And they’re off …

Tour kicks off with fast-paced sprints

Chad Cagel crosses the finish line of an early heat of the Eldridge Hotel Street Sprint. The sprint Friday night up Seventh Street was the first event in the three-day Tour of Lawrence.

Downtown Lawrence was hopping Friday night as spectators lined the sides of Seventh Street to watch amateur and professional bike racers from across the region speed uphill in a 200-meter sprint.

The Eldridge Hotel Street Sprint marked the start of the inaugural Tour of Lawrence cycling event taking place this weekend.

Jennifer Herrell-Rhoades of Mercy Cycling won the women’s race, followed by Claire Armstrong of Kinetic Cycling in second and Catherine Walberg of Team Kendra Racing in third.

Jed Rogers of Toyota/Cycling Team won the men’s race. Joshua Carter of Mercy-Specialized took second, and Benn Stover of GP VeloTek took third.

Racers were organized into heats of four to six racers. The top qualifiers from those initial rounds advanced to the single-elimination bracket. Once in eliminations, riders found themselves in a head-to-head battle with one other racer. The top finishers then advanced to a double-elimination championship round.

Top place in the women’s division won $200, while the top rider in the men’s division received a check for $300.

The women were the first to ride, battling it out in three qualifying heats. The men’s race followed with a much larger field divided into 16 heats.

The strategy for riders in such a short race was simple: Go as fast as possible.

“You’ve really got to get a good jump so your competitors can’t catch you,” said Bill Marshall, a competitor from Overland Park. “With this course, you’re going uphill and into the wind, so you really need to get in the right gear to start in.”

The race was unusual for most riders.

“For a race like this, you use the same discipline you would use on a track,” said Chris Roettger, a women’s rider from St. Louis. “You normally don’t see this kind of thing. It’s great for spectators because they get to see the riders going side-by-side, but probably about 90 percent of riders have never practiced anything like this.”

“It was a really interesting event,” added Herrell-Rhoades, the women’s winner. “It’s fun and different. But it’s a lot harder. We do sprinting like this when you’re coming to the finish line, but you’re usually going about mid to upper 20’s (mph) before you start sprinting. Here you have to start from a dead stop. It’s a lot harder to get in the right gear.”

As a first-time event, the race was not without its organizational kinks. But for most of the spectators and racers, the event was a success.

“It’s really nice they brought another big event back to Lawrence and are getting more publicity for it,” said Ben Fishman, a Kansas University junior and a competitor in the men’s division. “After we lost (hosting) the collegiate championships, it’s great to have another big event come back here, especially during the summer. I think people are really loving the vibe of it.”

“My husband is a cyclist, and we always watch the Tour de France on television,” added Megan Hemphill, a Lawrence resident. “I think it’s really cool that something like this is happening in Lawrence. We want to try to come to all of the events.”

Fans lined the short course despite the threat of rain.

“An event like this is great for Lawrence,” said race volunteer Gary Calton. “A lot of time you have a hard time getting people to come out to new races, but this is such a great cycling community that (the race) was able to pull a lot of people. Seeing maybe 200 people out here is just awesome. I did a couple of races in Missouri, and sometimes you’re lucky if you get 10 people to come watch.

“And this is just more of a warm-up for tomorrow. The real racing starts tomorrow.”

The premier event, the Tour of Lawrence Criterium, begins at 1 p.m. today, following a children’s race at 12:45 p.m.

In the criterium, racers will speed around a one-mile circuit loop set up downtown.

“The criterium is one of the main reasons I came to this event,” Roettger said. “You’re going to see a lot of aggressive racing. It’s fast, and there’s lots of turns. It’s going to be pretty cool.”

Organizers say the best places to watch will be along the start and finish line at the intersection of Ninth and Massachusetts streets or at the intersection of Eighth and Massachusetts streets, where spectators can watch riders coming from two directions.