, which will be providing refreshments at the event.
Also, Winter Haven residents can speak to representatives from the local bike shop, and learn how easy it is to get involved in cycling.
Cycling Classics is definitely the right organization in the right place at the right time, doing all the right things.
For more information about the races, and about Cycling Classics, Inc, please visit the Cycling Classics, Inc. Web site.