EDWARDSVILLE — Nate Cox’s first appearance at the Bank of Edwardsville Rotary Criterium was memorable.
The Southern Illinois University Edwardsville junior won the first championship of his cycling career after winning the Men’s Category 4 race of the seventh annual bike event in downtown Edwardsville.
Hundreds of spectators applauded when Cox stepped atop the podium.
“It’s one of the greatest races that I have ever done,” said Cox, who won $400. “The atmosphere is crazy and there are so many people. Just to have everybody screaming as I was sprinting to the finish was crazy. I almost started crying right afterward. I was so excited for all of these people.”
Cox was one of more than 300 cyclists who competed in the criterium, a series of high-speed bicycle races, free children’s races, live bands and a food zone. All cyclists compete for $10,000 — one of the largest one-day payouts in the St. Louis area.
“It has grown every year,” race director S.J. Morrison said. “What’s been really exciting is to see how much this community supports this event. Not only the city of Edwardsville and Edwardsville Township support it, but we have 40 local businesses who sponsor our event. We had huge crowds, so the community comes out and supports this. It’s becoming an event everybody comes out for.”
The criterium started in 2010. It is hosted by the Edwardsville Rotary Club as a fundraiser for community-enhancing projects.
“We wanted a fundraiser that was organic to the Edwardsville community, and Edwardsville is a biking town because of all of the MCT (Madison County Transit) bike trails,” Morrison said. “It’s unlike any other kind of event that we have in our region. So we thought that a bike race would be a lot of fun, and it has been.”
Morrison came up with the idea of having the event in Edwardsville while he was attending graduate school at Indiana University.
“They have a signature bike race called the Little 500,” said Morrison, who received his undergraduate degree at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. “I thought, ‘Gosh, we could do this in Edwardsville.’ So we found a place in the downtown Edwardsville area to do it and the city was on board. We worked so well with the city, the public works department, the police department, the city council and the mayor.”
The event ran for eight hours from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. Streets in downtown Edwardsville were closed at noon.
“We had three hours to set up something like 60 tables, 300 chairs, eight big tents, two stages, 1,500 feet of barricades and 300 hay bales,” Morrison said. “We have a lot to do and we have hundreds of banners and signs to hang up. Half of the event happens after the lights go out, so we have to have lights under tents. We have to have a big light next to the start/finish line to shine on the race route so the cyclists can see where they are going. There’s a lot that goes into this event.”
There are nine races; six in the men’s division, two women’s races and one children’s race.
The race began southbound on Main Street, then westbound on Vandalia Street, southbound on Benton Street, westbound on Ramey Street, northbound on Coventry Place and eastbound on St. Louis Street before ending on Main Street.
“It’s a very technical course, so it’s an advantage to somebody who can handle the bike well and turn their bike well,” said Chris Harre, who won the Master’s Men’s Division title and competes in the criterium every year. “It’s a relatively flat course, but it has a lot of turns, so if you can’t handle your bike, you’re not going to do well.”
Harre was one of four St. Louis residents who won championships at the criterium. The others were Jen Schook (Women’s 3 and 4), Hannah Shell (Women’s Open) and Spencer Seggebruch (Men’s 1 and 2).
Shell competed in the criterium for the second straight year. She finished third in the women’s 3 and 4 race in 2015, her first year in cycling.
“I love it,” Shell said. “Edwardsville is a great scene. I love it when the community comes out. It’s one of the most supportive races in the area, for sure.”
Three Edwardsville cyclists won championships — Jacob Slosar (Juniors), Kelsey Tharp (Men’s Category 5) and Keith Guilford (Men’s Category 3).
Guilford, who moved to Edwardsville from Kansas three years ago, said he enjoys competing at night. His race began at 8 p.m. and ended an hour later.
“The shadows make it feel like you’re going faster than you really are,” Guilford said. “The course is so well-lit.”
Cox, who is from Springfield and competes with the Wheel Fast Bicycle team in Chatham, had planned on competing in the criterium in 2014, but he had to sit out after breaking his collarbone.
Cox said he was looking forward to competing in the criterium since January.
“I’ve been training all year for this,” Cox said. “It’s so exciting. This is the one that I’ve been targeted all season. This was the one I really wanted. I didn’t care about any other races. This is it.”