Three years ago, organizers of the California Classic Weekend came up with two bold ideas that would set their event apart from others around the state:
Close a freeway for a bike ride, and make a zoo part of a half-marathon course.
Both are major reasons why the California Classic Weekend is more popular than ever as it returns to downtown Fresno this weekend.
"The freeway and the zoo are our two main selling points," race director Mike Herman said.
"Three years ago we were the first running event in California that made a zoo part of its course. Now I hear there might be a couple others. But we're still the only bike ride that goes on a closed freeway."
The two-day event begins Saturday with the California Classic Century, a 100-mile pedal through the foothills east of Fresno. (Rides of 60 and 35 miles are also offered).
Cyclists line up at 7 a.m. along Inyo Street behind Chukchansi Park and are escorted by police to the Highway 168 onramp at McKinley Avenue. From there, cyclists pedal 10 miles on the closed freeway, where dozens of spectators typically stand on overpasses to cheer as the cyclists pass.
The westbound direction of Highway 168 will be closed to vehicular traffic from 6:45 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. (Cyclists ride opposite the usual traffic flow). This leaves eastbound 168 open for those using Highways 99 and 180 to attend Fresno State's commencement ceremonies.
"The only people impacted are people who live in the foothills and use 168," Herman said. "They have to get off at Shepherd."
Herman works closely with Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol and Fresno and Clovis police departments on the freeway closure. He also writes a $30,000 check to cover costs and police escorts.
"(Caltrans) points out to us at every meeting that we're the only ride that closes off a freeway," Herman said. "Meaning, we really need to appreciate this because we're the only one that gets this privilege."
Approximately 1,800 cyclists have signed up for Saturday's rides, while some 2,300 are doing Sunday's California Classic Half Marathon. Another 500 have signed up for the 5-kilometer run.
Sign-ups are more than 20% ahead of last year, Herman said.
Registration for both events is open through Friday at the Terrio Physical Therapy & Fitness Expo, 741 E. Barstow Ave., Fresno. There is no day-of-event registration.
Like the bike rides, the half marathon starts and finishes at Chukchansi Park. But the highlight comes at mile 7 when the course meanders through Chaffee Zoo.
Runners will pass by many of the zoo's top exhibits, including the sea lion cove, kangaroos and zebras. And the giraffes have been known to stick their necks out and follow the action.
"People stop along the way and take pictures with the animals," said Terri Mejorado, the zoo's director of marketing. "And some use our nice clean restrooms."
Events like the California Classic Weekend can't function without a small army of volunteers -- 900 already have signed up, but Herman said there's room for 300 more.
"We'll take volunteers all the way through the Expo," he said.
California Classic Weekend
Start/finish: Chukchansi Park
Saturday events: Century ride, metric century and mini-metric, 7 a.m.; kids marathon, 9 a.m.
Sunday events: Half marathon and relay, 7 a.m; 5K run/walk, 7:15 a.m.
Registration: 3-7 p.m. Thursday and Friday at Terrio Physical Therapy & Fitness Expo (741 E. Barstow Ave.); none on day of events.
Web site: californiaclassicweekend.com
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