WALLA WALLA - The 14th annual Tour of Walla Walla rolled into full speed this weekend, and along with it was the comeback of an old favorite among seasoned riders.
"I rode cat-four last year. I am old enough though that the masters is more my kind of competitive age group and fitness level. I enjoy that and I am glad it is back on this year," said Brian Gore of Seattle.
Assistant Racing Director Michael Austin suspects the return of the masters race will be a favorite with local merchants.
"That is a really good category for the community because these are the professionals ... And they have more disposable income," Austin said.
Add to the mixture some nice weather, rolling green wheat-covered hills and an abundance of wineries, and you have good reasons for veteran riders to keep coming back.
"Generally the weather is nice, the roads are good, the town is very friendly, everybody rolls out the welcome mat and there's good wine," Gore summed up.
Though the older riders may take a slower pace, that isn't always the case, said master's contestant Mike Burdo. He referred to a local favorite, David Zimbelman, who while in his late 50s still rides pro and cat-one and cat-two.
"Actually this master's field probably has a lot of cat-ones and cat-twos. It is a pretty diverse group of skill levels so you have some very diverse guys. And they can compete in the ones and twos," Burdo said.
As for his own riding prowess, Burdo pointed out that because Tour of Walla Walla is one of the earlier races in the year, he is still getting back in shape.
"Early season is usually not my time of year. So I come here to suffer and enjoy maybe a decent restaurant in town. I like Walla Walla. So it is a good place to be," he said.
About 600 riders took part in this year's Tour. And other than the return of the masters, the only other change this year was an earlier criterium race.
Last year the criterium started later on Saturday afternoon and didn't end until around 10 p.m. This year the event was moved up for rider safety, with the last race finishing around dusk.
"The officials didn't like it (a night criterium)," noted Justin Bannerman of Allegro Cycle. "The crowd loved it and the riders didn't mind it that much. But the officials didn't like it. They didn't want people crashing unnecessarily; they have an aversion to blood," he added.
Over the years, the popularity of the criterium has grown. It originally took place on Sunday afternoon, but then was moved to Saturday. For many riders it is now the favored race of the weekend.
"I guess right now I like the crits. I like the technical aspects, the fast pace, the aggressiveness," Leah Guloien of Port Moody, Vancouver, B.C., said.
On Friday afternoon, Guloien was waiting with dozens of other cat-one and cat-two women for the start of stage one four races for the weekend. The first stage would lead her and the other riders up and down 37 miles of McKay Alto, Whetstone and Kellog Hollow roads near Waitsburg.
Ian Mensher of Seattle rode the same route twice, as a contestant in the 64-mile cat-one-and-two men on Friday. And like Guloien, he too favors the flat downtown "crit" over the hilly tour races.
"It is very high energy when you are riding in a crit ... It is very fast. A lot of white noise," Mensher said, referring to the constant hum of the bicycle chains and road tires, as the tightly formed group of riders navigates the corners and straightaways of downtown.
"The crits are a lot more fun to watch," he said, adding the crowd interaction is also a plus for the riders.
To be part of the crowd for the third and final day of the Tour of Walla Walla, head over to Waitsburg, where several 38- to 95-mile length races will start from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. The men's pro will start at 9:25 a.m. and the women's pro at 11 a.m. The start is at 10th Street and Coppei Avenue; the finish is at the top of the hill on Middle Waitsburg Road.