July 08, 2016

American Bicycle Racing

The Amgen Tour of California took place this past week, heralded as the latest in a series of stage races (or multi-day – think Tour de France) that have all tried to claim the moniker of “major American stage race.” This quest began with the Tour de Trump – yes, him, seriously, I rode it in 1988 -- which morphed into the Tour DuPont, and, after a few attempts in Georgia and Missouri, landed in sunny California. The crowds are terrific, the riders world class and the event, backed by the extraordinarily deep pockets of Phil Anschutz’s AEG corp., and organized by ASO, owners of the Tour de France, looks to have every chance of becoming a permanent fixture on the UCI WorldTour.

However…is it American racing?

From my perspective, it is not. In the same way that the Austin F1 race is not American auto racing. F1 is a European brand gone global, one that visits various continents to expand its reach. NASCAR is American as is Indycar. Big, powerful and fast, held on circuits so that American audiences can see and understand the action. To wait on the side of the road for hours to see a “Tour” pass by in a couple of minutes is most definitely a European thing. In California, the attraction for the crowds is to live a true Tour de France experience, without the logistics and expense of a trip to France. But it’s the experience and the brief sighting of famous Tour de France stars that works, not the actual sporting spectacle.

Americans invented modern bicycle racing. From about 1890 though the 1930’s, the sport, which was almost uniquely held on velodromes (or steeply banked wooden tracks) was the richest in the world. Considered an urban sport, the indoor velodromes created the fame and fortune of Madison Square Garden. The winter circuit, besides MSG, included Chicago (where Al Capone once financed the city’s six day race), Philadelphia, Cleveland and many other cities across the county. All the races had a distinctly nightclub/boxing match atmosphere to them. 

The Thompson Criterium of Doylestown – the competitive branch of the overall Thompson Bucks County Classic event – represents American racing at its finest. Criteriums -- races on one to two-mile racecourses with multiple laps of high-speed action and constant sprinting for inter-race cash prizes or “premes” -- are basically track races translated to the road. The fighter pilot nature of these specialist athletes, shown by their fearless skills though fast turns and in the constant rubbing of elbows and shoving of shoulders for better position in the peloton (field) along with the excitement of lap after lap of action, constant sprinting and easily understandable tactics, often culminating with a photo-finish sprint finish, creates a sport that Americans can relate to.

It’s now considered as an almost astounding feat the Amgen Tour of California has made it to its tenth year. By comparison, we are in our thirteenth year with Doylestown (which can actually be counted as 18 as the beginnings were in Souderton in 1998). Other famous American criteriums include Somerville, New Jersey, held every Memorial Day since 1940 and The Tour of Nevada City, founded in 1960.

The simple fact is that the races that last in America, the ones that truly become part of the fabric of their communities, with the exception of the excellent Philadelphia Pro Cycling Classic (since 1985 – but on circuits all the same) are criteriums. They are what we like and understand.