Wilsonville man dreams big with summer bike event
Steve Van Wechel's impetus for inaugurating the Salmon Cycling Classic, a bicycling event coming to Wilsonville this summer, wasn't born out of a zest for the sport or a belief in the power of exercise.
In fact, the Wilsonville man rarely hops on his bicycle these days and has never attended a competitive bike racing event.
Instead, he sees the event not only as a complement to the French Prairie Bridge — a proposed bike/pedestrian bridge across the Willamette River — but also a way for Wilsonville to market itself as a desirable destination.
"In the past year I've had a number of people comment, 'Wilsonville needs something,'" Van Wechel said. "The basic implication is some sort of event, something to be known for that indeed makes it different from all the surrounding neighborhoods."
The Salmon Cycling Classic is a Gran Fondo (100 kilometer) and Medio Fondo (50 kilometer) road event and will begin at Memorial Park 9 a.m. Saturday, July 21. For more information, visit salmoncyclingclassic.com.
This year's event is projected to be small — likely around 250 riders — but Van Wechel sees it as a starting point toward something much larger.
"This is a good thing for the area and the city. Steve is a driving force. He's a tenacious guy so it will start off good but it will ultimately someday be great," SCC organizer Jake Vanderzanden said.
Van Wechel has been involved with discussions about the French Prairie Bridge for the last 15 years and is currently on the City's French Prairie Bridge Project Task Force — which recently recommended that the bridge align with Boones Ferry Road in Wilsonville.
He says he's heard from project detractors that the bridge is unnecessary and a waste of money. But he believes if the bridge is accompanied by a major event, it will be worth it.
"Basically my view of the bridge is if it is done right, it needs to be an economic engine for the city, where you're drawing money into the area," he said. "I think there's too many people looking at the bridge and saying: 'Oh, won't it be nice to take my grandkids out across the bridge on a Sunday afternoon?' And if that's all the bridge is gonna be it's certainly not worth the money or the effort."
One day, Van Wechel hopes the bridge could be integrated into the SCC course. But the project has not yet received funding and is still many years from completion. Regardless, Van Wechel says the event works with or without the bridge.
"That's the beauty of what we're doing now is this event is in conjunction with the bridge but even if the bridge never happens this can continue on anyway because we don't need the bridge," Van Wechel said.
Wilsonville Chamber of Commerce CEO Kevin Ferrasci O'Malley doesn't believe Wilsonville needs a marquee event to distinguish itself from other cities but says the bike race could attract tourism and economic value. And according to a study on the economic significance of bicycle-related travel produced by Dean Runyan Associates, there was $89.1 million in bicycle-related travel expenditure, which includes lodging, food, gas, etc., in the Portland metro area in 2012.
"When you talk about a destination, we're not Bend. However, when you look at people coming to the Portland metro area to visit, lots of people would like to be in a safe place that they feel comfortable and Wilsonville is a safe place, a beautiful place," O'Malley said.
"Anytime you have visitors coming to our community that are going to buy gas, stay at a hotel, buy food at a restaurant and grocery stores, that's a great thing," O'Malley said.
Though the event is currently geared for amateurs, Van Wechel's ultimate goal is for it to blossom into a USA Cycling sanctioned professional event where riders can accumulate points and therefore vault up the USA Cycling rankings and bolster their case for being selected to the United States Olympic team.
"I have discovered that out of nearly 500 bicycle events in Oregon annually, there's not a single event that a participant can come and have any chance of getting any points nationally," Van Wechel said.
O'Malley says Wilsonville doesn't have enough hotel space to account for a large scale bike racing event and says the event organizers and City officials would need to collaborate with neighboring communities to fill the void.
"Can we house all of them in Wilsonville today if you had an incredible-sized event? No, but that's a good problem to have," he said.
However, for the event to grow exponentially, Van Wechel acknowledges that it will need to develop a sterling reputation. And that process could take many years.
Oregon Bike Racing Association Executive Director Chuck Kenlan said location is key to a bike racing event's success and that the Salmon Cycling Classic runs through an attractive area.
"It's right in the heart of the Willamette Valley in the population center and Oregon is a cycling state," Kenlan said. "There's a lot of of people that are passionate about it. It makes it easy for where the majority of the cycling population lives."
However, Kenlan is more skeptical about Van Wechel's aspiration for the event to become significant in the professional world.
"Most of the (American) cyclists who qualify for the Olympics are racing in Europe and at a high level there," he said. "That's not to say his event couldn't be a stepping stone
for a rider to get a professional contract."
Vanderzanden has blazed biking trails for the last 30 years and participated in many races. He says the food, the location and quality commemorative items are key to a memorable event. The SCC will provide a salmon dinner and strawberry shortcake to riders after the events and the first 250 registered riders will receive a glass salmon medallion. And Vanderzanden says the route, which covers Pete's Mountain and Parrett Mountain, is rigorous and scenic.
"It's a very difficult route in a very short amount of time, particularly on the Parrett Mountain side of I-5," he said. "Those who do it will get to see some of the neat things around Wilsonville."
Event organizers have tried to advertise the event through local bike shops, clubs and the media but are uncertain if the turnout will be meager or robust.
"I still foresee it being challenging with first year promotion to get enough people there," Vanderzanden said.
In future years, Van Wechel would like to link with local businesses and clubs and put on a bike fair to go alongside the event.
"That's a gap right now because that's where ultimately, you get more of that fair feeling, more of a festival. That's where music comes in and people want to go and participate," Vanderzanden said. "Otherwise it's just people who ride their bikes
and it's not interesting to the community."
O'Malley expects the business community to offer support at some
"I would be confident that the business community and the rest of the community, if we can create opportunity to bring people in this area from around the country or world, I don't believe anybody who wants best from city would say 'Let's not do anything,'" he said.
Van Wechel has had to receive clearance from local jurisdictions from the City of Wilsonville and Clackamas County to host the event. And he hopes the Wilsonville government will provide more support for the event in future years.
"It's going to put so much publicity for the City of Wilsonville and frankly nationally and bring a lot of positive vibes in this direction. There shouldn't be any reason why the entire city government shouldn't be behind it," Van Wechel said.
For Van Wechel, if the SCC levels out as a fun, small event for locals, he won't be satisfied. Nothing less than elite riders blazing through Wilsonville roads and the Willamette Valley amid mass crowds will suffice.
"I'm seeing the niche that the state of Oregon has and there's nothing in that niche at all right now. That's where we need to go," he said.