Our bike race is an unmatched spectacle

When I first heard about the Downtown Walterboro Criterium, it was nine years ago, and I was an editor at The Press and Standard. A friend of mine walked into the newsroom and started telling me about this bike race I needed to cover for the newspaper.

A bike race? Really? All I could picture was little kids on Huffies.

I took a deep breath and said OK; I’d try to find some time to look into it.

A week or two later, I walked out of The Press’ office on Washington Street and into the bright, spring sun. It was the afternoon of the inaugural Downtown Walterboro Criterium and preparations were under way.

Washington Street was closed, and a flat-bed truck was crawling by as men pulled off fencing and created a race course. Down the street, a stage was going up. And in the middle of it all were the professional cyclists.

Sure, I’d heard of Lance Armstrong. But I had never seen athletes like this.

Their uniforms. Ladies, if you’ve never seen a gentleman in cycling attire, trust me — you’ll probably blush at first. But once the color leaves your cheeks, you realize the tight fit of these jerseys and shorts is vital, as the material is aerodynamic and wicks away sweat — essential technology for rides 100-plus miles long.

Their bikes. Just the frame — no wheels or handlebars — of Lance Armstrong’s bike costs about $3,000 and weighs less than two-and-a-half pounds. The lightness of the bike is also important, as the more it weighs, the more you have to push up hills, or in Lance’s case, mountains.

Their athleticism. Sure they look scrawny, but these guys and girls are tough as nails. They ride with saddle sores, road rash and broken collarbones. They ride in the rain, over cobblestones and, in Europe, with fans screaming and waving flags inches away from their faces.

Needless to say, I was hooked. That summer, I bought a used road bicycle and started riding with some local triathletes. About a year later, my cycling career was cut short when I crashed and broke my shoulder.

Almost a decade later, the Downtown Walterboro Criterium will again come to town on May 4. The first year, we had only professional men racing; nowadays, we have masters (40+), amateurs and both professional women and men. Even children, ages 3-10, can get into the action — riding a Huffy, if they wish.

If you’ve never watched the bike race, it’s truly a great evening out. While the criterium is one of just a few professional sporting events in the entire state, it does not come with a professional price tag — it’s free to attend. And even better, every seat in the house is a box seat, as they loop around the mile-long course 40-50 times.

Bring some chairs and have a picnic or fire up the grill with your family and friends. Just be sure to hold onto your napkins, because when 100 cyclists whoosh by at 35 mph, anything that’s not weighed down is going with them.

Don’t know anything about cycling? This website is designed to help explain the basics of the sport. You’ll learn what the heck a peloton is and the rules of the road.

Come for an hour or the entire evening — you’re sure to have a great time. And you just might buy a bike of your own.

(Libby Roerig was one of several dedicated volunteers who help fundraise, promote and plan the Downtown Walterboro Criterium each year.)