The final leg of the professional bicycle race has helped establish the city as a biking mecca in Minnesota.
Jesse Anthony and Amber Neben hope to be back in Stillwater to defend their respective men's and women's titles in the Nature Valley Grand Prix, but regardless of who rides away with the coveted yellow jersey, the ultimate winner of the state's only professional bicycle race will be the city itself.
More than 8,000 to 10,000 people -- many of them tourists -- are expected to eat, shop, stay in hotels and line the streets to catch the fifth and final leg of the race that has helped the idyllic St. Croix River city build a reputation as a cycling mecca in Minnesota and has other communities looking to get a piece of the action.
"It's our signature race, the one people around the world know," said David LaPorte, director of the race, which begins with about 150 men and 100 women on Wednesday in St. Paul and includes stops in Cannon Falls, Minneapolis and Menomonie, Wis., before crowning individual and team champions in Stillwater next Sunday. "We get bigger crowds in Uptown [Minneapolis] because so many people live there, but this is our most successful."
The Nature Valley Grand Prix debuted 14 years ago. It arrived in Stillwater in 2002 after organizers told race officials to either find a venue that would draw large crowds or get the event on national TV. LaPorte brought the event to Stillwater with its famous Chilikoot Hill, which has a 24 percent grade and has the toughest reputation on the North American cycling circuit. Riders came, and so did crowds.
"That was a turning point for us," LaPorte said. "It was the first place we had a substantial crowd."
The race has found a loyal following in Stillwater, where riders look to snag a share of the $25,000 purse in the men's race and $15,000 in the women's race. That's good news for businesses, which stand to cash in now and perhaps later, too.
"We pick up quite a few [customers] for the race," said Chuck Dougherty, owner of the Water Street Inn. "The big thing is that they come see the town. Maybe they'll come back."
Now in its 10th year in Stillwater, the race has helped the city position itself as a destination for bicyclists and grab its share of the $150 million that bicycle tourism generates annually in Minnesota. It already has an active bike club, two bike-themed eateries, and soon the Browns Valley Trail will be linked with the Gateway Trail, which is expected to bring even more bicyclists downtown.
Once the new $676 million Hwy. 36 bridge over the St. Croix River is built in Oak Park Heights, the Historic Lift Bridge will become part of a trail for bicyclists and pedestrians.
"There is huge potential," said race director Lee Stylos, who said Stillwater could become a tourist destination like Lanesboro in southern Minnesota.
"Biking [in Stillwater] is getting bigger and bigger," said Barb Trueman, marketing and ad representative for the Stillwater Convention and Visitors Bureau. She declined to say how much the bureau is paying to promote the race, but said "if events did not pay off or we didn't think they were valuable, we would not be doing them."
LaPorte said more than 3,500 brochures and 1,000 posters have been printed and distributed to advertise the race.
Only riders who have completed the first four stages will race on the Stillwater course, which features a 1.4-mile loop through the historic town replete with hairpin turns, screaming downhill drops and the lung-busting uphill climb on every lap that riders will have to conquer once every three minutes. The final leg also includes an expo, stunt rider shows and a kids' race. The main events are the 13-lap women's race at 11:45 a.m. and the 20-lap men's race at 1:30 p.m.
The Nature Valley Grand Prix attracts many of the best riders in North America, including world champions and Olympic hopefuls. It's also starting to attract attention from other cities that want to host world class events.
Two years ago, when leaders in Mankato turned their focus on Vikings' training camp, race officials called Menomonie and asked if they wanted to host a stage.
"They said, 'Oh yeah,'" LaPorte said. "They had been pursuing us for two years. There are a couple other cities out there wanting to host."
LaPorte said the Stillwater leg is safe and is not in danger of moving.
The race is a fundraiser, and proceeds from sponsorships and the nominal entry fee riders pay go to charity.
In the past six years, the race has provided more than $200,000 to Minnesota Children's Hospital.
This year's charity is Children's Lighthouse of Minnesota. It plans to build a pediatric hospice for children in the Twin Cities. It would be only the fourth facility of its kind in the nation, he said.
"We believe we benefit Stillwater," LaPorte said. "Thousands of communities say they are a 'bike capital,' but there are only five that host a national bike festival, and that moves them to the front."
Tim Harlow • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @timstrib