Interviews: Brian Ignatin, Kermesse Sport Director - Or, Thoughts of an Event Coordinator (Part I)
In this two-part series, Brian Ignatin took time out of his busy spring classic schedule to talk about his past cycling experiences with both racing and event coordinating. Brian is the director of Kermesse Sport, responsible for such current events as The Hell of Hunterdon and worked past events such as the Corestates American Championship. This interview took place in person and via email.
Cover photo courtesy of Mike Maney Photography. Be sure to check out his work; he is a fellow cyclist in the Bucks County cycling community with multiple KOMs to his name. All other photos courtesy Brian Ignatin.
(2018) creakybottombracket.com: Tell us about your background as a cyclist. What was the highest level you achieved and what were some of the big events you participated in?
Brian Ignatin: I started riding more than most kids did at the age of 11 or 12, and bought my first real bike in 1980; an early Trek. I completed my first ACS City - Shore Ride when I was 13, and my first MS150 when I was 14. I started racing in the early 80s as a junior (u19) rider and was a member of the Pennsylvania Bike Club/Team Hill. Team Hill & PBC eventually split into two clubs. My Team Hill connection opened up a lot of experiences of working on professional races, since this club was the backbone of the CoreStates USPRO Championships in Philadelphia.
The bikes were steel and the shift levers were on the downtube; index shifting and clipless pedals didn’t appear until a few years later. The general club rule was if it was at least 20 degrees an hour before the start, the ride was on. Snow and rain would alter things, but generally cold conditions wouldn’t. This was in the era of wool clothing; synthetics were just beginning to appear, and were nowhere close to the options or quality available today. Want to break the wind? Stuff a newspaper under your jersey. Cold? Wear more jerseys… Winter riding gloves? Go to the ski shop… Quite a few riders rode only fixed gear bikes in the winter; almost everyone knew how to ride rollers.
Team Hill was a pretty tight group, though we got along very well with some other teams, including Guys, BikeTech, and Tri-State Velo. The scene was very different at the time; much fewer clubs. This meant we frequently rode with other teams in training races (like the NE Airport or the River Drives in Philly), and some open training rides. We competed against each other in local races, but when we traveled farther, we often would combine efforts and support each other. The popularity of racing exploded after Greg Lemond won the Tour de France in 1986.
PBC & Team Hill were traditional clubs; both taught fundamentals. PBC & Team Hill had a number of pioneering professional riders among their ranks; Bruce Donaghy, Jeff Rutter, Paul Pearson and two- time USPRO Champion John Eustice were all members, along with many top amateurs, like Danny Fox (who later became a pro), so we had opportunity to learn from the best. We mostly rode in pace lines (single & double) so team rides were fairly orderly. You’d know immediately if you did something wrong, as the riders were quite vocal; it was never overtly mean or personal, but getting yelled at was part of the ritual and was effective!
After high school (where I was one of three people who had a USCF license (out of 4000 students)) I went to UC Irvine, in California, where I founded their cycling team. I competed in collegiate races and USCF races (predecessor to USAC). I competed on road and track.
Cyclocross interested me, but there weren’t many 'cross races in the US at that time. At the first 'cross race in Philadelphia (1991) I was the only racer not on a mountain bike (which were allowed in ‘cross races at the time). I used a road bike (with 28mm knobby tires). I always enjoyed riding my road bike on dirt roads, but it just wasn’t a popular thing back then; honestly, we never thought anything of it- it wasn’t that special at the time. The ‘cross bike was only a disadvantage on really steep climbs (gearing) and twisty single track descents (geometry and tire width). On the fire roads and unpaved roads, a road or CX bike was a huge advantage (weight, aerodynamics, and rolling resistance).
The highest level I competed at was Collegiate A (the equivalent of USAC 1/2) and as a category 2 in USCF events. Many of the events I raced in were ProAm (Pro,1-2 or Pro, 1-3); we didn’t have standalone Cat 2 races at the time. Honestly I was mostly pack fill on the road, but I did reasonably well on the track in mass start events.
I was more of a climber, and had decent endurance, but not much of a sprint, so living/racing in SoCal where 95% of the races were 90 – 100 minute flat crits ending in field sprints didn’t serve me well. I tended to perform better on the technical courses. Thus, it might seem odd that I was successful on the track, but I had excellent leg speed and a strong grasp of tactics. I could overcome my lack of power by using my head and out spinning my competitors; I could routinely beat significantly faster riders, even in match sprints. Having only one fixed gear really served me well. Winning races isn’t about being strongest or the fastest; often it just takes getting a gap and holding off your competitors. They can all fly by you after the line, as long as you get there first, even if only by a few millimeters.
I had a different philosophy than many of the people I knew. I had more satisfaction by upgrading category than any particular individual race result. In other words, I would rather finish last in every Pro/Am race rather than win every Cat 3 or 4 race. To me it was similar to many baseball players’ dreams of playing in the Major Leagues; better to be a benchwarmer in “the Show” than to be a minor league All-Star.
The biggest races I competed at in the US were Tour of Nutley, Tour of Somerville, Tour de Toona, Enchanted Mountain Stage Race, Redlands, San Dimas, Death Valley – Mount Whitney, a National Criterium Championship, and several collegiate conference and USCF District (state) championships.
Even though I was a mediocre racer, and had no delusions of ever being a national level racer, let alone a pro, I was brave enough to race in other countries. I spent a summer season racing in Germany and Belgium, where I was absolutely shelled. We raced and trained on some famous roads that appear in some of the classic races, even racing on cobbles. It rained at least part of every day for three weeks straight; I swear German and Belgian bikes have braze-ons for rain coats. Some of the races charged small entry fees to spectators; I wonder if any of them demanded refunds after watching me race.
I also competed in some races in Mexico, Canada, France, and Australia, but none of these were big events. One winter, I competed for a few weeks on an indoor track in Germany, where I placed a few times; some of these races were international meets. I rode at the Master’s World Road Championship in Belgium in 2011.
It is fun to look back at the programs from some of the European races; some of the riders I “competed” against went on to win Olympic medals, rode for professional teams, won some of the classics, and even some Tour de France stages. I knew I was outclassed while I was there; I really learned how outclassed I was a few years later (after seeing what they achieved).
I spent a lot of time riding in the rain and cold. Even when I lived in SoCal I’d go out in the rain when 99% of others wouldn’t. I called them bonus days, because I was training when others weren’t. I usually performed well in rainy races; many other racers were self-defeated by the prospects of racing in the rain.
I stopped racing earnestly in the late 90s; a neck injury prevents me from riding with drop bars for more than 30 minutes or so. But I still loved riding and challenging myself, so I adopted upright bars, which is not only odd looking but isn’t efficient from an aerodynamic or performance standpoint. It changed my center of gravity, so cornering at speed is compromised.
cbb: What attracted you to Bucks County? You said in a previous conversation a group ride would pass through Carversville. What stuck with you to want to bring events to the area?
BI: Many of the Team Hill rides started from the Hill Cycle Shop in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia (hence the name), and went into suburban Montgomery and rural Bucks Counties; the areas were much less populated than today. If I showed riders today some of the roads we used to do group rides on, they wouldn’t believe it was possible.
One of our regular routes was what we called “The Doylestown Ride.” It went through “downtown” Doylestown and turned around at the Carversville Store, though sometimes we extended the ride to go up along the Delaware River and over to Frenchtown, or down to New Hope before heading back. I grew-up in NE Philadelphia, so honestly, as an 18 - 20 year old, most of these places were just names; I didn’t necessarily “know” where we were- I never bothered to look them up on a map. I just knew these were great roads to ride on, and with repetition, you just learned the routes. You learned by experimenting and getting lost, and if you got lost you had to ask someone; no cell phones to consult, and good luck finding a payphone out in the middle of nowhere. This sense of can do and adventure has been lost through progress.
After I graduated from university I stayed there, living in SoCal for 19 years. I rode and raced with a number of teams, but most notably the Southbay Wheelmen, which was founded by a former professional racer named Ted Ernst.
I decided to move back to PA and bought a house in Bucks County in 2005. One of the reasons was to have good roads to ride on; in Los Angeles the weather was great, as was the riding in the mountains and canyons, but there was at least ten miles of sprawl to get there; the higher mountains were about an hour drive. You could only ride North or South; East was too dense with too many traffic signals, and West, the Pacific Ocean was less than a mile away.
When I was house shopping in Bucks County, I would drive around sort of randomly to get a feel for the area. On one drive I ended up in Carversville, and saw the General Store as I was heading into town; it was a “Holy Shit” moment; I suddenly recognized where I was, even though I hadn’t been there in about 14 years.
I started riding with the Central Bucks Bicycle Club, and relearned the area. I recognized that Central and Upper Bucks County was a really great place to ride. Close to cities (Philly & New York), it is mostly rural and wooded with fairly low traffic on the larger roads, and practically none on the back roads. There is plenty of climbing, and the scenery is beautiful year round. The area was ripe for cycling events; the CBBC Covered Bridge Ride being one of the largest in the region, but there was room for several more.
cbb: You said your experience with Team Hill led to working on Professional Races; what are some of the events you worked on?
BI: It all started with the Corestates USPRO Championship race in Philadelphia, which I began working on in 1987. The company that owned the Philly race (one of the owners was Jerry Casale of the Hill Cycle Shop) started organizing other events across the country. The Philly race expanded into a series of events (which over time included professional races in Freehold, Trenton, Reading, Allentown, and Lancaster). They organized the BMC Software series, the Tour of Georgia, the Tour of Pennsylvania, the San Francisco Gran Prix among many other events.
The most prestigious event we worked on was the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where we were in charge of construction, race logistics, and crowd control barricades. We also placed the barricades for the running marathons.
Through a variety of circumstances, a few other event companies formed out of the Philly race, notably G4 Productions (owned by Doylestown natives Robin Morton and Alice Armstrong) and Sparta Cycling (owned by John Eustice). Cycling is a very small world, so through connections other opportunities appeared.
I started working on the stage crew (barricades, snow fencing, signage crews) and working with teams in the feed zones. In time, I moved into more technical positions (which require knowledge of racing rules and regulations) such as serving as a whip (start/finish manager), caravan driver, signage crew, and have participated in course design, and as a foreign team liaison; this lead to relationships with a Belgian Team (which evolved into the 3M Professional Team and a South African Team (which evolved first into Barloworld, and now into Dimension Data)).
I’ve worked with G4 Productions since 2007, primarily in logistics, operations, and technical roles. They provided technical and operational services to the US Grand Prix of Cyclocross, US Air Force Classic UCI race, and the Winston Salem Cycling Classic. They managed the Philly race from 2013 - 2016. We managed the 2016 USAC Professional, Masters, and Para National Cycling Championships. They also organize a number of charity events, including 3 “Tour de Pink” 3-day rides.
I performed similar roles with Sparta Cycling, particularly with their signature events, the Univest Grand Prix, the Thompson Bucks County Classic, and the Harlem Skyscraper race.
Last year I was the technical coordinator for the Alabama Cycling Classic, which was a US Pro Cycling Tour race. I continue to work on other races such as the USACRITS Iron Hill Criterium in West Chester, PA
In another aspect of the sport, some friends (Jed Kornbluh and Dave Berson) and I started an Elite Cyclocross Team, where we hosted some up-and-coming Swiss racers along with some U23 and Junior Americans. Our top rider was the Swiss rider Valentin Scherz, who won the MAC Series twice, and finished 6th in the 2011 U23 World CX Championships. This connection led to the Swiss National Team hiring us to provide logistical and operations support for them at the 2013 World Cyclocross Championships in Louisville, KY.
cbb: How did you start organizing Gran Fondos and Gravel Rides, which ones did you organize, and how did the scene develop?
BI: It really came down to some luck and perfect timing.
While I enjoy working on professional races, and had organized a number of amateur road and track events, I really didn’t enjoy organizing local races. Road races are a logistical nightmare, there are more criteriums than one can count, and time trials to me are too boring.
After I stopped racing, I looked for alternative events, but there wasn’t really anything between century/charity rides and racing in the US. I knew there were semi-competitive rides in Europe; Gran Fondos and Cyclosportives, but they just didn’t exist here formally or in appreciable numbers. Eventually I decided to get the ball rolling by organizing events that I knew I’d like to participate in. They had to be challenging and technical.
I had formed Kermesse Sport as a legal entity to work under for my event work. I initially performed contract work for other events, but the goal was to eventually organize my own events.
When I was racing with Team Hill, one of my teammates was Alan Rodzinski. Each spring he organized a series of “Spring Classics”. The goal was to ride a combined +/- 150 miles (the nominal distance of the European Classics) over the span of 3 consecutive late winter/early spring weekends. Alan’s routes would include the cobblestones of Chestnut Hill and surrounding areas, dirt paths in Montgomery County, plenty of hills, and often crappy weather. They were some real sufferfests.
After I moved back to PA, I rediscovered some of the unpaved roads I used to ride on, and was inspired to start a one-day ride similar in spirit to Alan’s, only closer to home. I took note of the dirt roads and some of the poorly paved ones. Around the same time, I met Bob Ruddy, who was a kindred spirit; he too had road & track racing background, and had an appreciation for hard rides.
Bob and I put our notes together, sat down in front of some maps and designed the first Fools Classic, which we held as a Central Bucks Bicycle Club ride in 2007. Calling a first year ride a “classic” was partially ironic (how can something never held before be called a classic?). We were emulating the spring classics and the ride took place on April 1st. We knew we’d only get a handful of riders.
With my background in organizing and working on races, I had a bigger vision for the ride, and thoughts of a series, along with other road based events. Since I was developing ideas that appealed to me as a rider, I figured I wasn’t so special, and that there would be other riders that were also looking for alternatives to races and “cookie” rides.
In 2009, Bob stepped back, and I pursued my vision. I opened up the Fools Classic to non-CBBC members, and changed the route after discovering more dirt roads. This was the same year I started the Hell of Hunterdon. I added the Fleche Buffoon in 2011, but had to sideline it for a few years due to my schedule being full with other events. We brought that back in 2014.
When we started, there really weren’t many rides that took in or featured unpaved roads, nor did Gran Fondos exist in the US. The term gravel grinder hadn’t been coined. But cyclocross was beginning to increase in popularity.
Around the same time, the Battenkill race started, became well known, and grew into the largest USAC race in the country. A few other small events existed, and the gravel scene was born. Gran Fondos came to the US in 2009, so semi-competitive events were found with both paved and unpaved roads
Stepping back in time to better connect the dots, in 2007 I participated in L’Etape du Tour, which is a Gran Fondo race of a mountain stage of that year’s Tour de France. This proved to me that there was mass appeal for events like this (the event sold out with 8000 participants) and that amateurs really appreciate the pro level production value these types of events offer. I knew that rides similar in spirit to the Fools Classic would have larger appeal, if we could only get the word out. Enter the power of internet and social media.
Based upon what I learned by riding L’Etape, and with my experience with the Fools Classic and other participation rides, John Eustice requested I shift my primary role at the Univest Grand Prix away from the UCI race to become the director of the Cyclosportif ride. Previously the ride had been sort of a side project with no one completely dedicated to its success. Some of those previously charged to manage it didn’t have much experience with riding, let alone racing, so there were a number of shortcomings to the event.
With skills formed from my own racing and working on pro races, I paid strict attention to the technical details, changed some fundamentals, and improved the event overall. With increased outreach and the market being ready for an event with high production value, participation increased dramatically.
In 2009, Gran Fondos arrived in the US, with the Gran Fondo Colnago San Diego in the spring. The ride sold out with approximately 1000 riders, and made a huge splash on the scene. Excited by the fact that there was going to be a genuine Gran Fondo in the US, I entered the San Diego event, and traveled to California to participate. While the overall event was good, many details were lacking, and communication was poor. Three days prior to the event, parking hadn’t been arranged, the course marking was subpar, and the cue sheets weren’t completely accurate. But I could see the potential, which affirmed my own vision!
Following the event, I approached the organizers, who were both riders, but neither had strong event organizing skills. One was a sports marketing executive, the other previously owned a chip timing company. Their vision, mirrored my own (I had been working on a Gran Fondo concept for a few years). They hired me to improve the event technically and to expand it into a series. We held two events in 2010: the San Diego event, and I directed the new Gran Fondo Philadelphia event, which had 1700 participants.
In 2011 I became the Gran Fondo Colnago Series Director, and we added two additional events (Beverly Hills, CA and Miami, FL), bringing the series total up to four, but the owners sold the company after the San Diego event to a Monaco-based triathlon company. While they understood multi-sport and running events well, they didn’t understand cycling’s nuances, and certainly not how things work in the US. They particularly couldn’t comprehend that permits are required for everything, and that municipal services like Police and EMTs are not provided free of charge.
They wanted to increase the number of events to six, but I felt under supported with the 4 events we had in 2011. I didn’t think we could pull it off, and chose not to accept their contract offer for 2012. But timing being everything, I accepted a position with RCS (owners of the Giro d’Italia) and was the race director for their new Giro d’Italia Gran Fondo series. As amazing an experience as that was, RCS was a big company with a lot of bureaucracy, and the cultural conflicts were even worse than those with the triathlon company.
They wanted to have six events in 2013, but I didn’t think they were going to commit the necessary resources; we barely pulled off the 2 events we held in 2012. It was very frustrating, because they had all the talent to succeed in house (they organize the Giro, Milan-San Remo, Lombardia, Strade Bianche, and many other events), but the staff (the people who actually do the work) in Italy weren’t committed to the project like senior management was.
I declined to renew my contract with them for 2013 and instead focused on my own Kermesse Sport events (Fools Classic, Hell of Hunterdon, and the Fleche Buffoon), and continued to work with G4 and a few other events that I had long standing relationships with. Once again, my timing couldn’t have been better; RCS was thrown into turmoil by a financial scandal; all of the Giro staff I directly worked with (including the Giro’s Race Director) were sacked, except for my immediate supervisor. Even the CEO of RCS Sport was forced out. The Giro Gran Fondo series ceased after 2013.
Commensurate with all this, the UCI decided to get into the Gran Fondo world, and tied together a series of independent events, but it wasn’t really working for them; there was no need for long standing successful events to pay the UCI a 5-figure sanction fee for no appreciable benefit; they weren’t bringing anything tangible to the events. In 2011 (largely upon the advice of one of my Gran Fondo Colnago partners) they put together a series with a finale. In order to participate in the finale, you had to qualify by placing in one of the other events in the series.
But the UCI corrupted the idea, by making the events true races (like Gran Fondos are in parts of the world such as Italy), whereas the events in the US & UK were semi-competitive, and were largely hardcore recreational events. The finale was the Amateur & Master’s World Championship; I qualified and rode the 2011 Worlds race in Belgium
In 2012 the UCI expanded the number of qualifying events; Sparta Cycling organized the only US based event (the Berkshires Cycling Classic). I was the Technical Director. The UCI series still exists, but it hasn’t achieved its potential.