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Bicycle race is ready to roll

Dade City will be spinning with bicyclists Sunday during the inaugural Dade Battle of Brilliance.

What started as a small-town dream is racing toward reality as officials gear up for Sunday's inaugural Dade Battle of Brilliance bicycle race through downtown.

At the end of the course, there may even be Olympic gold.

Some of the top names in competitive cycling, along with a rugged cadre of weekend warriors, have signed on to weave their way through a half-mile, six-turn course in a series of races around the historic old courthouse.

"It's coming together very, very nicely," said E.J. Rogut, one of the race coordinators. "People will get a chance to experience the color and sounds and speed in a place where we've never had a race. As far as athletic ability is concerned, a good bicycle racer is probably the most highly trained and fit athlete of any sport."

The Battle of Brilliance is the brainchild of David Hevia and his partner, J.R. Harrelson, co-owners of Kiefer Village Jewels. Hevia said they wanted to bring something unique to Dade City, and the idea for a bicycle race grew from there.

But they may have stumbled onto something even bigger.

Rogut, president of the Florida chapter of the USA Cycling organization that oversees Olympic cycling, said the countryside around Dade City is perfect for Olympic bicycle racing, should Florida win its bid to be host of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

If this weekend's race is a success, Rogut _ in charge of the Olympic bid's cycling category _ said he is ready to lock Dade City into the Olympic ring.

"It's perfect - the terrain, the hills," he said. "It's like no place else in Florida."

East Pasco is a regular haunt for Tampa Bay area bicycle racers, who use the hilly countryside for training runs. On Wednesday mornings and on most weekends, bicyclists with brightly colored outfits and high-tech cycles are a regular sight in Darby, St. Joseph, San Antonio and Saint Leo.

But the Olympic dream all starts with Sunday's race.

More than 300 racers in 14 categories _ from children to top-ranked professionals _ are expected to whip through town at speeds up to 40 mph in pursuit of $7,000 cash and Festina and Calypso watches.

Among the contestants are U.S. national cycling team member Josh Thornton and Nathan Rogut, a gold medal-winner at the Pan American Games this year and E.J. Rogut's son. Other professionally ranked sprinters from South Florida have indicated they will attend.

Ellen Kast, of race co-host Team American Classic, said the tight course will provide a real test of riding skill.

Frequent turns mean racers will have to work every second of the race to stay in contention. One slip-up, and the rest of the pack will leave a rider behind for good, she said.

In all but the youngest categories, racers will tour the course for a set time limit _ 20 to 60 minutes _ while they jockey for position and try to wear each other out. When time runs out, racers will sprint the final three to five laps in a dash for the finish.

Categories include races for riders over 50, over 40 and over 30, as well as first-time racers in men's and women's divisions. There also are categories for kids under 6 and those ages 7 to 9, 10 to 14 and 15 to 18. There is also a race for handcylists _ riders who pedal custom bikes with their hands _ and pro racers in the sport's top divisions.

The format, called criterium racing, is one of the most exciting formats for spectators, Kast said.

Up to 10,000 fans are expected to come to the races, with crowds able to get close to the course. To make way for the course, parts of Meridian Avenue and Seventh Street, both state roads, will be closed all day Sunday.

Hevia said spectators are encouraged to bring a folding chair and set up anywhere along the course. The race starts on Seventh Street just south of Meridian Avenue, then turns east on Meridian before a jolting 90-degree turn onto Fifth Street and a series of hairpin turns back to Seventh Street for the straightaway.

Visitors will be encouraged to park at the Pasco Government Center, at the corner of Meridian Avenue and the U.S. 98 bypass, and at city lots downtown.

As part of the weekend's festivities, the city is presenting a bicycle rodeo with games and safety lessons for children from 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday at the old courthouse, followed by a free concert on the courthouse steps.

Sunday's races begin at 8 a.m., with the biggest races expected to begin about 11:30 a.m. and run through the afternoon.

Hevia credited Dade City officials, the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Dade City Main Street with helping make the race a reality. The race benefits the Toys for Tots program.

"It's been great, more than I ever expected," he said Wednesday. "I can't believe it's happening. It's real."