CLEARWATER -The streets surrounding the Harborview Center, Main Library and Coachman Park became a bicycle racing circuit on Saturday October 9th, as the YMCA of the Suncoast and the City of Clearwater partnered to produce the Clearwater Classic Cycling Festival.
The event drew nearly 300 participants, according to Bud Elias, chairman of the event organizing committee. The Festival began with a 25 mile Beach Tour, and progressed through the day with 10 Criterium Races around Coachman Park using closed portions of Drew Street, Osceola Avenue and Cleveland Street.
While the Juniors class raced only for medals and bragging rights, participants in the other 9 classes were racing for prize money; a total of $12,500 was awarded, including $7,500 to the leading finishers in the Professional class, who competed for 90 minutes plus 5 laps and averaged 33-36 miles per hour.
Elias said that the site was ideal because the circuit provided both uphill and downhill challenges, unusual in the State of Florida, and spectators could view about 1/2 of the circuit from the vantage point of Coachman Park.
The event was 1 1/2 years in the making, according to Elias who said, "The City was outstanding; we couldn't have done it without them." His only disappointment was the spectator turnout, numbering between 100 and 200. "The event wasn't well publicized," Elias said.
But while the event was a success from the perspective of its participants and organizers, it was a nightmare for motorists traveling through downtown and Clearwater Beach. The road closures that created enjoyment for the bicyclists had created gridlock of epic proportions; the only Causeway access was via Cleveland Street, which had been narrowed to just one lane in each direction at the bridge. Drivers reported delays of up to 1 1/2 hours getting through downtown to the Beach, and similar delays in the reverse direction in the afternoon. Even at 10AM, eastbound traffic was backed up on the Memorial Causeway to Island Way.
The event's traffic impact is yet another result of the delays in constructing the new Memorial Causeway Bridge according to Clearwater Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Dunbar. He said that the event had been planned with the assumption that the new bridge would be carrying traffic by now.
But that's no excuse according to some local residents. Jack Heckert, President of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce, said, "The City Council just won't open their eyes to the traffic issues resulting from the events downtown." He added, "Until the bridge is done we ought to eliminate the closure of those streets."
Council member Frank Hibbard was one of those caught in the traffic nightmare. He and his colleagues approved the road closure, a decision he now regrets; Hibbard said, "We're going to have to suspend any additional events from getting on the calendar." But he stopped short of suggesting the cancellation of any that are already committed; "I'd have to know what it's going to cost us to get out of the contract," Hibbard said.
Although there's no contract with the City yet, Elias is looking forward to hosting next year's Clearwater Classic at Coachman Park again. He's planning a two-day event, and hoping that by then the Memorial Causeway Bridge will be complete, and that the road closures will have far less impact on beach traffic.
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