Stars align for annual Tour of Walla Walla

Bulgarian cycling champ Ivailo Gabroski headlines a field of about 600 cyclists at this weekend's Tour.

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Women's Pro 1-2/3 racers power head-to-head through the corner at First and Main Street during a lap of their 45-minute criterium in downtown Walla Walla during the Tour of Walla Walla in 2008.

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Racers in the category Men 4 Criterium put on their race faces as they churn through a corner under newly erupted blossoms on Main Street during the 2009 Tour of Walla Walla. The Tour of Walla Walla has blossomed into the largest race of its kind in Washington state.

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Pro-1-2 Men zip past the hay bales on Poplar Street Saturday night during the 2009 Tour of Walla Walla Criterium.

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Tour of Walla Walla racers head down Main Street during the criterium during the 2005 event.

WALLA WALLA - Cycling fans, cross your fingers for good weather.

The 14th annual Tour of Walla Walla runs Friday through Sunday, rain or shine, on city streets and country roads.

This year's registration is the highest the tour's had, said founder and organizer Steve Rapp. There were about 580 registered cyclists late last week, with a couple days to go before registration closed.

Bulgarian cycling champion in time trial and road race divisions, Ivailo Gabrovski, will compete, as will New Zealand's Patrick Evin, the under-19 athlete of the year, and Mike Northery, the under-23 national criterion champion.

Although riders are coming from all over the country, the majority are from the Northwest.

The three-day, four-stage race is the biggest in the Pacific Northwest, and one of the biggest on the West Coast, Rapp said.

"It's a big deal," he said. "It's enough to drive us organizers crazy. We've had to accommodate some people with host housing. It's a big endeavor, but it's worth it."

The longest distance of the race, biked by the pro men, is 190 miles across country hills and a flat stretch in town.

The best view for audiences, Rapp said, is right downtown.

"Downtown on Saturday afternoon is very spectator-friendly," he said. "They go around a 1.1-mile loop several times, so there are several opportunities to see them compete."

The city stretch has the most obstacles as well as the finish line.

"It's very exciting," Rapp said. "They're coming around corners, weaving around each other. They're usually in a big pack and it's very exciting to watch."

Rapp's favorite way to view the race is on the course.

"I like to walk toward them while they come at me," he said. "That's a lot of fun. You can really see what they're doing that way."

There are 14 categories, ranging from expert to junior, based on gender and age. Different categories compete at different distances within the four-stage race.

The downtown races all occur on Saturday afternoon, with the pro's competing later in the evening.

For more information on the Tour, see Web site www.tofww.org.

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