NEW PORT RICHEY — The clicking of cameras and shouts of spectators greeted the herd of cyclists as they rounded a 90-degree turn and jockeyed for position heading into a straightaway.
The streets of downtown New Port Richey were transformed in the early hours of Saturday morning into an eight-tenths of a mile racetrack for cycling enthusiasts from all over the state.
The event, the inaugural Gearlink Cup, was hosted by Gearlink Racing from New Port Richey. The group was lucky enough to receive the backing of the county, city and experienced race planners to stage the event.
"We did a race a few years ago in Palm Harbor, but because of the economy we had to stop hosting races for a few years," Gearlink president Jared Zimlan said. "This is our first shot at doing one in New Port Richey and the city has been really supportive. We've applied lessons we learned in the past, and with the help of Florida Cycling, we've been able to put the word out. Now we can only hope it goes down as a success and we attract more racers next year."
Age groups ranged from juniors ages 10 to 12 all the way up to the masters divisions for those 65 and over. Racers had the chance to compete for small purses of prize money in most divisions, but the day culminated with a professional race that included a purse of $2,500.
A 5K team pursuit race around the loop at Orange Lake allowed teams to compete in a format better known as a practice drill by most cycling teams.
Michael Nelson, 15, made the trip from Clermont for the Juniors 15-16 race. He recognized that the track provided enough difficulty to challenge any racer and he was surprised by the steps that organizers took to make this event different.
"Some of the corners are difficult but the course was good," Nelson said. "This event is unique because they're doing a pursuit race at the end. That's more like a drill that we'd do in practice but here they've made it into an actual event. That's new to see at one of these events so that's really cool."
For the casual cyclist, the races provide a significant fitness challenge, but oftentimes the courses are created in more rural settings.
Largo's Cathy Kamhi, 51, said the Gearlink course and downtown New Port Richey setting were a nice combination that would entice riders back.
"I just started racing this year," Kamhi said. "I like this course because it's really open. The corners are wide so you can really go fast on them even if you aren't that good at corners. It's a safe course and this is a beautiful little downtown. It's really small town USA. and it's fun because it gives you a chance to get away and go somewhere interesting that isn't in the middle of nowhere."
Gearlink was successful not only in attracting more than 300 racers, but a slew of spectators as well. Mike Latini from Port Richey was happy that his son-in-law from Gainesville was able to compete in the event, not only because it was close to home, but because the Gearlink event was more spectator-friendly than other races he has attended.
"I'm glad to see New Port Richey doing this," Latini said. "My son-in-law races in several of these events and I really think this one is cool. We went to see him race in Dade City and even though it was interesting, I like this better because the cyclists come by more often because the course is shorter."
David Rice can be reached at [email protected]