Paul Murphy, a Janesville bicycle enthusiast who is leading a local effort to galvanize downtown Janesville as an annual stop for the Tour of America’s Dairyland, used his hands to illustrate the work of bringing the pro bicycle racing circuit back this June.
He raised his hand to mid-forehead.
“We set the bar here last year,” Murphy said.
Then he lifted his hand two feet above his head.
“This year, the bar’s up here.”
So is the cash.
As the Town Square Gran Prix returns to downtown Janesville on June 25, local organizers are upping ante on payouts and bolstering the festivities for year two of a competitive bicycle race that made its first-ever stop in downtown Janesville last June.
Last year, the race-for-cash Gran Prix drew nearly 500 racers who circled a closed-loop street course downtown in front of crowds that topped 1,500 on a Tuesday, despite stormy afternoon weather.
The Gran Prix flies again this year, again as a Tuesday side leg to the 11-day Tour of America’s Dairyland, a professional circuit criterium series run mainly out of the Milwaukee area.
Like last year, the Gran Prix will shut down a number of streets in the core of downtown, surrendering a 13-block area along the riverfront all day to whining bike tires, clenched-jaw racers in Lycra shorts, and scores of spectators clanging bike-race cowbells.
Organizers say the Janesville races were a financial success last year, and sponsorships for the race this year were bountiful enough to allow local organizers to significantly boost cash payouts racers can earn this year to a total purse of $25,000 for race day.
Meanwhile, downtown businesses along the race route are stepping up efforts to woo even bigger crowds than last year, organizers say.
This year, local organizers say they sought to boost the draw for racers by offering a total purse of $25,000. That’s an $8,000 boost over last year’s Gran Prix. Like last year, the purse would be distributed throughout the day as special, one-lap premiums offered across all the age, gender and skill categories that make up the Gran Prix’s nine-race bill.
Local Gran Prix organizer John Westphal said that Tour of America’s Dairyland officials believe the Gran Prix’s purse will be the largest payout offered this year for any single-day, major-circuit criterium in the U.S.
All of the primes were provided from local sponsors of the Gran Prix, Westphal said.
Dairyland tour founder Bill Ochowicz said the tour has a blend of amateurs who race for experience. But he said most of the professional racers are drawn in by the prospect of winning cash.
Janesville’s Gran Prix is a mid-week race that represents a side trip for racers in the Dairyland tour. Most of the other 10 stops are centered in the Milwaukee area.
To entice racers to make a stop in Janesville, the Gran Prix last year ponied up a $17,000 purse for racers, largely offered out by race announcers in single-lap payouts, hot laps that can entice racers to try to garner hundreds of dollars in money that bicycle racers call “primes.”
A $17,000 purse is “well above and beyond” what other communities in the races have offered in the past, Ochowicz said. Now, this year, the stakes are higher. It’s $25,000. That’s one major way Murphy and Westphal said organizers and sponsors seek to set the Gran Prix apart from the other races in the Dairyland series.
In all, the Dairyland tour can draw 750 racers at some of its bigger stops, Ochowicz said.
Murphy and Westphal said they hope this year the Grand Prix can match the 489 racers it pulled in last year.
Ochowicz thinks odds are strong that could happen, considering this year has divisions of “master”-level racers in the 40 and 50-plus age category that would either start or end their legs of the Dairyland tour in Janesville. That could make Janesville a key stop in the tour this year, he said.
Murphy hopes if the races continue in Janesville, the focus on across-the-board payouts to all classes of racers will bring in scores of competitors from around the U.S. or international locations.
Already, there are indications at least one top Australian pro team will make stops in this year’s Dairyland tour this year, Murphy said.
Peta Mullens, a world-champion pro rider from Australia sent the Gran Prix organizers written feedback after last year’s race. Murphy said Mullens appreciated the fact the Gran Prix offers equal payouts for both women’s and men’s races across racing categories.
“She said, ‘Janesville, you’re doing it right,’” Murphy said.
The Gran Prix’s race route is configured differently this year, in part because of the lingering closure of the Milwaukee Street Bridge over the Rock River. The closure forced organizers to lay out a “dog-bone”-shaped circuit—two rectangular sets of turns on either side of the river, with a long, shotgun run along East Court Street that connects the two sets of turns like a balloon string.
Except for a single block between Main Street and Parker Drive, Milwaukee Street isn’t part of the race route this year.
The configuration forces racers heading uphill and downhill on Court Street into a bi-directional leg of the race. That is, racers going opposite directions would share Court Street, but the uphill and downhill lanes would be divided the center using concrete barriers.
Ochowicz said that kind of route is rarely used in bicycle races.
“We’ve never done it before,” he said.
Ochowicz said he believes the narrowed, single-lane straightaways on Court Street will force racers going up or downhill on into more of a single-file pattern, breaking up clusters of racers that can get their elbows, knees, and bike tires in each other’s way and cause accidents.
The one significant accident in last year’s races happened as one racer vying for pole position tried to sweep out and around a competitor on one of the bridges over the Rock River, but ran out of room and crashed.
Ochowicz believes a combination of eight turns that include both right and left turns will be equalizers for racers in the criterium. Some racers are adept at cornering fast, others excel in straightaways and others are strongest at climbing hills. All those facets are in the course. Another change is how spectators might cluster around the Gran Prix’s course.
Official race maps show the finish line and announcers’ grandstand will be moved from where it was last year on East Milwaukee Street to a spot on the west side of South Parker Drive. The announcer’s booth will occupy part of the Johnson Bank parking lot and part of a public lot just south, organizers said.
The vibe, plus the Y
Organizers say there’s more that’s different this year than the payouts and the course itself.
Westphal said local philanthropists who witnessed the Gran Prix and its draw to downtown last year were champing at the bit to offer up sponsorships this year. He said local organizers garnered enough sponsorships to put the Gran Prix in a good position to boost race payouts while also adding some new features to the race.
That’s allowed enhancements to the entertainment value of the races for spectators, such as multiple Jumbotrons and a multi-speaker sound system that will make the race’s announcers audible from any point on the .82-mile, closed-loop course.
Then, in comes some support from some new sources this year.
The YMCA of Northern Rock County is jumping into the Janesville Town Square Gran Prix on June 25, with a slew family activities and an offer to open the doors of its downtown health club to the criterion’s bicycle racers and their families.
This Y’s announcement marks a change from last year, when the Y had declined to get involved with the first Gran Prix. That was despite the fact that the race route ran adjacent to the Y’s Dodge Street location downtown.
YMCA Marketing Director Leah Kluge said that the Y is partnering with local organizers of the Gran Prix to offer a fun fair, food and family and children’s activities in the Y’s southwest parking lot from noon to 5 p.m. on race day.
The Y is at 221 Dodge St. The race day event will be open to the public, Kluge said.
The Y’s lot will offer families and spectators a ringside seat at the western leg of the Gran Prix’s course—a set of right and left turns and two-way racing that will route bikes in a tight, clockwise run around the block of West Court, McKinley and South Jackson streets.
Kluge said the Y’s lot will have at least four mobile food trucks sponsored by the Janesville Women’s Club. The Y and the Boys & Girls Club of Janesville plan to run children’s activities including sidewalk chalking, a bounce house and a tent where kids can paint signs to use to cheer on the racers.
The race organizers also plan to place a Jumbotron screen in the Y’s parking lot, Kluge said.
“That’ll make it easy for kids to watch the race if they’re not big enough to see over the (race) barriers,” Kluge said. “The whole set up, we think, will be a cool atmosphere to enjoy the race.”
Kluge said the Y also is donating 525 day passes to Gran Prix racers and their families, which she said would allow racers and their families access to the Y’s pool, locker rooms, showers and other amenities on race day.
Last year, the race’s route caused street closures that blocked access to parking lots at the Y all day. The Y’s leadership opted not to partner with planners of the Gran Prix, race organizers said.
They Y now is under interim leadership after former Executive Director Tom Den Boer departed this spring following an investigation of internal leadership at the Y.
Kluge said Y staff are glad the Y has come aboard as a partner to the Gran Prix. She said race organizers and Y officials have been working together alongside downtown business stakeholders since early this year on ways the Y’s involvement could enhance the race day environment.
The idea, she said, is to find ways to draw spectators all around the race area—on both the east and west sides of the river.
“Last year, the race route happened to block off both parking lots at the Y. Unfortunately, it created kind of a dead zone on the west side (downtown)” Kluge said. “We thought this year, hosting events and day pass donations was a feel-good thing to make up for our absence last year. It’s a win-win for everybody.”