Being There: The Philadelphia International Cycling Classic
(2016) Let’s start by going back to 2011.
Sadly in that year, Philadelphia scarcely doffed their hats to pay respect to a fallen blue-collar worker. In November of 2011, Smokin' Joe Frazier lost his battle with cancer in the same city he set up his boxing gym. As the part of a Frazier-Ali duo, a sports reporter once said regarding the Fight of the Century, “The winner (Frazier) that night was the loser, and the loser (Ali) that night was the winner.” Much like his quiet demeanor, Frazier passed away amidst small tributes to the man who handed Ali one of his five career losses. Many have been fighting for (recently successfully) a statue to be dedicated to the humble man from South Carolina.
It was also during that time the Philly bike race was struggling. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell- who for many years was the mayor of Philadelphia- had successfully negotiated many of the Philly bike races defibrillated state. It had the sense of, “Hang in there, we’ll iron this out." The race was no longer the US Professional Championship, which meant many American riders were no longer pulled to the area. I still have my Embrace the Race t-shirt from the 2009 bike race. People wanted this to work out. There were also people who wanted the race to go away.
Word was released the day before the 2016 race that Joe Frazier’s partner in entertainment, Muhammad Ali, passed away. The reverberations are still being felt in the sporting community. After all, Ali relocated himself to Philadelphia for a spell prior to their first bout, challenging him to a duel in Fairmount Park. Despite the grandiosity, the Greatest of All Time accomplished something many athletes hope to do one in a career: leave a lasting household impression for generations.
In a city that is known for culinary excess in the forms of cheesesteaks and true soft pretzels, known for the passionate sport fans, known as the birthplace of the nation, the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic came to life on a larger scale with a sigh and a feeling all is well in the cycling world. Naturally I’ll tie the men’s race to the boxing metaphor I’ve set my readers up for. But really I must confess something:
The day before the race I waffled on attending. Naturally I would go without hesitation, but the weathermen regularly warned of severe storms delivering damaging wind, hail, lightning, and even possibly a tornado. I had two options: I could either chance my attendance, or I could sit in the comfort of my own home while streaming the race live. If the weather turned, I’d look like a genius sipping coffee. If the weather held off, I would be annoyed yet again at the apocalyptic forecast that somehow fizzled out. I’ll save you the time. The storm never showed up during the race. (I was informed all hell broke loose moments after the women's race concluded taking some tents as souvenirs.)
I watched the race captivated from start to finish like never before. Immediately the race was severely split in half. The break was more than twenty-five guys give or take. It is a rare sight to see such a large lead group. It was fueled by the belief that the group had substantial firepower to stay away.
Furthermore the breakaway was the envy of some of the riders in the back who took it upon themselves to bridge the gap in romantic style. Uri Martins (Amore & Vita – Selle SMP) completed the gap many will talk about for a while. The cameras smartly followed his painful clawing up to the lead group going up the infamous Manyunk Wall. He would catch on after the Fall from the Wall, the wily descent away from Manyunk. The rider who tried to bridge with him suffered a different fate, returning to the main group.
It was enjoyable to see riders I watched at the Bucks County Classic. Eric Marcotte (Team Jamis), American Criterium Champion and 2015’s Bucks County Classic winner, parked himself in the lead group for quite some time. He would finish in the top ten. Evan Murphy (Lupus Racing Team) apparently stayed at my parents’ house two years ago, a fact proudly touted by a text from my mom. His teammate, Chris Horner, made himself present in the lead bunch for much of the day before a mechanical forced him to attempt to shake the evil spirits out of his bike on Lemon Hill. Horner electrified the Bucks Classic last year. These were just a few of the recognizable names with ties to Bucks County racing the streets of Philadelphia.
As the riders exchanged punches, a lively KOM battle shaped up between Robbie Squire (Holowesko/ Citadel p/b Hincapie Sportswear) and Edwin Alcibiades Avila (Team Illuminate). Robbie Squire would take the KOM podium while Alcibiades Avila would call it a day early after coming undone on the Manyunk Wall. Before he pulled the plug, those two riders created an entertaining blow-by-blow race for the KOM.
Just when things were difficult to predict, the race came together, most likely attributed to its UCI 1.1 status meaning radios were allowed. The race continued to thrill as attacks would go off the front at odd intervals.
In recent years the course has finished at the top of the Manyunk Wall, creating a Fleche Wallonne-like finish. The line used to be a flat, long, wide sprint along the Ben Franklin Parkway. This year saw Eduarde Prades (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA) hoist his Fuji team bike in victory in the vicinity of the famous Fuji tent at the top of the Wall. The finish was never predictable right up until the final few meters.
I am sad to say I did not attend the race. Gauging by the sparsely populated barriers surrounding the course, many people may have also been spooked by the severe weather forecast. This certainly leaves me feeling like I did not do my part in supporting the race in person. But if I may defend myself by saying the race has moved into a new experience in the form of live streaming. I enjoyed the coverage instead of catching a glimpse of the race every thirty minutes or so.
Next year I’ve already planned to stand on Lemon Hill. Sly Fox Brewing Company had set up a tent this year, which saddened me more to miss out on their libations. They make great beer.
Just as the storm was (re) predicted to hit the area, the women’s race started and did not disappoint either. It was a thrilling ride from start to finish with World Tour Status. It attracted the women’s road world champion (who finished third), Lizzie Armitstead, as well as the current hour record holder, Evelyn Stevens, who won the race the past two years. American Megan Guarnier won the sprint up the Wall, holding off Elisa Longo Borghini - winner of the QOM - (Wiggle High5), in a satisfying and successful women’s race.
Both the men’s and women’s races exchanged punches and raced for attrition like the two men I mentioned in the introduction. It’s what led to a ride in the team kit moments after Guarnier claimed her victory. I had a small window to get in a quick ride according to the weather app. Naturally the storm never showed up here, and I learned that the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic had never received rain in its 32 year existence. Funny enough, the rain predicted to arrive in the early evening never showed up. The severe storm that eventually rolled in was nothing more than a super soaker.
It is rumored that each time Ali climbed into the ring, he imagined his opponent was the person who stole his bike all those years ago. Perhaps when I hear the starter's whistle at the next crit race, I'll channel the champ's viewpoint, though if a Joe Frazier-like racer is in the field, he might just be the silent winner.