A local team recently asked me to give a presentation on the upcoming season. In doing so, I came up with a list of a top 10 races to look forward to. As we start the new year, I thought I’d share it with everyone.
For those unfamiliar with the scene and unsure how to plan their season, this is somewhere to start. These are the most fun, prestigious and competitive races you’ll find within a four-hour drive of Chicago. Naturally, this list includes some personal bias, and by no means should anyone limit themselves to this list. Indeed, the best racing plans will include a mix of high- and low-priority racing.
Are your favorites missing? Feel free to state your case in the comments. (I’ll be bringing the full 2009 calendar up to date shortly. Hold your horses.)
1. Chicago Criterium
Sunday, July 26
Depending on the Olympic bid, this could be the last year for this amazing course. It’s downtown in beautiful Grant Park, zipping past Buckingham Fountain and careening down Michigan Avenue. It would be a great course anywhere, but the fact that it’s downtown is extra special. This year the race is on the National Racing Calendar, too, so the pro race should draw even more stars than last year.
Saturday, April 4
It’s our spring classic. Registration sells out earlier and earlier each year, and for good reason. It’s a grueling, wind-swept and hilly road race
“The Hell of Downstate,” I like to call it —
that tests your early-season mettle. Just about every race is one of attrition as fields of 100 or more get whittled to just a dozen or so. The finish isn’t exactly the pavé of Belgium and Northern France, but several blocks of uneven brick will nonetheless rattle your fillings and make you feel like Tom Boonen (Quick Step).
3. Snake Alley Criterium
Saturday, May 23
Along with Hillsboro-Roubaix, this is one of two road-trip races that everyone owes it to themselves to do at least once over their racing careers. The course includes a ridiculously steep switchback paved with bricks. It’s not uncommon to see people resort to running their bikes up. It’s a long way from Chicago, but I recommend making a weekend of it. Stay in Burlington the rest of the day and enjoy the atmosphere as fans on the hill get progressively rowdier, and then take in the other, highly competitive criteriums in the Quad Cities the following two days.
4. Downers Grove
Downers Grove, Ill.
Saturday-Sunday, Aug. 15-16
For the pros, this is the national championship. For the rest of us, it’s the equivalent of playing a game of two-hand touch at the Superdome the morning of the Superbowl. This is a challenging figure-eight course that will test all the skills you’ve been developing the rest of the year: climbing, cornering and sucking wheel.
5. Proctor State Criterium Championship
Sunday, June 28
Here’s your first chance to earn a state championship jersey. Like Downers Grove it’s also a figure-eight course with just enough elevation change to make it interesting.
6. Tour of Oak Brook
Oak Brook, Ill.
Sunday, Aug. 23
It’s a small course as far as road races go, but it’s challenging and fun. It was a hit in 2008 and I expect will be even more popular in 2009, especially now that the organizing team has an entire year to put it together.
7. Fox River Grove Cycling Challenge
Fox River Grove, Ill.
Sunday, June 21
Underrated and under-attended. I’ve done it only once but I’m a big fan. Its main feature (or bug, depending on your point of view) is a long, steep climb that takes a little bit more out of you on each lap. It’s a one-of-a-kind course that’s a welcome reprieve from the typical flat, industrial-park courses most of our criteriums are held on. Like Snake Alley, this is not a race where the pack will stay together. It’s more like a cyclocross race, where the field gets strung out and you spend the entire time killing yourself to advance. In addition, the promoter (Robert DiSilvestro of RDS Cycling) goes all out to provide a “Euro” atmosphere at his races, complete with flowers and podium girls.
8. Evanston Grand Prix
Sunday, July 19
Turin does a fantastic job in organizing this race, which is part of the Superweek series. Of the Chicago Superweek races, this is the most competitive and popular. However, it’s notorious for its high-speed crashes in two, surprisingly tricky corners. Personally I’m hoping the course is tweaked to address the turns that give people so much trouble each year.
9. Tour of Elk Grove
Elk Grove, Ill.
Saturday-Sunday, July 31-Aug. 2
The course itself is not much
a long, flat L-shaped course with two 180-degree turns —
but the mayor raises an obscene amount of money for this race and a lot of it trickles down to the lower categories. (At least for the men. Women and juniors are different stories.) Purses are huge, and this also is an NRC event, so it’s another chance to catch the stars of American cycling.
10. Denzer Delight
The Wisconsin Cup has three road races within 3.5 hours of Chicago, and this is my favorite. Granted, this may be because it favors climbers: A milelong climb here is the closest the Midwest gets to a true ascent, and it will break flatlanders’ legs on every lap. Consider staying overnight: The following day’s Wheels on Willy in Madison is a fun criterium that draws hundreds of enthusiastic spectators.
Honorable mentions: Monsters of the Midway, both days of Winfield, the Sherman Park Criterium, the Glencoe Grand Prix, the Spring Prairie Road Race and the Great Downer Avenue Bike Race all have significant merits, too.
Three series to look forward to in 2009
Midwest Cycling Series: This weeklong series of races in June presents a serious rival to our other big summer series, July’s Superweek. The full schedule has not been announced, but given the organizers’ track record, expect quality.
Matteson: I’ll never quit praising our Tuesday night series in the south suburbs. Even if it means taking a day off work, I urge all beginners to attend at least one session of these practice criteriums before attempting full-blown competition.
The spring warm-ups: We’re lucky to have several weeks of tune-up races in March. They don’t offer much in the way of prizes, but the racing is low-key and collegial. They’re good opportunities to get the kinks out of the system after a long year on the trainer and to reconnect with the friends you haven’t seen in six months. Three consecutive Sundays of racing in Kenosha, Wis., start on March 15. (Weather permitting, naturally.) Then on March 29 the Spring Super Criterium returns to a motor speedway near Rockford. The course is fun and well worth the drive.