Outdoors: Burning rubber

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 1, 2004

NATCHEZ &045; These aren’t your daddy’s Schwinns.

Used to be bicycles were a way for families to expunge the headaches of a long day with a relaxing ride near sunset. Naturally, they were also associated with the first set of wheels for children.

But when the Mississippi Gran Prix returns for a second straight year to Natchez on April 4, there won’t be anything laid back in the way the competitors fly around corners exceeding school zone speed limits.

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For 60 minutes, Category 1, 2, 3 and Masters’ riders will rub shoulders, tires and water bottles along the 8/10 of a mile course that weaves itself through downtown Natchez, before five final laps determines the winners.

&uot;All the wrecks and excitement of the race will happen there,&uot; said Gran Prix co-organizer and Natchez Bicycle Center owner Aaron Tiffee of common corner at Pearl and Main Streets (see map). &uot;The pro guys will fly in there between 30 and 40 miles per hour two feet from the next guy on a tire 23 millimeters wide. That’s where the yard sales happen.&uot;

For $30 anyone can participate in the two-day event that begins with a road race in Brookhaven on Saturday.

The big boys must pay an additional $10 to compete in the United Mississippi Bank Criterium on Sunday where $8,000 will be handed out in prize money, up $2,000 from last year’s pot.

&uot;There’s a huge camaraderie between the guys,&uot; Tiffee explained. &uot;You see the same folks here, in New Orleans (at the Tour de Louisiane) and other big races. If you can’t get ’em this week, you tell ’em, ‘I’ll beat you next time.’&uot;

New to the event this year is a public race, where anyone with a bike &045; &uot;Fat tires are welcome,&uot; Tiffee said &045; can compete on the same course before the pros gear up.

The race’s headquarters all day, including registration, will be at Mainstreet Marketplace where spectators and racers can mingle.

Entrants have slowly filed in through the Gran Prix’s online registration at www.natchezbicyclecenter.com/granprix.

However, Tiffee expects a madhouse early Sunday morning when regulars make last-minute decisions to race.

&uot;We usually have people drive all the way up from New Orleans,&uot; he said. &uot;This year I know we’re gonna have guys come in from West Texas.&uot;

Interest has even peeked past the American borders to a Canadian team, which will stay with a host family in Brookhaven for the two days.

The top gun team once again in the Gran Prix will be Herring Gas and Oil, which is sponsored by the bike shop. Members include last year’s winner Frank Moak, and all must ride 1,000 miles a month. Some have even raced at previous Olympic Trials.

&uot;(Moak has) been racing for 25 years. He and Curtis Moroney were the main guys behind the (Natchez Bicycle) Classic,&uot; Tiffee said. &uot;He so wanted to win one here. He’s gotta be a big favorite to win it once again.&uot;