Tour de France ain't got nothin' on Tulsa Tough, the three-day cycling experience going on this weekend.
Wanna know why? Heat, humidity and bad roads.
Until we get our streets fixed...
Of course, TT lacks the anti-doping subplot and the snooty French media, but no one wants that kind of drama here.
This marks the fourth year for the ride and race event. Our dynamic city provides scenic race paths through the Blue Dome District, Brady District, Riverside and more.
Ideas are hatched in boardrooms across America on a daily basis. However, implementing a concept and making it a classy event are two different animals. Did the NFL stumble onto the Super Bowl? No. It was a collaborative effort between two creative entities. The NFL and AFL came together with a plan, and the rest is history.
Likewise, Tulsa Tough came about through the incremental efforts of local cycling enthusiasts.
"The Tulsa Wheelmen were a local cycling group that always wanted to host criterium racing and do tour rides," said the Tulsa Sports Commission's Mike Dodson. Through strategic planning and assistance from the Wheelmen, the event was cultivated from the ground up.
"One of the things we wanted to do was grow Tulsa Tough into a major cycling event that attracted people from all over the world," said Chris Zenthoefer. Zenthoefer is part of the five-person committee that runs Tulsa Tough. He is also an avid cyclist who competes as part of Team Tulsa Tough.
More than 30 states have sent participants in the past. Several countries have also participated such as New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Italy and Venezuela.
TT's title sponsor is The Children's Hospital at Saint Francis. Top priorities include promoting fitness and a healthy lifestyle.
Another goal? Showcasing the city of Tulsa and its landmarks and businesses. Racers round 2nd and Elgin splitting Dirty's Tavern and Arnie's on Friday.
Saturday's backdrop includes Cain's Ballroom and SoundPony on Main Street, Club Majestic and other Brady Street gems.
Tulsa Tough is more than just a cycling event, though that remains the focus point. It's a weekend festival that incorporates pro-level races, recreational tour rides, live music, good food and youth activities. Thousands have attended the first three years.
Picking up Speed
"Just look at the demographics. Cyclists will travel all over the place for these events," said Zenthoefer from his car as he drove to St. Louis to represent Tulsa Tough at an event.
An estimated 15,000 spectators took in the sights and sounds in 2008. Watching is fun, but participation heightens the level of excitement.
"We have recreational cycling for anyone and everyone. You can be someone that has not ridden your bike in five years--or ever--and come participate in Tulsa Tough," explained Zenthoefer.
Tour rides or rally rides are available on Saturday and Sunday. Select from multiple distance options and join thousands of cyclists on Tulsa's streets.
"We have rest stops. They are very fun. Some people try to do them as fast as they can and others do them in groups. It's not competitive," he assured.
Mounting a bike not in your future? Perhaps standing a few feet away from professional cyclists whizzing by at speeds up to 30 miles per hour excites you.
"We have the competitive side of Tulsa Tough which is what a lot of people focus on because it's the spectacle," he said. Youtube "Tulsa Tough" for a few samples of the breakneck speeds.
Cameras are sprinkled throughout the course. Several JumboTrons showcase the races. Enjoy a cold beer while pro-level racers dart through town within inches of each other.
Seems like the kind of programming a television station such as Versus would pick up and broadcast. HDNet showcased a cycling event from Indiana last week. The track oozed lameness. Can we do better Tulsa?
VeloNews, a cycling magazine, will webcast the races for the first time this year. "That's the first step towards Versus coverage," agreed Zenthoefer. "I think at some point it will get to where Versus is not just covering European races but American races aside from Tour of California. Tulsa Tough is growing to be one of the larger [cycling] events in the United States."
Let's talk about the ceiling for TT. The Tour of California leads the peloton while TT has moved up in the ranks. The California festival spans nine days in February. An estimated 1.6 million people visit during the event.
No one claims TT can displace the California race as number one in America. However, there appears to be an opportunity for significant growth as the city further embraces the weekend.
Now, if we want to compete with the Tour de France, here are a couple of suggestions. Angry-with-life journalist can approach cyclist after the races with a cup and ask for a urine sample. Spectators should consume beverages with pinky finger extended.
Blood, Sweat and Gears
Some of the country's top ranked cycling teams will descend upon Tulsa for the weekend. The local teams look to defend home turf. Or at the very least, make the visitors feel at home.
The festival embodies traits identical to one local establishment. Mike Wozniak co-owns the Tulsa hotspot SoundPony, and he also rides 200-300 miles a week with Team SoundPony.
"We've got bicycles hanging up (in the bar). We were the first to put a bike rack in downtown. We promote live original music, too. Tulsa Tough, being a festival atmosphere, really does fit into what we do with the bikes and music and people milling about," said Wozniak.
Although Team SoundPony will not rival Lance Armstrong's team in the near future, you better train if you want to keep up with them.
Talk with anyone involved in TT and one theme reigns supreme: health, health, health.
"We are trying, through our bar, to promote diverse culture and healthy living. Getting people out of their cars and possibly on a bicycle," he said.
The cynic in you just wondered how healthy living and a bar go hand in hand. It's a fair question.
"After you ride 85 miles, one of the most satisfying things you can do is go ahead and replace some of those carbohydrates with a beer," he said laughing. While many skip the 85-mile ride, you cannot deny the refreshing powers of a cold beer.
Interest in cycling continues to grow. Whether you attribute it to the cost of gas or America's sudden interest in a shedding a few pounds, the benefits of riding a bike are indisputable.
"It establishes healthy lifestyle changes potentially with exercise and different habits," said TSC's Dodson. "It's a wonderful thing we are able to do through the support of The Children's Hospital at Saint Francis."
Cycling is a life-long sport. Some of our favorite activities end once we reach a certain age. Basketball, tennis and similar body-taxing sports are not practical once father time catches up. The mind is willing but the bones and joints are not able.
Cycling is an excellent, gentle tool for staying in shape. Cardiovascular fitness is a top priority these days with heart issues plaguing Americans. The American Heart Association estimates one out of three adults in the U.S. suffer from at least one cardiovascular disease.
Riding a bike tones the lower body as effectively as running or walking. Aerobic experts also claim cycling is on par with running and swimming for attaining fitness.
Ladies, stop asking your significant other if those pants make your butt look big. Hop on a bike and take the guesswork out. Have you ever seen a cyclist wearing spandex pants with a flabby bottom? Didn't think so.
Overall, riding provides an excellent low-stress workout. "I know people who ride their bikes who are in their 80s," said Zenthoefer.
An early start is a great idea, too. What better way to integrate cycling into someone's life than by starting them at a young age? Tulsa Tough is in its third year of donating bikes to the youth of our community.
The selected kids receive approximately 250 donated bikes. "It's for third, fourth and fifth grade aged children. Our program is full right now but kids can register to get in the program. It's on a first come, first serve basis," said Zenthoefer.
Fingers are crossed that kids will enjoy riding their new bikes while developing healthy habits. Because the children receive "wheels of freedom," they learn safety lessons from Tulsa Crime Commission through a program called Safe Escape. Started in 1996, it teaches child abduction prevention and survival tactics.
Local volunteers also teach children basic skills and drills of proper bike handling. Each kid is fitted with a bike, helmet and the knowledge to ride safely. "We teach them hand signals. We teach them how to ride on roadways and how to interact with a possible car on the roadway so they are properly trained and know basic safety maneuvers," he said.
On Sunday, kids can participate in the eight-mile Townie Ride, accompanied by Mayor Kathy Taylor.
"Three-hundred kids all at once; out on their bikes... it's a great sight to see. That's the program. It's been an amazing success. The response from the kids and the parents and our sponsors and everyone... it's a feel good story," he said.
There is also the corporate challenge. If you think you're company has what it takes to dethrone the reigning champs from American Airlines, sign up.
A traveling trophy is given to the company who wins. Speed is not a prerequisite. Whoever has the most finishers, most cumulative miles and highest average mileage per rider are the subcategories.
"The American Airlines crew will come out in American Airlines jerseys and they all ride together. It's a really cool deal," he said.
The corporate challenge was added last year. A dozen businesses sent teams to join the festivities. Tulsa Tough hopes that the number of entrants doubles this year.
If It's Not Spoke(n)
A lot is riding on this weekend (pun intended). Many factors go into making a large scale event such as TT a successful one. Gauging from the people contacted for this story, only one thing can keep this event from catapulting to the next level. Rain.
Beyond that, though, the future looks bright.
Aside from the knowledgeable people involved, there is one particular factor working in Tulsa's favor. The economic downturn besieged other cities, but Tulsa has withstood the impact better than most.
A strong sponsorship commitment earns top honors. While other higher profile events across the nation have folded, Tulsa's event has grown during the years.
The cycling community now focuses on Tulsa's event. "We're going to have a lot of big national teams here. The biggest national teams that we have in America are coming to our town instead of going to other races. That's a really exciting thing," said Wozniak.
According to the USA Cycling Web site, Tulsa Tough competes with the Tour of Somerville in New Jersey (May 25) and the CSC Invitational in Arlington, Virginia (May 30) for participants.
USA Cycling added Tulsa Tough to its official National Race Calendar last year for the first time.
With the help of the third-largest prize payout for the year ($150,000), TT is drawing rave reviews. Several current and former National Champions and Olympians have chosen Tulsa for their racing destination.
The receipt for success is in place. Perhaps TT can achieve the right blend of professional racing, casual cycling and a festival atmosphere to thrust T-Town to the forefront of USA Cycling.
Imagine the day when Lance Armstrong participates. Let's hope he's still competitive by the time TT has taken the cycling community by the handles. Visit www.tulsatough.com for more information.
Tulsa's tough, are you?
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