BROOKSVILLE — The buzz about Brooksville as a premier venue for bicycle racing started before the final riders in last year's inaugural Brooksville Cycling Classic rolled over the finish line.
"Everybody loved it," said Pablo Santa Cruz, a Safety Harbor racer who runs Florida Cycling, which helped put on the race. "The courses are challenging, and the organization, the friendliness and the ability to combine (the race) with the festival really gave a community flavor that made a difference."
The two-day event returns this weekend, featuring the same ingredients that had participants and spectators raving by Sunday afternoon last year.
On Saturday, racers will scream around the same 1.2-mile criterium course that starts and finishes at Liberty and Main streets downtown.
The youngest junior class riders are on the course for 20 minutes, starting at 9 a.m. Racing continues throughout the day, culminating at 5 p.m. with the 75-minute pro race. Because racers make multiple laps, the criterium course is more spectator-friendly than the road race on Sunday.
The Get Healthy Zone will be open all day Saturday near the start line. The area will feature vendor and sponsor displays, free samples and products for purchase, as well as massage therapy demonstrations. A cafe will sell food and beverages.
Saturday's activities also include an open ride on the course for riders of all abilities, a kids race on Liberty Street, and a bike-building and racing competition between police and fire personnel.
Just like last year, the race will be Part 1 of a trifecta of events going on downtown on Saturday.
The Brooksville Business Alliance will host its Market on Main Street and Brooksville Nights for an all-day street festival, and the city will have its Fall Art N' Market Walk from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. as part of the annual Founders Week celebration.
The combination of events drew a diverse crowd last year that enabled plenty of people to experience a live bicycle race for the first time, said event organizer Laura DeWitt, an avid cyclist and co-owner of two natural food stores in Hernando County.
"Traditionally, races are just stand-alone events where people come and race," DeWitt said. "What we wanted to do was not only carve ourselves out as one of the best racing venues in Florida, which I think we've done, but also create a better awareness and understanding and respect for the sport."
On Sunday, riders take to the hilly roads of Spring Lake for the Ice Cream Hill road race.
The start/finish line for the 17-mile course is at the Arc Nature Coast on Neff Lake Road. Riders will tackle tough climbs on Spring Lake Highway and Hayman and Batten roads. The race is named for the hill on Spring Lake Highway that climbs to the Boyett's Grove roadside attraction.
The juniors start first at 9 a.m. The pros, who will make four loops for a total of 68 miles, start at 1:30 p.m.
One of the main goals this year is to attract women of all skill levels to the starting lines for both races, so junior and amateur women will race for special prizes. Women comprise roughly half of all cyclists, but only about 10 percent of racers, DeWitt said.
Those who follow the sport might get a thrill to know who is showing up to race. Longtime professional Ivan Dominguez, a Cuban-born gold and silver medalist at the Pan American Games who has raced in Europe alongside some of the sport's greatest riders, has decided to come out of retirement at the age of 35, Santa Cruz said, and the Brooksville race will be one of his first events.
All proceeds after costs are covered will benefit the Arc, Operation Heartfelt and the Humane Society of the Nature Coast. A fundraising party is set for Friday evening at City Hall.
Last year, the event raised $5,000 for local charities and had roughly a $180,000 economic impact for the county, DeWitt said.
The city of Brooksville no longer waives event fees, so organizers are paying nearly $3,000 to the city to cover costs this year.
City Council member Lara Bradburn called the race "one of the greatest events we've ever held in the city of Brooksville." Last year's race attracted a key demographic of health-conscious people with disposable income, Bradburn noted.
"Everything about this race is a win for the city," she said. "Not only was it well attended, you had cyclists coming from all over the Southeast, and they were so pleased with the venue, they went out and told people about Brooksville. We can't pay for that type of marketing."
Brooksville's mayor at the time, Bradburn spent part of the criterium race watching from a camp chair as riders came tearing around the first turn.
"I couldn't believe how fast they were going, particularly down the brick streets," she said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or email@example.com.