COVINGTON — When it comes to cycling, many Americans think of the Tour de France with images of bucolic countrysides, small European towns and the Arc de Triomphe probably coming to mind.
On Saturday and Sunday, that backdrop gave way to St. Tammany Parish and the aforementioned spaces took a backseat to the rolling hills north of Folsom, the isolated stretch of road that is La. 1088 and the St. Tammany Parish Courthouse.
The north shore, including parts of St. Tammany and Washington parishes, was the staging ground for the 42nd annual Tour de Louisiane, which ended Sunday with a timed race on the narrow streets of downtown Covington. It concluded a three-part series that saw racers covering a lengthy road race on Saturday morning and a time trial later that afternoon.
Streets were blocked off in many areas of downtown Covington on Sunday while riders of varying ages and abilities completed “The Criterium” — a course composed of a 7⁄ 10-mile route that featured plenty of sharp turns around city streets.
There also were a few straightaways when riders hit speeds of 30 mph and more.
The best riders finished an 80-mile road race Saturday followed with a 3-mile time trial Saturday afternoon. Riders in other categories raced for shorter distances or durations, but the event was no less taxing on their bodies.
The Tour de Louisiane is the oldest continuously running stage race in the U.S. Nearly 200 riders from throughout the country participated in the two-day event, which finished in Covington for the first time in five years, following a repaving of the city’s streets.
Officials with the New Orleans Bicycle Club, which hosts the tour, were pleased by the return.
“We are very happy,” race director Randy Legeai said. “It’s a great venue and it’s a challenging course.”
Michael McBrien, of Pensacola, Fla., won the Criterium on Sunday. The 25-year old-said he comes to the race for the competition as well as the camaraderie. On Sunday, he was riding to protect the position of fellow Floridian Johnny Brizzard.
Brizzard, 24, finished third overall in the tour.
“I’ve been riding for five or six years now,” Brizzard said after Sunday’s action. “This is a really nice race. It’s just down the road from Pensacola, and there’s always good competition. That’s why I like to come here.”
The competition of which Brizzard speaks comes in the form of a very dedicated local riding community that has helped make the Tour de Louisiane what it is today. Races held throughout the day Sunday featured a multitude of multicolored jerseys zipping through the streets of Old Covington.
Many of the races were peopled with New Orleans-area racing diehards.
“This is a hard race to win,” said New Orleans’ own Kenny Bellau, who won the Tour de Louisiane in 1997. “This is a big regional race and people come from all over to ride. Even though it’s on the small side, it’s important to all of us locally … We’ve sent people from this area to the national teams and some really big races.”
Bellau rode in the Category 1 race Sunday, which featured the best riders in the tour. Now 45 years old, he didn’t finish near the front of the pack, but he still was pleased with his performance.
“That last race (Category 1) was all quality,” Bellau said. “There wasn’t a slouch in that one.”
Charles Davis, 48, won the tour in 1990. The Metairie resident and New Orleans native raced earlier Sunday and wasn’t too thrilled with his showing. Nevertheless, he was happy to be at the event he’s been a part of for three decades.
“I live here, so it’s a big deal to me and to a lot of us around here,” he said. “But even if I lived a couple hundred miles from here, I’d still come race this one.”
Andrew Hammond, of Jackson, Miss., won the 2013 tour title with a combined time of 4 hours, 12 minutes and 53 seconds. That time consists of his overall time in each of the Tour de Louisiane’s three stages.
Peter Reed, of Oxford, Miss., came in second in the tour with an overall time of 4 hours, 13 minutes and 16 seconds.
Brizzard came in third with an overall time of 4 hours, 14 minutes and 54 seconds. Stephen Mire, of Covington, came in fourth with an overall time of 4 hours, 14 minutes and 56 seconds.