Pros, amateurs gather for Minnesota Bike Festival

Bike racer Kristin Armstrong
Kristin Armstrong is making her fourth and final appearance at the Nature Valley Grand Prix this year. She is retiring to start a bike training program and speak out against doping among bike racers.
Photo courtesy Kristin Armstrong

Kristin Armstrong isn't related to bike racer Lance Armstrong. That's not her name on the yellow wristbands.

But she does have a gold medal from last year's Beijing Olympics. She won in the women's time trial. It's a solo ride against the clock -- the sport's toughest event.

And she's in the Twin Cities this week for the Minnesota Bike Festival, a race she's won three times. She says it's one of her favorites.

"I remember the first time I had come to this race, my first impressions were gosh, the crowds, the organization, the volunteers are really wonderful out here. And it really brings the families out. The kids out. And it brings a lot of excitement to the sport of cycling."

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It's also been a springboard to the top ranks of world cycling. Armstrong won the world time trial championship in 2006 after riding in Minnesota. Same for last year's Olympic games.

"Honestly, Nature Valley Grand Prix has been the most competitive race in the U.S. circuit that I have raced," she said.

That's turned Minnesota into a hot spot for competitive cycling. It's still laps behind the European sport, of course. But races around the state, and changes to the way they're run, are making the Grand Prix a marquee event.

"In Europe, they have a formula where you go from point A to Point B, where the spectators will stand on the side of the road to see the bicycle race pack go through once," said Dave LaPorte of Roseville, the event's main organizer. "So it's a 30-second race experience. That formula doesn't work in this country. In this country, we're using NASCAR as our model. People really want to see a show."

That means looping races through downtown St. Paul tonight, and another through Uptown on Friday night, as well as a race straight up Chilkoot Hill in Stillwater on Sunday afternoon. The hour-long Stillwater race is one of the toughest in North America.

"The riders have to go up this super steep hill about every three minutes," LaPorte said. "So, the first time up its 100 riders. The next time up its 80 riders. The next time up its about 60 riders. Only about 30 percent of the professional athletes that start that race will finish the full distance."

Longer races take place in Cannon Falls and Mankato this week.

The series has gained enough of a reputation that it's even drawing one of the sport's one-time superstars. Floyd Landis was the third American to win the prestigious Tour de France. He won in 2006, although he was later stripped of the title and barred from the sport for doping.

His ban expired earlier this year and Landis is riding in this year's Nature Valley Grand Prix.