Columbia's cycling start could be city's finish line


ELLICOTT CITY - Howard County and the Tour Du Pont, America's premier cycling event, embraced each other yesterday.

Last night, Tour director Mike Plant said how grateful he is to Columbia for filling a void in a tight situation, and also , and also made it clear Baltimore may find itself out in the cold in the future.

The Tour found itself in a difficult position last month, when Baltimore City officials said they could not accommodate the Tour stop, Saturday, May 11, because it was already committed to the Preakness Week celebration and services were stretched to the limit.

After a three-week search, an agreement was reached with Columbia, for Stage 2, a 136-mile road race, to end on the Little Patuxent Parkway in downtown Columbia.

The Tour Du Pont will begin in Wilmington, Del., May 9, with a Prologue and be followed by Stage 1, a 106-mile road race around the city May 10. On May 11, the international field will begin its ride on Main Street in Newark, Del., and proceed into Maryland, where it will touch Maryland's pastoral heartland, before winding up in urbane Columbia around 3 p.m.

"The setting, the venue is perfect and the Rouse Co., city and county officials all have been exceedingly quick in working with us. We're pleased with what's happened," Plant said of the change from Baltimore to Columbia.

And yes, Plant is less pleased with Baltimore's "thanks but no thanks" attitude toward the Tour.

"Baltimore was good for us for two years," Plant said. "But I've had calls from more than half-a-dozen cities expressing their interest for next year's race, and we intend to be in contact with 30 additional cities on the East Coast, whom we will invite to this year's race," said Plant.

"There are a lot of cities out there who are looking for our kind of event, who realize what kind of impact it can have and the kind of exposure it can generate in these economic times . . . If Baltimore is interested, they'll have to call us."

Bill Gilmore, the director of the Baltimore Office of Promotions, said he will "definitely" be calling Plant.

"My hope is the race can come to both Baltimore and Columbia next year," Gilmore said. "It was unfortunate that we could not work the date out this year, but our history with this event is proof positive we know how to do it. And we will seek to bring it and other events of the Tour's caliber to the city."

Gilmore said the city was successful with the event, that when it closed down Baltimore's main thoroughfare during rush hour last year to accommodate the race, he received exactly one letter of complaint.

"The best thing about the news that the race will be in Columbia is that the people here who enjoyed it the last two years will be able to see it again," Gilmore said.

Columbia generates a warm fuzzy feeling in Plant's heart, too.

"They were very quick to help us out in a difficult situation," Plant said. "This has turned out to be a blessing in disguise."

Howard County and Columbia officials said they recognized the benefits of an event of this stature.

"We're absolutely delighted the Tour Du Pont is coming here," said Pat Kennedy, president of the Columbia Association. "We've got the perfect place for the finish line. We're known for our open space, our lakes and for having more recreational areas than any other place in the United States. We've got activities planned all through the spring and summer, but we feel this will be the highlight of the whole season."

The race will bring together 126 world-class riders and will be seen in 88 foreign countries, more than any other sporting event in the United States this year. Cities hosting the tour also will benefit from the exposure that will come with half-hour nightly broadcasts on ESPN and two one-hour telecasts by CBS on consecutive Sunday afternoons.

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