The Casper (WYO.) chamber of commerce will tell you that its fine city is "centrally located," which is another way of saying that it is in the middle of nowhere. "My out-of-state friends are always telling me. 'I'll stop and see you when I'm passing through on my way to wherever,' " says Dave Mertz, marketing director for the Casper Star-Tribune. "And then I find myself telling them, 'No you won't. Casper isn't on the way to anywhere.' You've got to have a reason to come here."
Cyclists around the country now have just such a reason—the Casper Classic, a multistage event that since its humble beginning in 1985 has become one of the better, and richer, races in the country. This year's Classic—a five-day run through the streets, canyons and mountains in and around Casper—concluded on July 2. It featured a $50,000 purse, appearances by several of the top American riders (like Olympians Steve Hegg and Craig Schommer) and by top teams (like Crest, Shaklee and Coors Light), and last—and least—an embarrassing display of cycling by the two oldest members of the McCallum family. More on the latter later.
Cycling doesn't have a long tradition in Casper, which lies just east of dead center in the U.S.'s least populous state. The Classic was the brainchild of Don Jackson, who until three months ago was the general manager of the Hilton Inn in Casper. To fill rooms that largely were empty around the Fourth of July, Jackson decided he needed an event that could help feature his hotel, and because he was one of the city's few avid cyclists, the choice was easy. "I got a lot of blank stares when I started talking about a bike race," says Jackson, who was transferred to the Santa Fe (N.Mex.) Hilton in April. "But I twisted a lot of arms and raised the sponsorship money."
The $4,000 purse in the first Casper Classic drew about 100 competitors. But with each succeeding year, the prize money went up and so did the quality and quantity of entries. Today, the Classic ranks as one of the top five events in the country for prize money and one of the best for strength of field. "It used to be one of those races you went to between the races you were really shooting for," says Glen Sanders of Crest, which won the Classic's overall team title this year. "Now it's one you shoot for."
Jackson deserves infinite credit for not calling the race The Hilton Classic, which would be more in character for a sport that flies corporate logos like flags. But Jackson was a community man as well as a businessman, and he knew that Casper desperately needed something to rally around.
The city's economy was built on oil, and during the boom years of the early 1980s the population was nearly 60,000. Then the industry hit hard times. Almost overnight, it seemed. Marathon, Phillips. Gulf. Texaco and UniCal all pulled the bulk of their operations out of Casper, taking geologists, engineers, executives and skilled technicians with them. Among the big oil companies, only Amoco is still a major presence in Casper. The latest chamber of commerce figures (from 1987) put Casper's population at 47.500, but some residents believe it's now as low as 40,000. The good news is that you can buy a very nice, very roomy three-bedroom house in Casper for $30.000. The bad news is that not many people are buying houses in Casper.
Even within Wyoming. Casper's profile is not high. Cheyenne has the capitol. Laramie has the state university. Jackson Hole has the best skiing, Cody has the gateway to Yellowstone. Casper? Well, history buffs know that the old Oregon Trail passed through the city, but that's not much on which to build a tourist industry. What the city does have, as Casperite after Casperite will tell you. is a small-town feel. Tom Sutherland, the Star-Tribune'?, news editor—who seems to complain about anything and everything, particularly the fact that there are "too many damn Republicans in this town"—admits that he wouldn't leave Casper even though he has lived there for 30 years. "Clear skies." says Sutherland, "and no traffic jams."
What the Casper Classic has given the city is some pizzazz, some spice. Out-of-state cyclists have begun inquiring about settling in Casper, where they can train on Casper Mountain's cross-country ski trails or along the winding picturesque roads in Fremont Canyon. "Good word-of-mouth by the riders is important to a race." says Peter Davis of the Crest team, "and this event has very good word-of-mouth."
Within the city, the pattern of life has been changed by the race too. "You hardly ever saw anybody on a bike a few years ago." says Mertz. who took over as promoter of the Classic when Jackson left. "Now they're all over the place."
Since the advent of the Classic, a cycling club called the Windy City Cyclers (Casper is known for its strong winds, in case you didn't know) has been formed, and the Bike Stop, located in downtown Casper, now has an amateur team that competes in regional and state events. But the race has perhaps had its most dramatic impact on Casper's young set.
"Top cyclists look pretty exotic to kids." says Kent Olson, manager of the Bike Stop. "Different-looking haircuts, earrings, flashy jerseys, cycling shorts. Right before and after the Classic we get a lot of kids in here buying stuff to copy them." Whether that is to be desired is for Casperites to decide, but at the very least the annual cycling invasion provides a stark fashion contrast to the annual October visit of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, which holds its national semifinals in Casper.
The Classic is at a crucial crossroads. Should it continue to grow, increase the prize money to attract an international field, maybe even sell its name to obtain additional corporate sponsorship? Or should it stay as it is, perhaps even scale back, to preserve the local flavor and put the lesser-known young riders and even the common Casper citizenry at the forefront?
"To make the race much bigger would be the greatest mistake ever." says Jackson. "You need to keep the grass-roots support and the sponsorship dollars coming primarily from community businesses. You can't go back to major, corporate sponsors for more and more money. I've seen too many races held hostage by marketing budgets."
Mertz. who is talking about a $100,000 purse for the 1990 Classic, demurs slightly. ""We want to get bigger, no question about it," he says. "All signs are that we can keep increasing." And certainly that is what the top riders want him to do. "Make it bigger, make it longer, make it harder, make it richer," says Davis. "Keep expanding."
Mertz is listening intently to the riders' point of view, but he is also listening to Jackson. "We won't get bigger at the risk of losing the community identity. This race will always be known as the Casper Classic."
Fine. But Mertz admits that one disappointing aspect of the '89 Classic was the turnout for the Citizens' Race on Sunday morning. July 2. The first one. in '85, drew about 100 riders, almost as many as the professional race. This year only 98 citizens entered, while the main event attracted 450 competitors. More and more, it seems, the Classic has become a full-fledged spectator event instead of a participant event, and that was not Jackson's original intention.
Then, too, even the Citizens' Race had a professional look to it—with the notable exception of the McCallum family, that is. I signed up the four of us (at $20 a pop), figuring that all manner of common folk would pedal along in leisurely fashion, talking, joking and riding old hardware-store bikes with heavy bars, kickstands and even baskets for delivering newspapers. Perhaps a delightful gray-haired couple in matching I'M WITH STUPID T-shirts would smile and wave from a bicyle built for two. Hah! Double hah!
As it turns out. "citizen" cyclists are something like the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They quietly live among us like normal people, but on race days they reveal themselves to be a secret society composed of lean, mean cycling machines, rawboned men and women in Lycra shorts, diaphragm-compressing jerseys and hard-soled cycling shoes. What had I gotten us into?
My sons, Jamie, 11, and Chris, 9, were the first guinea pigs, going off with five other competitors in the kids' division. Chris, who has always been in the forefront of cycling fashion, was distressed to discover that actually pedaling a bicycle around a figure-eight criterium course of about one kilometer, with two fairly sizable hills for 15 minutes is much harder than. say. putting on a snazzy cycling cap. He gutted it out, though, and finished fourth.
Jamie, who grimly confronts every challenge as if it were the seventh game of the World Series, led the race most of the way, even though he did not know how to switch gears on the mountain bike that he, like all of us, had borrowed that morning. However, nine-year-old Anthony Zambi, who's already something of a local athletic legend, skillfully drafted behind him and finally took over the lead with two laps to go. Jamie finished a distant second. "It was like having a little gnat in your ear." says Jamie, who until that point thought that drafting was a course he would be taking in high school.
My wife. Donna, had the hardest task—all 25 women entrants were lumped into one race, and none of them appeared to be nearly her age. (Can I say that?) As she pedaled around the first lap, already trailing the field badly, she desperately called out. "See my entry number? Call it!" She wore 911 on her back.
Donna wound up dead last, but because she hung in there and finished. I obviously couldn't back out of the 35-and-over men's race. Did I look out of place? Suffice it to say that I was the only one of 11 competitors wearing a T-shirt, hiking shorts and running shoes. Somehow, I avoided last place for a lap and a half, after which the charade was over. In Monday's Star-Tribune. sports editor Marcus Prater reported that I came in eighth, generously neglecting to add that the three riders who placed behind me had all crashed and didn't finish the race.
For the entertainment value I provided, race officials should have refunded my 20 bucks. During my race, I became aware of a mother and little daughter who were following my progress, such as it was. As I approached for the last time the dreaded hill near which they were camped, I heard the little girl run to her mother and say, "Here he comes! Here he comes!"
I humbly submit that the Casper Classic would be an even better event if it found more room for the rank amateur, the weekend cyclist who doesn't know a frame pump from a picture frame. The city deserves much credit for luring some of the nation's best riders. but next year race officials might consider sending in a few clowns, too. They know where to reach me.