Falun gears up for World Cup cycling

It may have already lost two bids to host the Winter Olympics but the tiny Swedish town of Falun remains doggedly determined to become a leading centre for European sporting events, and perhaps one day get the Olympics after all.

Later this month Falun, nestled deep in the forest 250 kilometres (155 miles) north of Stockholm, will host Sweden’s first World Cup cycling event, the UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Series, which is expected to draw 1,000 cyclists from around the world.

The town of 50,000 is best known for being home to Europe’s oldest copper mine, one of Sweden’s economic mainstays until it closed down in 1992 and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

According to local legend, Falun was founded by a goat which discovered deposits of copper ore over 1,000 years ago.

The town is also known in Sweden for the red, copper-based paint called “Falu Red” used on the majority of Swedish homes and for a red-skinned sausage called Falu korv.

Yet the town’s community has long nurtured ambitions of becoming an international sports hub to rival the capital Stockholm or Sweden’s second-biggest city Gothenburg.

Such goals included plans to host the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Winter Games. Falun lost out to Calgary in the first bid and to Albertville in the second during the final round of voting.

Yet the town has continued to promote itself as a top international sports venue. Falun Mayor Jonny Gahnshag said the town has “proven itself as an established organiser for national cycling competitions and both national and international ski competitions.”

On August 12-13, cyclists from across Europe, the United States and as far away as New Zealand will meet in Falun for the World Cup mountain biking event.

The men’s defending champion, Massimo de Bertolis from Italy, Sweden’s Fredik Kessiakoff as well as top-ranking female bikers Rita-Gunn Dahle from Norway and Germany’s Sabine Spitz are just some of the big names expected.

The Swiss-based International Union of Cyclists (UCI), the regulatory body for races such as the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, chose Falun from 60 cities worldwide to host a stage of its MTB Marathon World Series.

UCI’s Mountain Bike coordinator Christophe Burri said the federation was impressed by Falun’s sports facilities which include the National Ski Centre and Nordic Stadium.

“Despite its size, Falun had a well established reputation for organising multi-sporting events. Cyprus had successfully organised the April leg of the MTB Championship and now Falun will host a stage in August,” he said.

In a major publicity coup for Falun, Sweden’s top professional cyclist, Magnus Backstedt competed for the local club, Falu CK, during the country’s Midsummer Classic in July, before heading off to the Tour de France with his Liquigas-Bianchi team.

Backstedt, whose credits include winning last year’s Paris to Roubaix race, thinks small towns appreciate the benefits of large scale events more than bigger cities.

“Races such as the MTB World Cup are very important for towns like Falun. If people on the local scene can see world class athletes, it’s always a crowd puller and for a place like Falun it’s a big happening,” he said.

Falu CK is one of the driving forces behind Falun’s bid to host a stage of the UCI MTB Marathon World Series and the town’s international goals.

The club’s race organiser, Bjoern Stenberg, is positive that the stage-race will kick-start long-term plans for Falun to have a national velodrome and a semi-professional cycling team.

“It will take a lot of effort to achieve these goals but it will be a great opportunity for everyone. The local community is supportive behind the club’s efforts. Such goals will attract Sweden’s top cyclists to come and train in Falun,” he said.

Organising the UCI stage-race will cost Falu CK nearly 1.2 million Swedish kronor. The club’s revenue is only 100,000 kronor, so it is relying on sponsors, registration fees and concessions to cover costs.

Backstedt’s teammate Marcus Ljungqvist thinks the risks are worth taking. Ljungqvist grew up in Falun and although he is now based in Luxembourg, he is an active Falu CK member.

“The UCI event is one of the biggest events we’ve had here. It’ll be great for Falun and also for cycling in general with all the extra media coverage we’ll get,” he said.

Regardless of Falun’s long-term plans for the future, its first priority will be to break-even with the UCI MTB World Series stage-race or else its ambitions could end up like the famed Falu Copper Mine – empty and bottomless.