Three-time Tour de France champion and American cycling legend Greg LeMond is on-hand in Cambridge, New York as an invited 'guest of honor' at the eighth annual Tour of the Battenkill taking place his weekend in upstate New York.
More than 3,000 amateur riders competed throughout the day on Saturday, April 14 in 38 different races, ranging from the day's first event, the Category 1 men, to 14 different Category 5 heats on the challenging 100km route featuring a mix of dirt and asphalt roads. "The only limit to the amount of races we can do is daylight," said race organiser Dieter Drake.
Sunday, April 15 features the marquee 200km Tour of the Battenkill Professional Invitational, comprised of 29 teams from North American and Europe, including two UCI Professional Continental and 10 UCI Continental squads. Sunday's invitational event is the first UCI-sanctioned race in the United States for the 2012 season with the 1.2-rated event part of the UCI Americas Tour. The marquee race is also the second of 11 rounds of the USA Cycling National Racing Calendar (NRC).
Preceding Sunday's professional invitational is the Greg LeMond-led, non-competitive Bike Marathon-Battenkill, a 22-mile ride on parts of the professional invitational course. LeMond will be attending the event in support of his foundation - 1in6 - whose mission is to help men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood live healthier, happier lives. Partial proceeds of the ride will go to 1in6 along with other charities including the Wounded Warriors Project and area youth programs.
At the press conference, and later in an exclusive conversation with Cyclingnews, LeMond spoke about what attracted him to the Tour of the Battenkill and the positives of what he's experienced at the event.
"I've got a few friends [who've done Tour of the Battenkill] and everybody speaks really highly of the event," said Greg LeMond at the pre-professional invitational press conference on Saturday. "He (event organiser Dieter Drake) said he'd support 1in6 so I decided to come here. After listening to the [professional] riders and watching the racing I think it's a pretty unique opportunity. What I love about it is that it includes everybody else, too. It's got the pros, which I think everybody likes to have at an event, and it's like a Gran Fondo in which you can race at the same event as the top racers. It's kind of a celebration of cycling."
When asked about the state of professional racing in the United States, where there are just eight UCI-sanctioned events on US soil this year, LeMond spoke passionately about events like the Tour of the Battenkill and its mass participation.
"The fact that there are 3,000 people here racing is more important than the UCI race," LeMond told Cyclingnews. "To me, I'd rather see 50 of these events, Gran Fondo-type races.
"The fact that there are five category 4 races with 150-man fields [at Tour of the Battenkill] that's the impressive part to me. And with the top pros here that's the ideal weekend. They get to see the top riders come here and it makes the weekend for everybody.
"The popularity of triathlons is that everyone is able to do it. If cycling stays an elite sport where it's only for the pros, 1s and 2s you cut off all this opportunity.
"I did the color commentating for the Ironman and I was able to watch the start, go back to the hotel, go see the finish of the top guys, go back to the hotel, and come back six hours later and the crowds are even stronger watching everybody finish. I think that's where Dieter's right and that's what's the strength of the Gran Fondos in Europe, like the L'Etape du Tour where you do an actual stage of the Tour.
"I always imagined if only people could see what it feels like to be in a stage at the Tour where it's point-to-point, it's not circuits and you're not able to go out and look at all the course. That's the fun part and the part that brings up your skill level for bike riding, your reaction and how you read a race instead of going out and watching every turn of the race in a car. Not doing that and going that and having to race on a road you're unfamiliar with, that takes skill."
LeMond had strong opinions about sparking interest in cycling among young people.
"The kids who were in line getting my autograph, I don't think they knew who I was. But what was cool was that they were here and they were racing. The most important thing for me was to ask these 11-year-olds if they raced and they said 'yeah, 22 miles!'. That's awesome.
"I always thought the US Cycling Federation should drop all support of the pros, they'll find their way. They (USA Cycling) were important for me when I was 16, 17, 18 and that's it. After that I didn't need them. A lot of budget goes there.
"I recommended to them back in 1995 to focus all of your effort on high school racing. Try to work with schools and if you do that you tap into 50,000 to 100,000 kids. You'll have a feeder system of great riders coming into cycling all the time.
"That's where I think sometimes there's a narrow point of view sometimes of just too much elitism when it needs to be coming to the masses. That's who buys the bikes and who'd get the benefit of it.
"And I love the idea that Masters racing is really big, I've seen Masters stage races in northern California, but I'd love to see Junior stage races, too, because that's your foundation. If you see one successful weekend like this, it could happen."