Dana Point Grand Prix growth parallels development of riders
By Steve Breazeale and Andrea Papagianis
Devan Dunn started cycling out of necessity.
While playing water polo at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, he would hitch a ride with his father, Mark Dunn, each day from their Irvine home. It was time the two enjoyed together, but their lives took an unexpected turn in 2009 when Mark was diagnosed with the most serious form of skin cancer—Stage 4 melanoma.
With Mark’s diagnosis came change. As he began experimental treatments at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Devan started his ride. Devan took to a single-speed bike in order to go to water polo practice. It “accidentally” fit, he said.
As he and friends embarked on the first rides together, Devan’s ability and passion for cycling grew. He began competing, earning points in early races and achieving amateur status by May when the 2009 Dana Point Grand Prix of cycling rolled around.
Devan went on to win the race with his father on the sidelines. It’s a spot Mark has never left and a vantage point of his son he never misses in Dana Point.
“It’s one of the races that no matter what, he is there,” Devan said.
Mark was there when Devan nearly bested the professional field in 2011 but was caught in a close finish. The 24-year-old now rides professionally.
Like his style of riding, he quickly rose in points moving from a novice rider to a professional satatus in just over a year. On Sunday, as Devan hits the downtown race course, he’ll be backed by an international company, as a member of Team Jelly Belly presented by MAXXIS.
Devan’s rapid ascension up the cycling ranks mimics the local Grand Prix’s own development, personifying what the one-day race has become.
The Dana Point Grand Prix began in 2007 as an event “for the community, by the community,” said Russell Ames, executive director of the race’s organizer, Dana Point Community Cycling Foundation. Within two years, the closed-circuit, fast-paced race, known as criterium, was on the national radar.
In 2009, reigning USPRO National Criterium Champion Rahsaan Bahati came to town. With all eyes on the elite racer, Bahati delivered with a first-place finish. It was a landmark moment for the race and its growing popularity.
“You can see the progression. (Bahati’s win) kind of put us on the map. When you have the reigning criterium champion come to your race and win it, it puts you on that bigger map,” Ames said.
With the popularity and credibility of the race on the rise, the prize purse naturally grew with it. This year there will be a $17,500 cash purse at stake, the largest in the event’s history.
The prize money and prestige attracts some of the top racing teams from the United States and beyond. This year, the top team in the 2014 National Criterium Calendar standings, United Healthcare, will be sending a team of riders to compete. Joining United Healthcare as one of the top professional teams to beat will be Team Novo Nordisk, a continental team comprised of riders with diabetes.
The 0.8-mile-long competition is a combination of street and velodrome—an arena for track cycling—racing, where cyclists jet around at speeds upward of 30 mph. The race’s L-shaped course winds through Dana Point’s downtown and surrounding neighborhood with the start and finish line on Del Prado Avenue.
Team Novo Nordisk, whose members race all around the world, will be sending three riders to the event for the first time. Team member Joe Eldridge, a Georgia native, has been itching to compete in the fast-growing criterium race known for its speed and close finishes.
“It’s known as a really fast course with big road and the guys who are winning are the guys who want a challenge,” Eldridge said. “The essence of American-style racing is the criterium, and Dana Point embodies that.”
The day’s pro race attracts the biggest names, but there is also room in the field for up and coming semi-professionals and amateurs looking to make their mark, like Dunn was three years ago.
Frank Sarate is the director and owner of Team Socalcycling.com/Craig Shelly, a developmental team based in Southern California.Development teams, like Sarate’s, are lower level racing team’s that offer young riders the chance to be seen on the national circuit.
“It allows the amateur riders to race with the pros,” Sarate said. “It is a scouting mechanism and it’s a good way for the amateur riders to get noticed.”
Sarate’s teams have been competing in the Dana Point Grand Prix for years, and every year he views the race as a launching pad for riders. If a rider has a good race, they can move up in categories and possibly get picked up by a professional team.
“You’ll get riders who race year-round and just want the opportunity to race with the professionals,” Sarate said. “That will spark the interest of the rider taking it to the next level. Technically, you can be racing in Dana Point one year and riding in the Tour de France the next.”
A Family Race
The local Grand Prix is built around those amateur and kids’ races, giving developing riders a chance to shine before the John Johnson Family Pro Classic—an NCC race bearing the name of an avid cyclist who died from mesothelioma, a rare cancer commonly caused by exposure to asbestos.
Johnson’s son, Michael, helped establish the race to raise awareness about asbestos, the disease and to honor his father.
For Devan and his father, this race also holds special meaning.
This year, with Devan’s backing from a well-known team, Mark will be at his favorite spot, celebrating his road to recovery five years after his diagnosis.
“For him, it is one of the better ones (races),” Devan said. “It feels just a little more like a family race.”
Dana Point Grand Prix of Cycling: Official Event Guide