While some of the best riders on the planet duke it out in the Tour de France this month, Cabot Street in Beverly will fill with Spandex-clad bicycle racers of all ages on Wednesday, including many of the fastest pedalers in the region. They will come from all corners of New England to compete on one of the most distinctive criterium — or “crit” — courses found anywhere, the fourth annual Fidelity Investments Gran Prix of Beverly.
“Twilight crits are exquisite sporting events,” said announcer Richard Fries, a former competitive racer.
“As a racer, the air is a bit cooler and the lighting enhances the sense of speed. But it's also a catalytic system: Racers go fast, announcers get excited, crowds make noise, and racers go faster. Beverly is a unique crit because it’s so technical. It's like an Indiana Jones chase scene."
The course is a twisty venue that features a half-dozen tight turns as it winds clockwise through both residential and business areas of Beverly's downtown, starting and finishing on Cabot Street, but also incorporating Hale, Dane, and Winter streets.
According to race promoter and Beverly resident Paul Boudreau, most criterium races, like the Witches Cup in Salem, are held on giant loops that resemble NASCAR races. By comparison, the Gran Prix resembles a Formula 1 circuit, requiring racers to not only compete against one another, but the course itself.
“You need to be able to go into a corner at full speed without putting your brakes on, and have the confidence that you're not going to crash,” said Boudreau. “You're pushing yourself to the edge, and you're trusting that your equipment is going to work. You're also trusting the people next to you that they have good bike-handling skills.”
The date of the race, which was originally part of Homecoming festivities in Beverly, was changed to accommodate its increasing popularity. It also doubles as the state criterium cycling championships, which adds a measure of cachet to the event.
“It's probably one of my favorite crits in the Northeast,” said Dylan McNicholas, a 31-year-old from Stratham, N.H., who races for CCB International, one of the area's oldest racing clubs. “It's a little more technical than your standard four-corner crit, which I like quite a bit.
“The crowds are always awesome down there, and the town lends itself to a good time after the race,” added McNicholas. “So with the course, and the crowd, there's always a good group of guys there. When it's a cool race like that, everybody wants to be there. Plus, it's a midweek race, and those always have a different feel to them. Everyone's racing hard.”
Some of those racers might seem a little long in the tooth, guys like CCB teammates Tyler Munroe of North Andover and Jim Nash of North Hampton, N.H.
The two, both 50-plus, plan to rub elbows with young professionals like defending-champ Shawn Milne and 2010 champ Tim Johnson, both of Beverly, and reigning national cyclocross champ Jeremy Powers of Vermont.
Clearly, the young guns won't be taking the elder statesmen for granted. Neither should the spectators. Bike racing, and especially the hard, concentrated effort of a criterium race with speeds of up to 40 miles an hour, seems to level the playing field for a wide demographic of competitors. These older racers come to play, and they play to win.
“We train like crazy,” said Nash, a 53-year-old mechanical engineer who has raced for CCB for the past dozen years. “We stay in it, and we stay current. There are people who think about their past, and others who are very much in the present. And all of us [older racers] we're all looking at now, and next week, and next month, and maybe next year.
“Everyone is looking to see how they can do it, not if they can,” he said. “At 53 or 55, how can I be competitive? What would be success for me? Everybody I know who is still in it at this age looks at the sport very much that way. Frankly, it's what they always did. How can I make the most of what have? Every year I've been doing this — and I've been doing it since I was 40 — I've gotten better. I've actually gotten faster every year.”
Munroe said the cagey veterans are able to compete by mixing guile and guts. “When I race against these kids now, they're plenty strong, much stronger than I am,” he said. “But they're missing some of the fundamentals.
“The crit is the way I came into the sport, way back when,” said Munroe, who has raced for CCB for the past 30 years, in addition to raising three children and running a landscaping company.
“A crit, for me, is the whole thing. You need to use your brain, you need to conserve, you need to go hard, but you need to go hard smart. It's like a book of matches, and you only have so many. You need to use them correctly.
“Fortunately, I've been at it a long time, and can weed my way through places, and make up 10 spots here and 10 spots there,” he said. “It's more about keeping up the momentum, instead of just going hard. It's about going steady the whole time.”
Youngsters 12 and under will also have their moment to shine, with Kids Races at Beverly Common followed by a Kids Parade down Cabot Street (these events are free, but require registration).
And for spectators, the Gran Prix gives local Tour de France fans a chance to experience bike racing from a new and more intimate perspective (there's even a “bike valet” hosted by the Beverly Bike Committee for people who pedal to the race).
“It's completely different live,” said Boudreau. “A lot of people are literally blown away by the wind when the riders go by; there's a wind system that goes with them. They're displacing a lot of air, going at a good speed.
“Plus, when you're watching TV coverage, they're using a really big lens, and that compresses the depth of field, so it looks like the riders are hardly moving,” he said. “When you're there, you see them flying by. The one thing that people tell me, people who know nothing about bike racing, is ‘I can't believe how fast they can go on the bike.’”
For details, including race times and location, visit www.granprixbeverly.com.