LENOX -- It’s shaping up as a mini Tour de France, Berkshires-style.
At least 300 bicyclists -- a mix of recreational and professional riders from as far away as Argentina, Germany and South Africa -- will be challenged by a choice of grueling, 62- or 85-mile courses through a dozen South County communities on Sunday.
The first Berkshire Cycling Classic, promoted as an annual early May attraction for visitors and residents, starts and finishes in the heart of downtown Lenox. It has attracted well-known pros from overseas, notably former Tour de France star Erik Zabel, who arrived in town on Friday.
As an economic development project, the event has helped fill inns and promises crowds of hungry bicyclists Sunday afternoon at in-town restaurants.
Additional towns on the ride route include Stockbridge, Lee, Tyringham, Otis, San disfield, New Marlborough, Sheffield, South Egremont, Great Barrington, West Stock bridge, and Richmond.
Last-minute registrants will be accommodated starting at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday for a $100 fee; the starting gun goes off between 8 and 8:30. The registration desk will be at a tent on the corner of Church and Housatonic streets adjacent to the starting and finish line.
A partly sunny day with temperatures near 70 is predicted.
Portions of downtown will be cordoned off to traffic at times, according to a plan announced by Police Chief Stephen O’Brien. There will be parking
"It’s the first year, so bear with us," said O’Brien. He urged motorists to be "patient and courteous while we maintain the safety of this event."
Former U.S. Pro Cycling champion John Eustice, who organized the ride through his company, Sparta Cycling, described the advance registration (at $85, including a $20 coupon for downtown dining) as solid, in line with his projections, and boding well for next year and beyond.
"I am most pleased with all we have achieved in such a short time," Eustice said. "The business and civic communities have been wonderful in their cooperation, and the riders have responded.
"Erik Zabel captured the hearts of the New York cycling community this week," Eustice added, "and I am sure he will do the same in the Berkshires. This event has the all the makings of a great classic, one that will last for decades."
Eustice, an enthusiast as a rider as well as organizer, has compared the event in advance to a mini Tour de France, customized for the Berkshires, and described his goal as creating "a bicycling park" in the Southern Berkshires.
The event, brought to the town by the Manhattan marketing and PR firm Bodden Hamilton, has been shepherded by the Marketing and Events Committee and is designed in part to pump up visitation to the area during a normally-slow early May weekend.
Zabel, with more than 200 wins in professional cycling competitions, is considered "one of the greatest German cyclists and best sprinters in cycling history," according to Eustice. Zabel won six consecutive victories as best sprinter at the Tour de France between 1996 and 2001. After winning other competitions, he retired from pro cycling in 2008.
The Berkshire event is the only American stop on the 15-event UCI (International Cycling Union) World Cycling Tour. which extends from this year through 2014.
Zabel was hosted at a Friday evening dinner at the Firefly restaurant in downtown Lenox. He will welcome the general public as well as riders at the Cranwell Resort Mansion this evening from 6:30 to 8, where event participants can pick up their packets. There will be hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar.
Sparta Cycling is fielding a group of "Cycling Am bassadors" for Sunday, acting as guides for riders and offering advice on safety and riding techniques.
"Our Berkshire Cycling Classisc Cycling Ambassadors have been selected for not only their high-level racing experience and their stellar riding skills, but also for being riders with the respect that the cycling community accords them," according to Eustice.
Although the Sunday event has been designed as a professional race course and is open to cyclists of all abilities and ages, overall times for both distances will be recorded and ranked according to age groups.
Following the main event, participants and their families will be invited to post-ride celebrations. Loeb’s Foodtown will serve a boxed meal under the tent and beer will be sold.
Among participating restaurants in Lenox honoring the $20 coupons received by registered riders are the Olde Heritage Tavern, Alta, Firefly and Gateways Piano Bar.
Additional information is at www.berkshirecyclingclassic.com.