Jon Tarkington grew up racing the Red Zinger Mini Classics, a series of youth road races in Colorado in the 1980’s. Twenty-something years later, the American Cycling Association executive director is teaming up with race promoter Bill Sommers to resurrect junior stage racing in the state – and hopefully the country.
“Right now, junior nationals is a roll of the dice,” said Tarkington. “You take a junior that’s had a reasonably good year, the family spends all sorts of money going to nationals and they have a bad day or two and that’s it. They’re frustrated, they think bike racing stinks and they’re out of there.”
Tarkington hopes that the Colorado Mini Classic, which will take place July 17-18 in Silt, on Colorado’s Western Slope, will help to dilute that pressure and provide an opportunity for junior racers, from those just entering the sport to the elite, an opportunity to feature in a high profile event. The points-based stage race will offer racing for age groups 8-9 through 17-18. On Saturday, a four-corner criterium will kick off the two-day event, followed in the afternoon by a time trial. The road race (for age groups 10-12 and above) will close the event in downtown Silt.
Another aim of the event is to develop junior cyclists that continue in the sport into their college years and beyond. “Over the past five-to-ten years, the ACA has done a really good job of bringing lots of new kids into the sport,” said Tarkington. “The problem is getting them to continue – keep those programs going – but find a way to address the missing link.
“I’m hoping that if junior-only races can give kids a focal point that’s not nationals, that’s not super elite level competition that requires travel across the country, you’ll start to see over time, kids stay with it all the way into college.”
Silt has been especially hard hit by the oil and gas industry’s pull out on the Western Slope. The Saturday morning criterium will take place in an empty housing development near town. Fresh pavement and wide roads will greet racers on the mostly flat, fast circuit. “It’s a perfect course for a junior race,” said Tarkington. “There’s brand new streets, curbs, lights, no driveways, not a single house.”
The stage 2 time trial will take place on closed roads near town. Wind should be the most significant challenge facing riders on the relatively flat out-and-back course near the Colorado River. Tarkington described the stage 2 course as, “typically straight, flat, out-and-back – a kind of typical U.S. time trial.”
Sunday’s road race will roll on country roads between Silt and neighboring Rifle. “The road race course is a circuit that I’m jealous that I don’t get to race on,” said Tarkington. Riders will climb immediately out of town before dropping down a fast descent onto rolling terrain that carries them toward Rifle before reversing the early descent back up and over to Silt. Tarkington pointed out that the rural location and Sunday morning start time mean that traffic will be at an absolute minimum and that each group will enclosed by a lead motorcycle and a follow car.
Taking up for Red Zinger
The Red Zinger Mini Classic, derived from the pro stage race, was first run in 1981. The event, which allowed licensed and un-licensed riders to face off, grew into a youth cycling series that included stops in Vail, Aspen and Fort Collins, Colorado. Rider numbers rose into the hundreds in the series’ heyday, but reduced attendance and escalating costs forced an end to the series in 1992.
“What happened is that as mountain biking evolved, it sucked out a major chunk of the competition,” said Tarkington. “That was a big component of it coming to an end, but the other one was that it got to be harder and harder to promote the events in the state as you saw increasing costs.”
Tarkington pointed, however, to a resurgence in youth road cycling since 2000, when the ACA began to see license numbers grow. He hopes that by providing a focal point for youth racing, a successful, high profile yet accessible event will be a boon to juniors in the Rocky Mountain region. That said, he hopes to keep the Mini Classic as a one-off Colorado event in the future, while encouraging other regions to develop similar races.
Down the road
“In my mind, I think every region in the country needs one of these,” said Tarkington. “I think developing other similar pockets is what’s going to benefit junior racing as a whole.
Tarkington looks forward to assisting other promoters across the U.S. in establishing similar events in the coming years. “It’s about giving kids across the country easier access to a high profile junior event.”
He also hopes to expand the Mini Classic in 2011 and will begin exploring course options and sponsors as soon as next week.
“At this stage, we’re taking it one step at a time,” he said. “This year, Bill and I agree, let’s just get this thing off the ground and as soon as we finish this year’s event, we’re going to start pursuing sponsorship for 2011, because there is a really good chance for a sponsor to have a positive impact not only on the racers involved, but on the community involved.”
Tarkington eluded to tentative plans of incorporating two additional stages next year, a hill climb and a second road race. “In all likelihood, as long as things go off well this year, it will expand into something larger for next year,” he said.
First things first, however. The first Colorado Mini Classic is July 17-18.