MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — An annual race, considered to be the Tour de France of the Midwest, is back in the Twin Cities.

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Hundreds of professional cyclists from across the country are racing in the Nature Valley Grand Prix this week. The team that won last year is the Minneapolis-based Optum Pro Cycling, presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies.

They’ll defend their title this year in the race, which happens in five stages. It starts on Wednesday in St. Paul, moves through Cannon Falls on Thursday, Minneapolis on Friday, Menomonie on Saturday and ends in Stillwater on Sunday.

Optum cyclist Jesse Anthony, 27, said he’s nervous about the race. Biking started for him as family fun, but then it developed into something much more.

“I’ve just been a kid who likes to ride my bike, and I’ve never looked back,” he said.

Racing has taken him nationwide and worldwide. He had the fastest time among all cyclists in last year’s Nature Valley Grand Prix.

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“The whole team went in 100 percent,” Anthony said. “Every guy just gave 100 percent effort, and in the end, when the dust settled, we had the jersey.”

Before trying to defend their title on Wednesday, the cyclists visited with children at the Ronald McDonald House in Minneapolis. They consider the conversations they had motivational, if short.

“If anything, I’m going to leave here being inspired by these kids,” said Annie Ewart, another Optum pro cyclist.

For the children, the conversations and smiles are therapeutic. But Payton Hand, who has leukemia, said she was just getting to know the cyclists when they have to leave. The meeting at the Ronald McDonald House lasted an hour, and then it was time for Anthony and his teammates to prepare for their competition.

“I’m expecting a big crowd,” Anthony said. “Lots of noise. And hopefully not too many crashes.”

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Something like last year, and maybe there will be another perfect finish to go along with it.