It’s the weekend of the Gateway Cup, the biggest cycling event in St. Louis. A crowd has gathered under the lights outside the trendy shops and restaurants of Lafayette Square, where racing takes place on Friday night. People grow silent as the racers make their way to the start line. The intensity is clear on the faces of the competitors. They eye each other and grip the handlebars more tightly, muscles tensing as they await the signal.

The moment draws near. One racer edges her pink Huffy with handlebar streamers just an inch closer to the start line. Another checks the placement of his feet on the pedals of his Big Wheel. The whistle blows — and they’re off! Dozens of little legs pump, giving it all they’ve got to try and be the first to the finish.

The daily kids’ races are, of course, just one small piece of the four-day Gateway Cup, which is held each Labor Day weekend in some of St. Louis’ most historic and best-loved neighborhoods. The little squirts provide a comical contrast to the full-sized men and women who line up for the eight other heats each day, but at the same time this is a great representation of the fun and family-friendly atmosphere of the event.

“The Gateway Cup offers a such a great opportunity to get outside with friends and neighbors,” said Julie Padberg-White, who has lived in Lafayette Square since 1998. “The whole night is a lot of fun. Everybody is out being social, having people over for food and cocktails in their front yard or out walking around. It’s a one big street party.”

Benton Park Classic

The Gateway Cup takes place over four days (Friday through Monday) in four different neighborhoods: Lafayette Square, Francis Park, The Hill and Benton Park. It seems like everyone involved has an opinion about the best location in the extended-weekend series.

The Giro is my favorite,” said race announcer Frankie Andreu, speaking of the Giro Della Montagna (“Tour of the Hill”). “It’s the Italian flair of the neighborhood, the expo area, all the food. Plus, the course itself. It has that big hill on the back stretch. It’s challenging and difficult. It’s a great group of spectators, just a fun event all around.”

Regardless of the location, this style of criterium bike racing (also called “crits”) is extraordinarily friendly to spectators. There’s no admission fee. You can stay as long as you like, taking in continuous action at nine races each day. Because cyclists are riding laps around a defined course, generally a mile or so long, you get to see them multiple times and can watch the race unfold in front of you.

“Crits are much faster than regular road racing,” said Scott Moninger, a Masters’-level St. Louis cyclist who raced professionally for many years. “It’s much more spectator friendly. People can see the whole course. It’s more straightforward and easier to understand.

“It’s sort of an interesting combination of NASCAR and a chess match,” continued Moninger. “With 60 to 100 riders, drafting is an important part of the strategy. You’ve got people riding very close together, so there is some bumping and touching elbows.”

And because you can watch from the sidewalk just yards away from the action, it’s an incredible sensory experience — the rush of wind from the pack of cyclists blowing by at 35 mph can be enough to take your hat off.

“People who come to see it say, ‘Wow, I never realized how loud it is,’” said Padberg-White. “There’s the wind, the colors, the noise. You can hear the clicking of the gears, them yelling at each other. It’s wonderful, freaky, scary — all those things.”

For many reasons, the Gateway Cup draws some of the highest-caliber racers you’ll ever see in St Louis. This year it’s part of both the USA Cycling Pro Road Tour and the USA Crits Championship Series — both big deals in sport.

It’s also widely regarded as a well-organized event, where things run on time, supported by a small army of volunteers who work to make it a terrific experience for racers and spectators alike.

“The Gateway Cup pulls in national and international racers, offering a higher level of competition,” said Moninger. “It’s a nice way to get a taste of world-class racing without traveling to Europe or the East or West coasts. It’s riders who have been in the Tour de France, the Olympics. It’s incredible talent, men and women both.”

“The Pro field has the big dogs. These aren’t your regional Cat 1 guys. It’s the professionals. It’s what they do,” added Spencer Seggebruch, who lives in Clayton and at age 26 is himself a Cat 1 racer (the highest ranked amateur class) on the Big Shark team. “You get people who come here from all over — California, wherever — just to compete.”

The timing and status of the event makes it a pinnacle event on cycling’s Pro Road Tour calendar, held at the climax of the season. For many of the high-level amateur racers, this is the last chance to compete before summer ends and before school, work and family demands take over again. And the efficiency of four consecutive days of racing in the same city is a real plus for the participants.

“Whether you’re sleeping on a couch or in hotel, your expenses are amortized over four days. You get more bang for your buck,” said Moninger. “A single mishap like a crash or a mechanical is not going to sink you like it would in a one-day event. You get the opportunity to come back again and race the next day.”

Tour de Lafeyette

The Gateway Cup is a big production, with more than just cycling on the schedule. Each day also features special events such as the Ride to Unite, during which kids can pedal alongside local celebrities and pro cyclists. Trailnet hosts the Giro Della Montagna Fun Ride, a bike tour of historic St. Louis, and there’s a 5k run and kids’ races — held on the same course that the athletes use.

Speaking of which, more than 600 male and female cyclists take part in the multiple heats held each day. The earliest matchups are between the lowest-level amateurs and then continue up through the more advanced cyclists. Riders age 40 and over can complete in a Masters’ category race. The prime-time events cap off each day, with the professional riders lining up alongside the highest-ranked regional and local amateurs for some crazy-fast racing.

Immediately afterward, a crew of 40 volunteers gets busy tearing down the course and reassembling it elsewhere for the next day’s races. This all doesn’t happen by happy accident.

“The Gateway Cup is super well-organized,” said Andreu. “The events run on time. There’s great courses, great prize money [the total cash purse is $70,000] and a wonderful atmosphere. Mike really does an amazing job.”

By Mike he means St. Louisan Mike Weiss, owner of Big Shark Bicycle Company, who plays the primary role in bringing the Gateway Cup together each year. Early on, the Gateway Cup was a loose collection of independent races held at a variety of locations, including Edwardsville and Belleville/Signal Hill, Illinois; and Kirkwood, University City and downtown St. Louis. It was run by volunteers until the event finally outgrew itself, prompting Mike and Big Shark to take over about 10 years ago.

“Consolidating all the locations within the City of St. Louis has made it simpler,” said Weiss. “You’re talking with the same police department and the same fire department, regardless of what day it is. And returning to the same neighborhoods is great. We need their excitement and support to make this happen. And they are terrific.”

Among other things, the neighborhood associations recruit host homes for racers who come in from out of town.

“It’s been fun to get to know the guys,” said Padberg-White, whose family has hosted riders over the years. “It personalizes things. You end up rooting for them. Plus, they’re a great influence on my kids. They watch what they eat. They’re conscientious. They’re polite. They don’t drink a lot. It’s exciting to meet them and see how dedicated they are to their sport.”

So, if you have a chance, be sure to check out the Gateway Cup this coming Labor Day weekend. You’ll see St. Louis’ best racers competing against some of the top cyclists in the country, set against the backdrop of some of our city’s most distinctive neighborhoods. It’s social, it’s athletic, it’s inclusive, it’s distinctively St. Louis. And it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

“There is something about being able to watch someone take something so mundane — riding a bike — and turn it into an art form,” said racer Stacy Bragg, who at age 49 took the overall title last year in one of the women’s classes. “Riding a bike is almost universal, so everyone can connect at some level.

“But riding your bike in a crit,” added Bragg, “that’s some next-level shit.”

Author: David Fiedler is a contributor to Terrain Magazine. On the bike, a dual-threat of being both big and slow has produced a scorching lack of success in his racing career.
Photos: By Matt James, courtesy of Big Shark Bicycle Company