Spring cycling event is becoming a tradition in northern Ulster County

Contestants in last year’s Women’s Woodstock Cycling Grand Prix race approach the intersection of routes 375 and 212 (photo by Dion Ogust)

If you like to bicycle or to watch other people bicycle, mark the three-day seventh annual Women’s Woodstock Cycling Grand Prix on your calendar. It begins with a community dinner at the Woodstock Fire Department on Route 212 on Friday, May 3 at 6:30 p.m. (125-guest limit!). The event’s a benefit for the fire department and the Boys and Girls Club of Ulster, Kingston and Saugerties.

On Saturday morning individual time trials on road bicycles will begin at ten in the morning on a course on Plank Road (Old Route 28) between Phoenicia and the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper. That afternoon there’ll be a closed-course 40-minute plus one lap race (criterium) for less advanced riders held near the ice arena in Saugerties and a kids’ (age four to 14) sprint on a blocked course near the same location, followed by a 55-minute plus one lap pro criterium for more advanced riders.

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The big events, the two bicycle road races, a 34-mile one for the less advanced riders and a grueling, hill-climbing 62-mile heartbreaker for the pros, will begin on Sunday morning in Woodstock at 8:10 and 8 respectively. The surviving participants will partake of a barbecue lunch at the Woodstock Community Center starting at 11:30 a.m., according to local impresario Martin Bruhn. Race awards will be handed out at the same location at 1 p.m.

The races are taking place because of the whole-hearted cooperation of the uniformed services of the four sponsoring towns: Woodstock, Shandaken, Hurley and Saugerties. “They put up with me,” he said. They more than put up with him. The telephone number of race headquarters is that of the Woodstock Police Department.

You really can’t understand the spirit of the Women’s Woodstock Cycling Grand Prix without understanding the sense of community underlying it. Where most sports confine the athletes to playing fields, bicycle road races do the opposite. The competitors are guests of everyone’s regional landscape, pumping up its hills and flying down again, passing the weatherbeaten barns, eccentric homes and sturdy trees that have managed to survive another winter, and accepting whatever early-May seasonal weather is dished out to them.  The organizers have arranged 40 beds in community homes for the race participants.

Bruhn himself stopped racing in Europe in 1986 and moved to Woodstock in 1988. He loved road racing, which he considers a dying art form, and had the dream of a race in Ulster County. He felt the local landscape would be an ideal and challenging location for the sport he loved.

He felt women riders in particular had been lost in the shuffle of American bike racing. There were fewer female role models in the sport. Having watched the grit and tenacity the woman racers exhibited, Bruhn was impressed. “I don’t think I could do what they do,” he said. Those serious women racers seemed to share the passion he had for the sport. “They race to race,” he said admiringly. “No earpieces.”

The media were full of the story about Lance Armstrong’s doping when Bruhn announced the first Women’s Woodstock Cycling Grand Prix seven years ago. He was amazed when the first-year event at the Woodstock Day School attracted 91 participants, many from the major metropolitan areas of the Northeast. The event hasn’t drawn European racers yet, but Bruhn is ever hopeful.

“We don’t worry about the numbers,” Bruhn said. “If the weather sucks, they don’t come.” Last year there were 86 riders.

In his regular job, Martin Bruhn is a Woodstock-area house painter, a nice contrast to his socially complex role as coordinator of a cycling road race. “When the race is over,” he confides, “I’m happy to go back and paint a house.”