Checking in with Ed McLaughlin, who recounts the blossoming of Chico’s spring bike race
The Wildflower Century ride Sunday (April 26) is expected to bring out close to 4,000 bicyclists from all over. They’ll pedal their way for 100 miles (unless they opt instead for the 65-mile Mildflower version, or either of the 30- or 60-mile Flatflowers, which have no hills)—from Chico, up Honey Run Road to Paradise, down to Oroville, up and over Table Mountain, then back to Chico via Durham—over some of the prettiest territory this area has to offer, especially at this time of year.
Iconic local cycling advocate Ed McLaughlin remembers the very beginning of the enormously popular event, which was first held in March 1981. While it is assumed by some that McLaughlin basically invented the Wildflower (his involvement in everything “bike” in this town has become the stuff of legend), he insists that that is not so.
“I was there at the start,” he acknowledged. “But I really can’t take credit.”
Credit, McLaughlin insisted, is due to a “quasi-organized group of folks that got together” and decided—after noting that Davis had (and still has) a 200-mile bike ride appropriately called the Davis Double, and Eureka had (and still has) the Tour of the Unknown Coast—“we can do [a century], too: a beautiful route at a lovely time of year.”
Names of initial organizers include Bodfish, who runs Bodfish Bicycles in Chester, and Serge Killingsworth, who now resides in the town of Mount Shasta. That first “quasi-organized” group morphed over time into the Chico Velo Cycling Club, which became incorporated in 1985 and is the official host of the Wildflower Century each year.
McLaughlin, as executive director of Chico Velo for many years, oversaw the Wildflower as ride director. He’s had to scale back his activities since December 2007, when he injured his spine in a freak cycling accident. He is wheelchair-bound, paralyzed from the neck down except for limited use of his upper arms and shoulders.
These days, he remains a Chico Velo board member but leaves the Wildflower details to a group of seasoned organizers who have worked with him over the years. McLaughlin, who will turn 65 in September, still took time this week to recount the history of the Wildflower during an interview in his home in the Avenues.
“Of course it rained,” recalled McLaughlin, with a twinkle in his eye, of that first Wildflower, which he said brought out about 80 cyclists. Over the past 28 years, the race has drawn people of all ages, from kids to older adults in their 80s such as local fiddler and cycling buff Bill Gibson (profiled in Green Guide).
The steadily expanding number of participants has resulted in a number of start-and-finish changes. “As we grew, we would outgrow venues,” McLaughlin explained. In the early years, riders gathered at Bidwell Park’s One-Mile area to begin the race, and enjoy a yummy meal outdoors when the race was over. The CARD Center became the next hosting venue, then the Elks Lodge, then the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds—“That’s the biggest venue here [in Chico]”—where the ride begins and ends these days.
When asked why he thinks the Wildflower Century was famously voted by Bicycling Magazine as one of the top 10 centuries in the country, and in a riders’ poll in Cycle California (“a Northern California bicycling tabloid”) as the best century, McLaughlin answered simply: “Best food.”
“Yes, we’d always buy the best food from local caterers and bakeries,” began McLaughlin, clearly pleased with the recollection. “Instead of Oreo cookies and Skippy peanut butter, we’d have almond butter sandwiches, and the dinner at the end of the race was always catered by David Guzzetti.”
McLaughlin didn’t want to forget to mention that Sierra Nevada Brewery provided the beer for the dinner. (Brewery owner and cycling enthusiast Ken Grossman has ridden a number of Wildflowers.)
“And certainly having Knudsen [involved] helped,” continued McLaughlin, on a roll. “Instead of Country Time Lemonade and Kool-Aid, [the riders] were getting nutritious, locally made juices.
“I remember when we hired [now-defunct] French Gourmet Bakery to do the lunch stop at Spring Valley School [on Pentz Road, just off Highway 70]. That really put it over the top! It was the pâté sandwiches, among other things. And Franck [the owner] had his whole crew decked out in their little French Bakery outfits. …
“I remember one other bike organizer coming up to me, saying, ‘Aw—come on—pheasant pâté sandwiches?!?’ ”
A lot of century rides “are generally done [by other organizations] as fundraiser rides,” explained McLaughlin. “They’re trying to make money, so they say, ‘Sorry, only a half a banana per person; only two cookies per person.’
“You’ve got to be a little more generous than that,” McLaughlin added. “That is, if you want people to come back to your bike ride.”
McLaughlin recalled one year, in the days when the Wildflower ride began and ended at the Elks Lodge, local chiropractor Gary Weddell “put together about 50 massage therapists. We had an entire room full of massage therapists and their tables. When people came in and saw that, they went, ‘Ay, yay, yay, yay, yay!’
“Making money was never our goal,” continued McLaughlin. “However, it was nice when we did start making money.”
Proceeds from the Wildflower go back into the club, provide funding for the next year’s Wildflower, and are shared “with groups that help us, like the Scouts and other school groups. We’ve bought bikes for the Boys & Girls Club, and have given money to Big Brothers Big Sisters.”
“We’re fortunate that we’ve got the beautiful area and it’s at a beautiful time of the year,” summed up McLaughlin of the appeal of the Wildflower. “And we have a town that people want to visit.”
McLaughlin said that local motels and hotels are always booked up well in advance for Wildflower weekend.
“We’re right up there with graduation for filling hotels,” he said, smiling.