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Smaller field, crowds on hand for downtown bicycle race
Wayne’s Trains gives rides around the square in downtown Gainesville on Saturday afternoon during the Main Street Gainesville’s Bikes, Bands, and Healthy Bodies events surrounding the criterium bicycle races.

Even bicycle races aren’t immune from a tire-flattening economy.

The crowd on the square for Saturday’s Downtown Gainesville Gran Prix Criterium seemed thinner than years past, and the field of competitors was down by as much as 200 from its peak of 500 in 2007.

But those who turned out to watch were rewarded with the colorful sights of cyclists whizzing through the streets of downtown Gainesville at speeds topping 40 mph.

“It’s like NASCAR on bikes,” said 31-year-old amateur rider Russell Baggett, explaining the spectator appeal of such events as the Georgia Cup Pro/Am event. “Including the crashes.”

The sport is hurting like a cyclist caught in the middle of a 10-bike pileup, with sponsorship money for the Georgia Cup down by 70 percent and participation down by a third, said series director and promoter James Lowe.

But unlike the Tour de Georgia, which bowed out this year due to economic woes, the nation’s largest Pro/Am competitive cycling series isn’t going away, Lowe said.

“Unfortunately, we just have to pass it along to the riders with lower payouts,” he said.

Last year, the event awarded a first prize of $5,000. This year it’s $1,500.

Many riders faced with an $85 entry fee, plus travel expenses, plus accommodation costs, have chosen to sit out for the time being.

The series has gone from attracting riders from all over to what Lowe described as “basically a local event.”

But those who do show up still put on a show. And Lowe said the Georgia Cup will keep coming back to Gainesville, where it made its sixth straight annual appearance downtown Saturday to cap off its eight-event season.

“We’re going to continue to do what we do and just wait for the economy to change,” Lowe said. “Like any other business, the strong will survive.”