When bike racers show up in Duncan, Ariz. – population 719 – people notice.
Streets are swept, and roadsides are cleared of litter.
“As race day approaches, the people begin to chatter more about the event and about cyclists,” said Javelina Chase race director John Lieberenz. “Community pride takes over.”
After all, the total number of race participants equals at least a third of the mining and ranching town’s population.
“We are, I assume, the smallest town in Arizona to host a racing venue,” Lieberenz said.
Javelina Chase, quickly becoming a staple on the Arizona road race calendar, will play host this year for the second time to the Arizona Masters and Juniors state road race championships.
It will also equalize prize money for men and women.
“I wanted to bring something to Duncan that the community could be proud of, something different that the local culture could gradually cling to and I think that is happening,” Lieberenz said.
The Javelina Chase event began in 2014 after locals saw Lieberenz riding his bike in the area and wondered if a cycling event in Duncan could be possible.
Duncan, just four miles west of the New Mexico border and in Greenlee County, is situated along the Gila River Valley. It’s primarily populated by ranchers and Freeport-McMoran copper miners, and the closest bigger city is Safford, Ariz. a 40-mile drive with a population of less than 10,000.
One Duncan claim to fame – former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor grew up near Duncan on the Lazy B ranch, on the border of the two states, and famed 20th century Western artist Hal Empie was the town pharmacist.
Another is Duncan’s position as a stop on the Adventure Cycling Association’s southern tier route of the U.S. for long-distance adventure and bike-packing cyclists.
Deciding to chase
Lieberenz, along with local business leaders, decided to pursue the idea of a bike race in Duncan.
“People in the area felt we had a small-town atmosphere in addition to some of the most beautiful country in Arizona to offer cyclists,” Lieberenz said.
Since javelina are a common sight in the Gila River Valley, the organizing committee wanted to include the animal in race’s name. As fate would have it, just days before the meeting, Lieberenz said he scared up a pack of javelina on an early morning ride.
The pursuit for the “Javelina Chase” was on, and race organizers developed a five-year plan, in which race participation grew from 24 riders in its inaugural 2014 to more than 250 in 2017.
The race crosses the Arizona-New Mexico state line and traverses four counties and one city. Lieberenz said he has to obtain permission from 11 entities and provide insurance for most of them, with the whole process taking nearly a year of work each time.
Growth and equal payout
In 2016, the race hosted the Southwest Collegiate Conference championships, and each year it has added a new element or race offering to participants.
This year, Javelina Chase not only will host the Masters and Juniors state championship road race but also gravel rides, time trials, criteriums, a 5k run and a bike rodeo for children over a two-day weekend.
Race organizers also voted unanimously in favor of equal payouts for men’s and women’s fields.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” Lieberenz said. “Athletes should be rewarded/awarded for equal achievement. The real question is why haven’t women be awarded equally all along? The training, time commitment, pressure, are all the same for any athlete, man or woman, so the reward should be equal.”
Slam dunk for Duncan, riders
Lieberenz said when he and the Duncan community started organizing the race, they would go to different race venues around the state, such as the Sun Devil Criterium or El Tour de Tucson and hand out cards.
“We would say, ‘come to Duncan and enter our event’,” Lieberenz said. “Every response was, ‘where’s Duncan?’ Now we speak of the Javelina Chase and the cycling community knows where we are, who we are and what we have to offer.”
Deborah Mendelsohn, who owns Duncan’s historic Simpson Hotel, said the race is directly helping the town develop into a rural destination that its leaders have envisioned, with an added bonus:
“Every year I see kids and adults on bicycles in town who weren’t out on them before; even whole families are out riding together,” Mendelsohn said.
Takes a village
Arizona Bicycle Racing Association president Joey Iuliano said he is impressed by the support from the Duncan community and organizers.
“Duncan is unique in that few races have total support from the county, city and other groups like it does,” Iuliano said. “The race is also an economic driver for the region, and riders can feel good about racing in a beautiful location while having an impact on a small town’s economy.”
Shelby Hoglund (Sabino Cycles) has raced at Javelina Chase for three years.
“The Javelina Chase has the nicest, most welcoming race promoters,” Hoglund said. “The road race is a fantastic route through a minor mountain pass that allows all types of riders the opportunity for success.”
More info/Register for Javelina Chase