Priority Sponsors Bike Race

GRAND RAPIDS — Professional cycling is coming to downtown Grand Rapids in September, with the first Priority Health Grand Cycling Classic planned as part of Celebration on the Grand.

The Sept. 8 criterium will loop around a 1.2-kilometer course in the city’s entertainment district near Van Andel Arena, said Priority Health spokesman Rob Pocock. The noon to 6 p.m. event will feature five races for professionals and amateurs, including categories for men, women and masters and culminating with the professional men’s field. Children ages 9 and under will have their own race: Bicycles and tricycles — and helmets — are welcome.

The purse will be at least $20,000, Pocock said. Local cycling enthusiast Robert Hughes, a member of the West Michigan Sports Commission, said the size of the purse “makes this race the largest in the Midwest by far.”

“We are committed to make this a very well established event in Grand Rapids,” Pocock said. “Our vision is to make the Priority Health Grand Cycling Classic one of the premier crits in the nation.”

Pocock said the event, being organized by Arlington Sports of Virginia, is expected to draw about 150 competitors from across the country, despite being a late entry in the 2007 racing schedule and a competing race in New Jersey.

More new events are in the works for the 27th annual Celebration on the Grand in addition to the cycling classic, said chair Joe Pettalia.

“We’re working on a couple of new pieces. We hope to have those announcements out after the Fourth (of July),” Pettalia said. “We were looking for new and improved ways to increase the number of people who come downtown to enjoy the city.”

Pocock said racers are likely to enjoy the challenge of the red brick lining downtown streets.

“What he (Arlington Sports President Rob Laybourn) is viewing as the significant part of this race is the red brick of many of our streets,” Pocock said. “The trophies are likely to be red bricks. They do love the challenge of a race course, and so our race course will be really capitalizing on the red brick.”

Pocock said the circuit will pass by many downtown bars and restaurants as it winds along Ionia and Ottawa avenues and West Fulton, Louis and Oakes streets. Hughes said cyclists may round the course several dozen times during a single race at speeds as high as 40 miles per hour, making it a family- and spectator-friendly event.

For two years, Priority Health has sponsored a professional cycling team with Bissell Inc. and Advantage Benefits, also of Grand Rapids. Hughes said Advantage Benefits and Bissell plan to co-sponsor the Classic as well.

The Priority Health team is ranked third nationally, based on point accumulation among the 18 professional teams on the 2007 USA Cycling National Racing Calendar. Team member Ben Jacques-Maynes is ranked first in Men’s Individual. 

“Our goal in sponsoring the Priority Health Cycling Team has been to use them as a vehicle to give a human face to health and wellness,” Pocock said. “The cycling team has been a wonderful addition to our outreach into the community.”

The team gets attention for its feats across the country, but Priority Health, a health insurer owned by Grand Rapids’ Spectrum Health, is looking at the race as a way to increase its exposure in Michigan where its products are sold, he added.

“We really decided it was an incredible opportunity to demonstrate our investment in the economic development of downtown Grand Rapids. We knew that Grand Rapids would embrace this wholeheartedly,” Pocock said.

Hughes said plans for the race were underway before the West Michigan Sports Commission began meeting, but he expects it will be involved in future Grand Classics.

“I’m quite sure they’re going to be key in getting this thing to the next level and making it a destination event for Grand Rapids,” Hughes said.

Pocock said volunteers will be needed along the route, for food tents and to host visiting cyclists.

For more information, visit BJX

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