A challenging 0.9-mile course along with a party-like atmosphere of neighborhood barbecues and a starting line festival combined Saturday to draw hundreds of bike racers and spectators to the first day of the 13th annual Winfield Criterium.
"The only reason I'm here is because of the atmosphere," said racer Jim Reineking of Geneva.
Serious bikers racing through neighborhoods often feel like they're attracting annoyed glares from neighbors frustrated they can't park on their streets or get out of their driveways during events, said Reineking's friend and fellow racer Tim Speciale of Woodstock.
But not in Winfield.
Several residents of the neighborhoods near Oakwood Park hold barbecues to coincide with the first day of the criterium, and even those not cooking out bring lawn chairs to their driveways to watch and cheer on racers circling the course for up to an hour.
"It's a fun thing to get the family and friends together when you can and watch the races," said Dermot Ryan, who has lived on Churchill Road along the criterium course for nine years.
Course marshals in bright orange shirts waved red flags every time a pack of racers or a lone biker was coming around, alerting spectators to stay off the streets.
Racers themselves knew the path after the first lap, as criterium-style races feature multiple laps around the same short course. Saturday's course challenged racers with a long 6-percent-grade climb and five corners. Music from the starting line festival, which included tents from bike shops like Prairie Path Cycles, kids' activities and food and beverages for sale, also pulled them in the right direction.
Maureen Hart and her daughter Bethany of Marengo found a spot on a set of bleachers at the festival to cheer on Maureen's son, Adam, in the first race of the day. The Category 5 race, which got rolling at 2:30 p.m., was for more novice racers like Adam, who has been competing for about six months.
"He was on the triathlon team last year at Illinois State (University) and now he's started on this," Hart said about her son, who is about to start his senior year of college.
Later races would pit amateur and professional athletes against each other for a total of almost $10,000 in prize money.
Winfield police officers assigned to the event, including one patrolling by bicycle, said this year's sunny weather in the upper 70s compared favorably to last year's, when elite racers in late afternoon and evening competitions got pelted with hail while on the course.