Few people in the world of bicycle racing have had careers as diverse as Tucsonan Jame Carney, but even for him, this will be a first.

Carney is a three-time champion of El Tour de Tucson, a two-time U.S. Olympian, a 20-time U.S. National track champion and the reigning U.S. National scratch race champion.

But today, he'll try for his first victory in the Old Pueblo Grand Prix.

While the inaugural event, a 90-minute criterium race through the heart of downtown Tucson, clearly doesn't hold the clout of a national championship or the Olympics, Carney wants to make one thing clear:

"This event is big.

"This is a huge bike race," said Carney of the event that was able to raise a $20,000 purse in its first year after nabbing Jim Click as its title sponsor.

"There's some pretty high talent coming into town for this. This is time to be serious."

Carney's not the only one taking this race seriously.

Clay Murfet, last year's winner of the Tour of the Tucson Mountains, and Laura McCaughey, who won the women's portion of the same event two years ago, both skipped it Saturday morning to prepare for today's slugfest.

"It's really important for all the cyclists in town to support this event, so we can show everybody what cycling is all about," Carney said.

The course includes six turns of roughly 90 degrees over a 0.57-mile span, figures to be extremely challenging, even for experienced racers such as the 43-year-old Carney.

The men's pro 1-2 race begins at 5 p.m., and Carney expects one lap to take about a minute.

With the race running on a 90-minute clock, that means the top riders will end up going about 52 miles - much shorter than a road race such as the 109-mile El Tour, but far longer than the track races that most sprinters are accustomed to in the sport.

Carney spoke with the Star about the importance of the race to Tucson and some of the challenges associated with it:

What is the most important thing for people to know about this race?

A: "This is American bike racing. People see Tour de France on TV, but criterium racing is American racing. This is the most popular form of racing in the U.S. by far, no question about it. I'm just very excited and very thankful that we have this. We really need to show what American bike racing is all about."

With 100 riders on such a small course, what will the atmosphere to be like?

A: "This is going to be gangbusters. From a spectator standpoint, this is going to be amazing. Our first 10 laps are going to be like the last 10 laps of a normal race. The first 10 laps should be very entertaining for people watching and very hectic for people in the race. It's important to get a good start because it's going to be hard to pass and move up once it gets going.

How is this race better for the spectator than a road race?

A: "A race like El Tour is good, but you don't get any true spectator knowledge there. It doesn't grasp them too much. With this, they get to see the action and understand what's going on. You can sit at a restaurant and watch as we're sprinting by. It's going to be very entertaining and educational. You don't see the entire course but you see a good portion of it, and you can walk around and experience the event."

How tough is this race going to be and why?

A: "Flat out, this race is really tough. It's high intensity over a very long period. It's very technical; it's not just four basic turns. Not one corner looks like the other one. None of them handle the same. After every turn, you have to give maximal effort to stay on that wheel you're on. You're not going to see the person winning this bike race looking fresh as a daisy."

What type of rider do you expect to excel at a race like this?

A: "The real power- sprinter guy can do it, but 90 minutes is too long for him. The person who wins this race is a very fit, very strong bike rider. I could see a 50 percent dropout rate. That shows you how tough it is. You've got to have a lot of skill, explosive power, fitness and endurance to go 90 minutes at 90 percent of your max heart rate. It's a tough little race. I wish I was racing at age 33 and not 43 for this one."


• What: Old Pueblo Grand Prix cycling race

• Where: Downtown

• When: Today

• What: Nine races, first starts at 12:30 p.m.; women's pro race at 4p.m., men's pro race at 5p.m.

• Attractions: 19 businesses open along course, plus live music

• More info: oldpueblograndprix.com