Going for the gold (cheese wheel) at the Tour of America's Dairyland
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Laura Van Gilder won eight of 11 races in the 2011 Tour of America's Dairyland, thousands of dollars in cash prizes and the overall women's title.
It was the dairy prize - a 20-pound Sartori cheese wheel - that solidified her fondness for racing her bike in Wisconsin.
Snacking well into October, Van Gilder was reminded of the local podium prizes, the positive attitudes and the hospitality she found in the growing race series.
The 47-year-old rider from Pennsylvania and the Mellow Mushroom team will return next week to defend her title and restock her pantry.
"It's wonderful to have so many days of races and so many venues," Van Gilder said. "I'm thrilled to be coming back. I've told so many of my competitors that it's a race they shouldn't miss."
Sponsored by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, the Tour of America's Dairyland extends the connection between the dairy industry and cycling, a tie that goes beyond cheese and chocolate milk.
Wisconsin regularly ranks among the best states in the country for cycling, in part because so many miles of rural roads were paved decades ago to make it easier for dairy farmers to deliver their products.
Those roads became a training ground for Olympians like Eric and Beth Heiden, and Sheila Young Ochowicz, and Team RadioShack rider Matthew Busche, from Wauwatosa.
"Wisconsin has had professional-level and Olympic-level cyclists and to keep that tradition alive is good," said Jack Hirt, executive director of TOAD.
The 11-race series launches its fourth year in Shorewood on Thursday night. The pro men and women will circle the village streets in the Shorewood Criterium, starting at 5 p.m.
The amateurs join the action on Friday in the East Troy Cycling Classic, then take advantage of a rare opportunity to race for 10 consecutive days.
Brent Emery, who won a silver medal in track cycling in the 1984 Olympics, plans to dip his wheel in with the pros, and the masters 50-plus group.
"As busy as I am at my job, when I'm in the middle of a bike race, there can be 150 guys within inches of each other going around the corner, and that's one of the most relaxing places I can be," said Emery, an owner of Emerys Third Coast Cycling Triathlon and Fitness shops.
"It's fun, it's calm and it's a great place for me to hang out," he said.
Nine of the events in the TOAD series are criteriums, races contested on short courses, roughly one mile, on city streets. The top pros will race for 90 minutes, topping speeds of 40 mph, in an ever-changing game of strength and tactics.
"The thing people are amazed at is the speed of the races," Emery said. "That's the number one thing people come away with, 'how are they going that fast lap after lap.'"
The final four races in the series, including the ISCorp Downer Classic, are part of the new USA Cycling National Criterium Calendar, a season-long overall points competition. The NCC tie-in will draw the country's top domestic pro riders and teams to race in Sheboygan, Fond du Lac, Milwaukee and Madison.
Jim Stemper, a Marquette High School grad, expects his Kenda/5-Hour Energy Cycling Team to win the $10,000 cash prize for the series' top overall team. The Kenda squad will have four solid sprinters and Stemper, the 2010 TOAD champion, riding in support for all 11 races in the series.
Riders split prize money swept up by their teammates, and the $130,000 in play throughout the TOAD series is ample motivation for athletes who live a nomadic lifestyle pursuing their sport.
"Where I live, what I eat, when I go to bed, my entire life is my job, but I like it, which is cool, I guess," said Stemper, 26. "You have to live with enough stuff to fit in your car."
Stemper devotes himself to the goal of cracking the roster of a pro team racing in Europe. Busche, the fellow Wauwatosa native, is the role model for that progression.
Similarly, Erica Allar, from the Rideclean-Patentit.com squad, will be racing in the TOAD with bigger goals.
"You wake up every morning and maybe you don't feel like riding, but you do because there's a race you want to do well in," Allar said. "We see glimmers of World Cups and World Championships and the Olympics long-term."
Allar, 26, is currently leading in the National Criterium Calendar standings. Van Gilder, one of her role models and a pro racer for 22 years, is in second. She's one of a small number of women who earned a living racing her bike.
"It's offered me so many wonderful experiences and when I think about moving on, I don't find anything that fills that scope of a lifestyle for me," she said. "I thrive on the goal orientation of cycling and the competitive nature, the dynamic, the strategic play that's involved.
"I wish the pay were better, but that's why we see out races like TOAD where the prize purse is good throughout the series, and it's well-run."
Follow coverage of the Tour of America's Dairyland at TheActivePursuit.com.
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