Why us? Anniston on cycling tour with big cities
by Bran Strickland
bstrickland@annistonstar.com
Apr 21, 2012 | 2152 views |  0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The USA Cycling calendar numbers 19 dates, starting in March and ending in September. The uniqueness of today’s Sunny King Criterium is clear — even if you aren’t armed with the latest U.S. Census figures.

TD Bank Mayor’s Cup: Boston.

Tour de Grove: St. Louis.

Presbyterian Hospital Invitational Criterium: Charlotte.

Cigar City Brewing Criterium: Tampa.

“These are cities that have major sports teams,” said Stuart Lamp, USA Cycling Regional Coordinator. “Anniston’s nowhere near that.

“In your city, you’re drawing the top professional talent in that sport — outside of NASCAR or maybe professional fishing … it’s not often you can say that.”

But Anniston can. And for the better part of the past 10 years it has.

All because of a field of dreams played out on a six-tenths of a mile loop of asphalt.

***

In 2003, Anniston’s criterium was a modest gathering, a race at McClellan’s Buckner Circle just hoping not to go the way of a predecessor event in downtown Anniston that folded in the 90s. Those who dreamed that dream of reincarnation with Noble Street Festival director Mike Poe, he said, made sure to keep the training wheels on.

“We wanted to start slow on purpose,” he said. “ … but we wanted to give people more to do along with the Sunday event.”

With drawing people into the town for another night came the downtown aspect, which has grown into the Noble Street Festival. It, too, started small. The first year, there was simply a riders-only party with local fare the main feature. The raves came and the Noble Street Festival was born the next year.

The festival has become one of the main drawing points of the weekend.

“Now instead of (a rider) asking permission to go,” Sunny King Criterium technical director Curtis Cupp said, “it was something the whole family could do.”

In those early years, the festival got the financial backing it needed to make it all possible. Red Diamond, the Moody-based coffee and tea company led by CFO and Wellborn native Sherman Pitts, liked what it saw and wanted to join, Poe said. That led to the Red Diamond Restaurant Tour, with local restaurants setting up tents along Noble Street to serve festival-goers. Patty King of Sunny King Automotive Group got on board, shortly after, too, giving the marquee event its name.

But as important as monetary backing was, opportunity — and answering the door when it knocked — played a part, too.

Not yet on the national calendar, Anniston’s event coincided with the weekend of a criterium in Shelby, N.C. When that event was cancelled, “they were looking for somewhere to ride,” said Poe.

Anniston gave them a place and their best attempt at Southern hospitality. “It may be cliché, but it’s something we rely on,” Lamp said.

***

Cupp has been a cyclist for some time, but he hasn’t always been partnered with the Sunny King Crits.

Long before Google became a verb, Cupp said he would typically take to the Internet to see what — if any — talk was out there for his county’s event.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said.

The discovery and the story of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in Anniston and surrounding areas was known more than just locally and statewide.

Cupp read the words of one team “I hope we don’t leave glowing” among other things and, “I knew then it was time for me to do something,” he said.

And do something they all have.

Many criteriums have bigger draws and bigger purses, and many do it for profit. A bulk of the money raised from the Sunny King Criterium goes to charity. And knowing that the organizers’ passion can help to benefit others, they say it helps them to go the extra mile.

Locals open up their homes to the teams to help save on travel costs, something Lamp says is critical.

They’ve added many extras to the festival: Music, children’s activities and taking the riders to local schools to educate children about sport and the importance of an active lifestyle. They even set up something not all criteriums have — live, streaming video over the Internet, which was watched by more than 22,000 viewers last year, Lamp said.

In other cities, the titles those like Poe and Cupp hold — those who make all this happen — are full-time salaried positions. Not here.

But the juggling act between the festival and their lives — what Poe said turns into a 10-month-a-year commitment — can be time-consuming. But they stress that it’s all worth it.

“It really is a labor of love,” Cupp said.

Assistant Managing Editor Bran Strickland: 256-235-3590. On Twitter @bran_strickland.

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