Amazing Race 

Twenty-eight years of the Twilight Criterium

For nearly 30 years, the Twilight Criterium has brought the right kind of road rage to downtown Boise.

Kai Appelquist

For nearly 30 years, the Twilight Criterium has brought the right kind of road rage to downtown Boise.

It all started back in 1986. Boise and its 100,000 or so residents had just landed host city duties for the National Cycling Championships--bringing in 1,500 of the country's top cyclists for several days of competition. The event was wildly successful and stirred the curiosity of First Security Bank, now Wells Fargo. The bank was so pleased with what the national cycling spotlight had done for Boise that it enlisted Mike Cooley--co-owner of George's Cycles and technical director of the National Cycling Championships--to assemble a unique follow-up race: the Twilight Criterium.

Back in '86, mountain biking was still an obscurity from Marin County, Calif. The average price of a good road bike was $250, Lethal Weapon would soon be the hottest film of the summer and the Boise Towne Square mall didn't yet exist. Much has changed in Boise during the past three decades, but many components of the Twilight Criterium remain the same. For one, Mike Cooley is still the lifeblood behind the race. Second, if it weren't for the law offices of Andersen Banducci--the Twilight Criterium's title sponsor--Boise's most storied race would likely be no more.

According to Cooley, it was a no-brainer that the race would be set downtown.

"We'll take the bike race where the people are," he said.

Boise's blossoming night life became a strategic factor for the first iteration of the Twilight Criterium. The original course traversed Idaho and Main streets between Sixth and Ninth streets. Today, the Criterium runs from Grove to Bannock on Ninth and 10th streets. Cooley decided to centrally locate the race in an environment that would naturally pique people's curiosity. Bar-goers filtered out of their favorite watering holes at 10 p.m. to check out the blistering pace of competitive cycling's version of NASCAR--criterium racing.

That first year, Cooley estimates 2,000-3,000 spectators turned out to watch 30 amateur athletes hammer out laps, wheel to wheel, under Christmas tree lights borrowed from Morrison-Knudsen--the same lights used on the exterior of its building during the holidays.

That first race was so well received that First Security maintained title sponsorship of the race for the following 23 years, including after its merger with Wells Fargo.

As cycling matured, so did the Twilight Criterium. Steel framed bikes gave way to aluminum. Then carbon fiber found its place in the mix alongside detailed training routines--making for faster and faster lap times. Team strategies were refined as criterium racing became more and more a well-oiled machine. These factors, alongside increased public interest in cycling--and fitness in general--led to steady spectator growth.

During the economic downturn in 2007-2008, Wells Fargo stepped aside as title sponsor, leaving Cooley at a critical crossroads.

Absent a lead sponsor, the nonprofit race would surely dissolve. In stepped Exergy--a Boise-based real estate development company. Exergy saw the race as an excellent opportunity to reach a lot of people through a beloved summer event. After two years, the company ended its relationship with the race amid widespread controversy related to its finances--leaving the Twilight Criterium in another precarious situation.

After learning about the race's misfortune, it didn't take long for Lori Banducci, of the newly formed law offices of Andersen Banducci, to call Cooley.

"One Sunday in March of 2013, I read an article about the possibility that [the Criterium] might not go on in 2013. In fact, if another sponsor did not materialize within the next two weeks, it sounded as though the race would not happen. Tom [Banducci, Lori's husband] and I talked about how way cool it was for the community and how much fun it was to watch--we lamented that it would be really sad if it just ended, especially so close to its 30th anniversary."

The opportunity moved quickly from "good idea" to action plan.

"I sent an email to all the partners that night to see if they were interested in stepping in," Banducci said. "They all responded enthusiastically the next day, and by week's end Andersen Banducci was the primary sponsor of the event."

The firm had opened its doors a couple of months before and was in search of a platform to give back to the community.

"It seemed like a win-win proposition for the race and the firm," said Banducci.

The Twilight Criterium remains one of the elite Tier 1 events for USA Cycling--the national authority in professional racing--drawing more than 15,000 spectators each year.

The race, despite its nonprofit status, pays big dividends for the city, as well.

"It is good for business," said Karen Sander, executive director of the Downtown Boise Association. "It provides downtown businesses and the hospitality industry with an influx of customers before, during and after the event."

Beyond the economic benefits of such a high-profile national race, Sander was also optimistic about the long-term cultural benefits that the Criterium offers.

"The event is an annual tradition for the community and is now one of the city's iconic events. It also provides an opportunity to introduce young cyclists to the sport at the kid's ride with Olympian Kristin Armstrong," she said.

The Twilight Criterium isn't just a big event for the community. Racer Kai Applequist, from Team Mercedes Benz, has been on the criterium circuit for seven years. He will take on his sixth Twilight Saturday, July 12, and thinks the race is one of the top venues in the country for speed and spectator turnout.

"It's usually, like, 110 degrees on the course, so you have that oven effect. But you also have the high speed--it's such a fast criterium--29 to 30 mph for 90 minutes. It's like going down the freeway at 120 mph with 100 other cars next to you," he said.

Looking back on 28 years of the Criterium, Cooley said it's clear that the event has won its place as part of Boise's identity.

"It's Boise's event. We've had numerous Tour de France veterans that came here first before they went to the tour. It's turned out to be a good thing for the cyclists. It's a good thing for Boise," he said.

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