The Casper (WYO.) chamber of commerce will tell you that its fine city is "centrally located," which is another way of saying that it is in the middle of nowhere. "My out-of-state friends are always telling me. 'I'll stop and see you when I'm passing through on my way to wherever,' " says Dave Mertz, marketing director for the Casper Star-Tribune. "And then I find myself telling them, 'No you won't. Casper isn't on the way to anywhere.' You've got to have a reason to come here."
Cyclists around the country now have just such a reason—the Casper Classic, a multistage event that since its humble beginning in 1985 has become one of the better, and richer, races in the country. This year's Classic—a five-day run through the streets, canyons and mountains in and around Casper—concluded on July 2. It featured a $50,000 purse, appearances by several of the top American riders (like Olympians Steve Hegg and Craig Schommer) and by top teams (like Crest, Shaklee and Coors Light), and last—and least—an embarrassing display of cycling by the two oldest members of the McCallum family. More on the latter later.
Cycling doesn't have a long tradition in Casper, which lies just east of dead center in the U.S.'s least populous state. The Classic was the brainchild of Don Jackson, who until three months ago was the general manager of the Hilton Inn in Casper. To fill rooms that largely were empty around the Fourth of July, Jackson decided he needed an event that could help feature his hotel, and because he was one of the city's few avid cyclists, the choice was easy. "I got a lot of blank stares when I started talking about a bike race," says Jackson, who was transferred to the Santa Fe (N.Mex.) Hilton in April. "But I twisted a lot of arms and raised the sponsorship money."
The $4,000 purse in the first Casper Classic drew about 100 competitors. But with each succeeding year, the prize money went up and so did the quality and quantity of entries. Today, the Classic ranks as one of the top five events in the country for prize money and one of the best for strength of field. "It used to be one of those races you went to between the races you were really shooting for," says Glen Sanders of Crest, which won the Classic's overall team title this year. "Now it's one you shoot for."
Jackson deserves infinite credit for not calling the race The Hilton Classic, which would be more in character for a sport that flies corporate logos like flags. But Jackson was a community man as well as a businessman, and he knew that Casper desperately needed something to rally around.
The city's economy was built on oil, and during the boom years of the early 1980s the population was nearly 60,000. Then the industry hit hard times. Almost overnight, it seemed. Marathon, Phillips. Gulf. Texaco and UniCal all pulled the bulk of their operations out of Casper, taking geologists, engineers, executives and skilled technicians with them. Among the big oil companies, only Amoco is still a major presence in Casper. The latest chamber of commerce figures (from 1987) put Casper's population at 47.500, but some residents believe it's now as low as 40,000. The good news is that you can buy a very nice, very roomy three-bedroom house in Casper for $30.000. The bad news is that not many people are buying houses in Casper.
Even within Wyoming. Casper's profile is not high. Cheyenne has the capitol. Laramie has the state university. Jackson Hole has the best skiing, Cody has the gateway to Yellowstone. Casper? Well, history buffs know that the old Oregon Trail passed through the city, but that's not much on which to build a tourist industry. What the city does have, as Casperite after Casperite will tell you. is a small-town feel. Tom Sutherland, the Star-Tribune's, news editor—who seems to complain about anything and everything, particularly the fact that there are "too many damn Republicans in this town"—admits that he wouldn't leave Casper even though he has lived there for 30 years. "Clear skies." says Sutherland, "and no traffic jams."
What the Casper Classic has given the city is some pizzazz, some spice. Out-of-state cyclists have begun inquiring about settling in Casper, where they can train on Casper Mountain's cross-country ski trails or along the winding picturesque roads in Fremont Canyon. "Good word-of-mouth by the riders is important to a race." says Peter Davis of the Crest team, "and this event has very good word-of-mouth."
Within the city, the pattern of life has been changed by the race too. "You hardly ever saw anybody on a bike a few years ago." says Mertz. who took over as promoter of the Classic when Jackson left. "Now they're all over the place."
Since the advent of the Classic, a cycling club called the Windy City Cyclers (Casper is known for its strong winds, in case you didn't know) has been formed, and the Bike Stop, located in downtown Casper, now has an amateur team that competes in regional and state events. But the race has perhaps had its most dramatic impact on Casper's young set.