More than 300 cyclists will compete in El Camino 105, the Texas Gravel Adventure, Saturday, starting in Old Town Palestine and racing all over Anderson County. The race has grown from a leisurely bicycle ride to a competitive 105-mile race that will draw 350 professional and amateur cyclists from across Texas and the United States.
Competing for cash prizes, they will race over hills and through country back roads. The first two routes – a 105-mile and 65-mile race – will roll out of Old Town Palestine at 7 a.m. A 25-mile race will begin at 8 a.m. The routes will lead them south from Palestine to Elkhart, to Grapeland, and back, in a half-day trek.
El Camino is breaking new barriers this year, offering equal cash prizes for men and women – almost unheard of in cycle racing. The 105-mile race offers two prizes of $1,000 for first place; two $500 prizes for second place; and two $350 prizes for third.
El Camino began five years ago, but it hasn't always been a smooth ride. After four successful runs with an average of 80 participants each, the race hit a wall in 2018 due to lack of organization. That's when Aristeo Rodriguez stepped in.
When Rodriguez rode in the El Camino five years ago, he grew enamored with the rough gravel roads and their country charm. A-Rod, as he's known to his friends, came back to help emcee the race for three more years.
Rodriguez, 39, lives in Tyler. He has emceed other athletic events, but never lost his initial enthusiasm for Palestine's El Camino, which he describes as a “gravel grinder.” When the race didn't happen last year, he became determined to bring it back.
Now with A-Rod at the helm of a venture known as Spirit Productions, the race has more than tripled in participation. Moreover, it will draw about 1,000 people, including spouses and families, which will boost tourism.
Palestine's Tourism Director Mary Raum said this year's El Camino has already brought more tourists, such as event organizers and cyclists who are training for Saturday's race over the past few weeks.
Outdoor entertainment, including live music and shopping, will encourage the cyclists to bring their families to stay the weekend – and spend more money in Palestine during their weekend getaway.
El Camino is inviting vendors from as far as Dallas and Louisiana to sell their goods at El Camino Marketplace in the Oxbow Hollow. Vendors will sell vintage clothing and crafts, and food.
The venue is family-friendly, providing activities for kids, such as bounce houses and contests.
“We are very excited about the direction [Rodriguez] is taking this,” Raum told the Herald-Press.
Raum said the Visitor's Center ordered custom-made medals for the winning cyclists, fashioned by Orlando Guillen of Crazy Turtle Art, to encourage participation.
“They will have a beautiful, handmade, handpainted keepsake medal to put up with other medals they have won,” Raum said.
Rodriguez said the race may double in size next year – as long as the cyclists enjoy the experience and tell their friends about it.