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By Karen Newell Younge
 
Classic challenge for bike race
Nevada City works to return to its winning ways
Like the punishing hills of local bike trails, popularity of the Nevada City Bicylcle Classic has been up and down for years. Recently, crowds have slumped to half of what they were a decade ago.

This year’s race will be Sunday, June 18. It will be the 57th anniversary of the sporting event. But will crowds show up?

In the 1970s and ‘80s, the Nevada City Classic — held annually on Father’s Day — was known throughout the biking community as not only a demanding race through scenic hills but an event that included parties throughout town and throngs of biking enthusiasts.

In 2009 when Lance Armstrong raced the course, crowd estimates hit more than 10,000. From 2010 through 2012, Amgen sponsored the event and drew huge crowds and America’s top racers, including three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, top-ranked champion Scott Monger and Alezi Grewal, the first to win Olympic cycling gold for the U.S.

The first Nevada City Classic was held in 1961 and became one of the most historic and challenging professional cycling events in the country. It’s still the largest and oldest race on the West Coast and the second oldest one-day race in the country.

But competing sporting events and dwindling prize money have cut into the event’s popularity among top racers. And those competitors go where the money is, which is currently Europe.

“There was a time when the bike race was a big deal around here,” said Stan Sanderson, who has been cycling for about 45 years and attends every local race. “It was a big party and one of the preeminent events of the year. Those were exciting years.”

Christ Feucht, a competitive racer and director of the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, moved to Nevada City because of its reputation as a bike-
racing mecca.

“I gravitated to the town when I heard about the race 21 years ago,” he said, adding that over the decades enthusiasm has flagged.

“It’s not the event it was in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” he said. “Attendance gradually went down and down. I went to the race last year and the crowds were just dismal.”

Duane Strawser, longtime race director of the Classic, said there were several factors for the declining crowds.

“It’s still considered one of the top-drawing races in the country, but other sporting and entertainment events have cut into the competition. What we lack is a big-price purse. Other races may have bigger crowds but they offer $60,000 to $80,000 in cash,” he said.

Strawser added that compared to other U.S. races, Nevada City has a difficult course through narrow streets and less money to offer. Some racers feel that flying to a small town from the East Coast for a one-day race may not justify the expense.

“We have one of the most demanding courses in the country,” Strawser said. “We offer $10,000. If we could offer $20,000 or $30,000 it might be different. We need big sponsorship dollars to bring in the big names.”

Right now, “the top American racers are over in Europe making big money,” he added.

The Nevada City Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the Nevada City Classic, has brought in Kurt Stockton, a former U.S. pro racing champion, to energize and promote the event. He is working with Strawser — who still coordinates all the details of racing day — to bring back the crowds.

Stockton is aiming to attract sponsors, prize money, top racers and spectators to lift the race to its previous level. He believes Nevada City needs to broaden the Classic to include an assortment of events and encourage spectators and racers to stay throughout the weekend, eating at restaurants and shopping downtown.

“My vision of the weekend is to expand beyond the Sunday races to get people to stay longer,” he said. He is considering a variety of races — dirt bike racing, a night right ride, running races, and bike races on both dirt and gravel.

“The main objective is to showcase Nevada City to world-class cycling, but there are so many options for opening the eyes of sports-minded people. People should hang out and see what the town has to offer,” he said
Stockton plans to talk to merchants and potential sponsors in an effort to widen the Sunday event to attract the crowds of yesteryear, who want more than visiting Nevada City for a quick one-day race and then go home. Stockton wants them to stay, spend money and tell folks back home how great the town is.

“We have world-class cuisine and breweries, B&Bs and hotels and we can host visitors who come back when there isn’t a race going on. This is an opportunity to promote what the town has to offer,” he said.

Stockton acknowledges raising the profile of the event will not happen overnight will involve much support from the community.

“It’s going to be an evolution and will take time,” he said. “The key is making it a Nevada City first event. People will start to say, ‘I was here for the bike race and now I want to go back.’”
A crowd lining Broad Street roars as Justin England crosses the finish line to win the Nevada City Bicycle Classic men’s professional race in 2008, the second time he claimed the crown. Other top professionals who have raced at the Classic  include Lance Armstrong and Greg LeMond.