Nate Zukas has been a fixture in Augusta’s cycling community for 26 years, so his motivation for competing in Sunday’s criterium was pretty simple.
“I met the age and category requirements, it’s in my back yard, so I at least had to do one of the events,” Zukas said.
The USA Cycling Masters Road National Championships will conclude its four-day run in Augusta on Sunday with wall-to-wall criteriums from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on the 1.6-kilometer downtown circuit mostly on Greene and Broad streets between 8th and 11th.
The 45-year-old Zukas will compete in his age division at 4:10 p.m., zipping around for 60 minutes on the counterclockwise course that starts on Greene Street and features five left turns and one right onto Ellis.
“Everyone wears each other out for 60 minutes until that bell lap,” Zukas said.
Zukas has competed on and off in criteriums since moving from Connecticut to Augusta in 1991 when he was 19. He traded the mountain biking races from his youth for the road. A bad crash in 2002 that required a titanium plate to repair his right clavicle made him “a little shy” about racing the tight closed-circuit courses that many liken to being “NASCAR-ish” – which of course makes it the most spectator-friendly of the events.
His goal Sunday against more experienced riders with more focused training regimens is pretty modest.
“Hopefully finish,” Zukas said. “There’ll be ex-pros in my category and they are still fit. I don’t have a coach and just go out and ride. I think I’m going in OK.”
When Zukas first moved to the Augusta area when his parents relocated, he immediately went to work at Andy Jordan’s Bicycle Warehouse on 13th Street. He found a home where he’s stayed for 26 years, developing his own custom frame and paint operation as well.
From that vantage point, he’s seen Augusta evolve into a more cycle-friendly region thanks in large part to events like the multiple USA Cycling championships and Augusta Half Ironman event that have come to town on the heels of the now-defunct Tour de Georgia that rolled through four times between 2003-08.
“I’ve seen it grow tremendously in Augusta over the last 26 years,” Zukas said. “We have more bike paths now. It’s gone from being just recreation to transportation for some people, which I think is a cool thing.
“Very slowly but surely it’s finally getting its act together as far as bike trails and lanes on roads and stuff like that. Obviously having pretty big events like this is helping that out. Racing and recreational cycling and having access on roads are two totally separate things, but you have an event like this it definitely gets people’s attention about the sport. When they find out there are safe areas to ride they are definitely encouraged to do so.”
From Thursday’s individual time trials at Thurmond Lake through the road races Friday and Saturday at Fort Gordon to Sunday’s criterium downtown, more than 800 cyclists are expected to compete in this year’s USA Cycling Masters National Championships, which will return again in 2018. It’s great exposure for the region but also motivation for the locals by sparking interest and raising awareness of cycling’s diversity.
Zukas recalls seeing a Masters event for the 35-and-older crowd roll through town the first time Augusta held the Masters nationals in 1994, with competitors streaming into his bike shop for repairs and maintenance.
“I remember working on these older guys’ bikes and they all seemed happy about Augusta,” he said. “Now here I am years later and I’m the old man.”
Randy DuTeau, who has been promoting sports events for the Augusta Sports Council, Columbia County CVB and now in a private venture, can attest to the growth. This week’s USA Cycling event marks the 25th anniversary since DuTeau first promoted Gordon Hills Road Race at Fort Gordon.
“From 1992 to where we are now, it’s been significant,” said DuTeau, who helped start the Light Up Augusta Criterium in 1993. “Having these high-profile events generates a lot of interest.”
The Augusta area has attracted paralympic, under-23, mountain bike and the masters events six times from 2011-18, generating infrastructure improvements along with millions of dollars in economic impact.
“Just being able to bring these national events in has kind of led to bigger and better things,” DuTeau said.
It’s certainly generated plenty of full-time work for Zukas, who consequently isn’t as active on the race circuits as he used to be. His preference has evolved to cyclocross – a circuit racing that includes a combination of road and cross-country elements. That season only runs from October to December in Georgia and fits the same mantra that took him from mountain bike to road racing when he first moved south.
“Two totally different things but I thought why not give something else a try,” Zukas said.
Sunday’s criterium is an opportunity Zukas couldn’t pass up for the experience alone.
“I’m definitely not in contention like some of these other individuals,” he said, “but it will be an honor to race with them.”