CAPE GIRARDEAU — From the cacophony of foreign languages along the 112-mile route to the rapt spectators lining downtown streets, it was clear that big-time international sports had arrived in small-town Missouri.
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder welcomed the 2009 Tour of Missouri's second-day stage last week in the city his family has called home for six generations.
In the VIP hospitality tent and atop the medal ceremony stage, Kinder basked in the glow of a cycling race that has quickly become a destination for the world's top riders.
But a hint of desperation tinged the celebrations. After three years and $6 million of state support, the race has yet to lure a corporate title sponsor — a shortcoming that could prove fatal.
"I need your help to make sure we have a 2010 Tour of Missouri," Kinder told the estimated 5,000 fans who watched the Sept. 8 stage. Minutes later, he repeated the plea.
As recently as July, the race's immediate future was in doubt. Gov. Jay Nixon's administration froze the tour's $1.5 million tourism allocation before relenting in the face of pressure from biking boosters and the state's tourism commission, which Kinder leads.
Left unspoken are the race's political overtones.
Kinder, the only Republican holding a statewide executive office, is widely considered Nixon's top GOP challenger in 2012.
And the tour, which lasts for one week, allows the lieutenant governor to boost his name recognition on a two-wheeled barnstorming ride across Missouri.
Stops on this year's event include St. Louis and Kansas City as well as smaller towns such as Chillicothe, Farmington, Rolla and Sedalia. Previous stops included Clinton, Springfield, Branson and Columbia.
Nixon, by contrast, had no plans to attend the race. Asked about its future during a visit last week to the Ford Motor Co.'s Kansas City Assembly Plant, the governor was noncommittal.
"We'll see," he said. "This is year three of a three-year contract. I think we'll analyze what it's done and see relative to what we can do where our investments lie."
Budget documents provided to The Associated Press show a total of $1.344 million in corporate sponsorship for the 2009 race from companies such as Drury Hotels Co., Edward Jones Financial Cos. and Emerson Electric Co.
Missing from the top tier of sponsors is Monsanto, the St. Louis-based agribusiness that donated at least $100,000 last year but chose not to participate again. Emerson, a St. Louis-based technology company, trimmed its donation this year by half.
"I have worked three years to get a title sponsor and found many ways to fail," Kinder said, paraphrasing a Thomas Jefferson quote. "I'm going to keep working until we succeed."
The absence of a title sponsor doomed the 2009 Tour of Georgia after six previous annual races. Tour of Missouri competition director John Gatch served in a similar capacity at the Georgia races. He even inadvertently referred to the defunct race while moderating a press conference with Stage 2 winner Mark Cavendish before correcting the mistake.
A longtime competitive cyclist, he has also worked at the Kent Tour of China and the Tour du Pont — two high-profile races from the 1990s that no longer exist.
"Races do come and go, but we'd like to go on," he said. "We're not planning on its demise. We're not looking at the end game, we're looking at what we can do to make it bigger."
Even the most optimistic Tour of Missouri boosters concede that despite the hype, cycling remains a niche spectator sport even in this country's bicycling hotbeds — let alone a state flush with competitive NFL football, Major League Baseball and NCAA Division I teams.
That hasn't kept the Tour of Missouri from luring the sport's top teams with little trouble — excluding Lance Armstrong, who emerged from retirement this year but passed on the event after a third-place finish in the Tour de France. Seven teams that participated in the recent French tour — including Astana, Armstrong's most recent squad — opted for the Missouri race over top events the same week in Spain and Britain.
"There's great excitement about this race," said Cavendish, a British sprinter who won the tour's first two stages before exiting the race Thursday because of a respiratory infection. "I always feel welcome here."
The Missouri race began under former Gov. Matt Blunt, who embraced a proposal by Cary Summers, a prominent Springfield businessman and avid cyclist.
Along with the $1.5 million annual tourism fund contribution, the race — which is operated by a nonprofit corporation — received another $500,000 from the Missouri Development Finance Board. That share comes from fees generated by the agency's programs, not tax revenue.
The tourism fund contributed $1.7 million to last year's race, and $1.45 million in the inaugural year. The finance board provided $500,000 last year and $350,000 in 2007.
Two blocks from the finish line in downtown Cape Girardeau, business owners Roger and Judith Anne Lang stood idly while the expected crowds of 30,000 race-day visitors failed to materialize.
Their sidewalk jewelry booth had attracted few shoppers. But the couple nonetheless eagerly embraced the race and its accompanying focus on rural southeast Missouri — if only for a fleeting afternoon.
"Maybe they'll see we're alive and vibrant," Judith Anne Lang said, referring to potential customers more inclined to shop at the local mall than visit downtown. "In that respect, we couldn't buy that kind of publicity."