Philly Preview: America’s Greatest One Day Race
I’m your PEZ Roadside guy for this Sunday’s big race in Philly, so I thought I’d start out by confessing that I’ve got a bit of a fixation with this race. You see, even the biggest U.S. pro bike races seem to vanish after a few years – a huge frustration for cycling fans. Philly, however, has stood the test of time.
Contributed by Daniel Lee
In the 1970s and 80s, Colorado had the Red Zinger and Coors Classic stage race. Then, in 1989, East Coast cycling fans were treated to the Tour de Trump (yes, a stage race just for Donald). That became the Tour DuPont, but it too was gone by the mid-1990s. More recently we’ve seen the demise of the Tour de Georgia and Tour of Missouri.
But this Sunday’s 156-mile TD Bank Philadelphia International Cycling Championship – better known as just “Philly” – has kept pedaling and punching since Team 7-Eleven’s Eric Heiden, already an American hero for his five Olympic gold medals in speed skating, won the first edition way back in 1985.
Since then, Philly has become a common link for most of the famous American cyclists of the modern era: Greg LeMond, Andy Hampsten, Alexi Grewal, Davis Phinney, Bobby Julich, Chris Horner, George Hincapie, Lance Armstrong and Tyler Farrar are among those who have raced the 14.4 -mile circuit that runs from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, through the city and up the famed half-mile “Manayunk Wall.”
Heck, that’s a run that would impress even Rocky Balboa.
The peloton of the Philly race since 1985 has been rolling by the art museum steps Rocky made famous.
Plenty of European stars have showed up over the years as well, with last year’s racing being won by beefy German sprinter Andre Greipel.
This year’s lineup is like many over the years in Philly: Some top European teams and riders set to compete against super-motivated domestic squads. HTC-Columbia is bringing Matt Goss, winner of stage nine of the recent Giro d’Italia. Slovakian Peter Sagan of Team Liquigas just won two stages of the Amgen Tour of California. “He’s probably the heavy favorite right now,” said race co-founder David Chauner, who is president of the Pro Cycling Tour.
Hot sunny weather, big crowds and strong fields are all part of the tradition in Philly.
Notably absent from the start list this year, though, are the U.S.-based Garmin Transitions and Radio Shack teams. But Philly isn’t all about the stars. It’s about the fans, the course and individual heroic efforts – just consider last year’s long solo breakaway by young California sprinter Daniel Holloway.
Holloway, riding for the U.S. National Team in last year’s race, was motivated to press on with his roughly three hour breakaway by the wild fans that crowd the Manayunk Wall. The Wall, a climb with a 17 percent-grade climb, has become party central for thousands of race fans over the years. It’s cycling’s version of the bleachers at Wrigley Field.
Daniel Holloway forges on with his three-plus hour breakaway last year. Chants of “USA! USA!” on the Wall kept him going.
“The atmosphere on the wall is crazy, so loud and positive that you can’t hear yourself breathe,” said Holloway, 23, who will ride this year’s race for the Bissell team. “Last year was crazy because I was solo for a while and wearing the USA kit so that really pumped the crowd up. Every time it was ‘USA! USA! USA!’ which was so cool because it connected more with the non-cycling people watching the race rather than a team they really couldn’t connect with. My attack last year wasn’t planned and I really wished a group came up to me. I kept the gas off hoping a few guys wanted to come across but no one really came across so my DS told me to go it alone.”
Holloway was eventually caught, but it took a while as the pack rode leisurely enough that the women racers of the Liberty Classic – on the course at the same time as the men – actually caught and passed the men’s peloton.
“The riders have learned how to ride the course a lot better than they used to,” said Chauner, an Olympic cyclist before he got into race promotions. “The teams are really planning tactics. They’re not so stretched or blown out by the wall. Lots of time it comes down to the breakaway that been dangling for a long time and it’s reeled in.”
Here I am as a bright-eyed, feathered-haired teenager with Giro winner Andy Hampsten in Philly at the 1988 race.
My fanaticism with the Philly race began in 1987 when I was a teenager feeding a newly discovered love for bike racing. My high-school cycling buddies and I took annual road trips to Philly for the race. In 1988, I met 7-Eleven’s Andy Hampsten fresh off his legendary ride over the snowy Gavia pass on his way to become the first and only American to win the Giro d’Italia.
In 1989, my buddies and I watched Greg LeMond — still looking for the form he had before his 1987 hunting accident — tinkering with his bike before the race in Philly. The very next month LeMond would prevail in the most exciting finish in Tour de France history to beat Laurent Fignon by 8 seconds.
Greg LeMond tweaks his bike before the 1989 race. The next month he’d beat some dude named Laurent in France.
A slightly hipper version of me at the 1989 CoreStates U.S. Pro Championship in Philly. Check out the old school Campagnolo neutral support.
In 1993, I actually became an employee of the Philly race — signing a contract position that paid a princely sum of $300 a week to work as a communications assistant for race promoter David Chauner’s outfit.
I picked a good year. Lance Armstrong, in his first full year as a pro, launched an attack on the Manayunk Wall to win the U.S. pro championship. With the victory, he also won the “$1 million Triple Crown” – a prize for Armstrong received for winning Philly as well as earlier races in Pittsburgh and West Virginia.
Check out a confident and young Lance Armstrong, in the Motorola kit, on the far right. His early mentors Phil Anderson, No. 21, and Sean Yates, No. 28, were close by.
Lance Armstrong celebrates with Motorola teammates after his 1993 Philly win.
While Philly has survived, it also has gone through many changes since 1985. A women’s race, the Liberty Classic, was added in 1996. But there also have been downsizings. The race used to part of a week of racing, with smaller build up races in Lancaster, Trenton, or Reading. The race – long known as the CoreStates U.S. Pro Championship – also lost its status as crowning the U.S. road champion after 2005. Last year, the race was almost canceled because of sponsorship woes.
In 1993, I was happily working for the race that had helped ignite my passion for bike racing years before.
Chauner, my old boss, tells me that his goal is to find a business model that will reduce the reliance of sponsorship to cover costs from about 90 percent down to about 60 percent. The goal is to sell more things like VIP tickets (and choice finish line viewing) as well as more merchandise.
Yet through all those changes, the Philly atmosphere has endured like a determined racer on a solo breakaway.
Philly race co-founders Jerry Casale, left, and David Chauner. Together they have keep America’s biggest one day race rolling on for a quarter of a century.
“Excellent pro races have come and gone over the years in the United States, but since 1985 Dave Chauner’s 156-mile event has emerged as the best one standing,” said Peter Nye, a cycling historian and author who also happens to have attended most of those Philly races. “Every first Sunday in June top pro cyclists of the era from both sides of the Atlantic converge on Philly.
“The sun always shines. Crowds come out in huge numbers to watch. Because of the distance and the heroics of the racing, Philadelphia’s event unfolds in many acts…. Every winner has been a rider of class.”
You can’t ask for much more from a race than that.
Daniel Lee is working on a book, tentatively titled “Davy Crockett Goes to Flanders,” about how a new generation of Americans is breaking into European professional cycling. Have ideas for him? E-mail [email protected]