Events: The 75thTour of Somerville
Take a Memorial Day Weekend tradition that has been happening for a better part of a century on a course with four left-hand turns and people make an experience of it. The course is a rough rectangle: two long straightaways with short chutes between the turns. It sounds like the description of the Indianapolis 500. Much like its tradition and local color, the Tour of Somerville has long been a race on our list. With substantial payouts to four of the races on the day, it was bound to be a populated - and fast - field.
Typical races experienced by criterium racers involve an industrial park or – in the case of Trexlertown – a specific course tucked in a park. Rarely are the races attended by anyone outside of teammates and supportive family members. There are exceptions of course. There is the West Chester Twilight Criterium that draws a healthy audience. There is the Bucks County Classic that introduces some of the Doylestown Arts Festival fans to bike racing. And then there’s the Tour of Somerville.
Bike racing in New Jersey goes back well over a century. The wooden velodromes that made New Jersey cycling big are long gone. When the velodromes burnt down or were otherwise demolished the racing took to the road. Over the years cycling events in northern New Jersey have changed but what emerged has been seventy-five years of racing around the borough of Somerville.
I knew the race was going to be fast. I had teammates who held straight faces in last year’s Bucks County Classic racing today’s Tour of Somerville. With the largest field ever experienced, and the tradition of the race, I knew it was going to be full gas for the entire race. To race through turns one and two were majestic. The race down the downhill backstretch meant hard braking into turns three and four followed by a run up the long front stretch. What a feeling it was to part the crowd each lap. The sounds of the crowd were encouraging. The smells of barbeques and cigar smoke were potent. Meanwhile the sights were confined solely to the rider just off the tip of the front wheel. Each lap I drew into borrowed reserves from those shouting for me. I had to keep going fast for them.
I stayed in the back as customary. Each lap saw a heavy effort up the front stretch and for most of the backstretch. Each lap the heavy braking into turn three allowed me to reattach to the field and save some energy. It is a dangerous game to play but it was working out for quite some time. My focus of the front riders slipped back each lap as I realized the field was stringing out. Even if I wanted to advance my position a human snowplow took up the width of the road and made it difficult. Perhaps I overlooked it for much of the race but a sign on the backstretch said, “If you’re last, we love you.” I looked behind me and saw open road yet again. They must love me.
Finally the bottom came out of my race and a gap became too big. Even if I closed it I would have struggled to maintain contact down the back straightaway. I came undone and rode past the pits where Dan from Doylestown Bike Works was hard at work getting contenders back out. Then I decided to team up with an off-the-back rider to try and catch back onto the group. I thought I could close it up but realized in half of a mile it was ludicrous. I only made it halfway through the race. Winners of the Indy 500 get a coveted bottle of milk. There I was sitting under the team tent watching my race go by lap after lap. There I was sitting in a camp chair, my helmet still on for some reason, finding a cold can of Coca-cola strangely satisfying. What an odd feeling it was to watch the finish of the race I abandoned.
As a cycling writer who loves endurance motorsports like the Indy 500, the Tour of Somerville is an easy event to fall in love with as both a participant and spectator. For multiple blocks families and spectators were walking toward the course, lawn chairs and wagons in tow. Kids rode their bikes with the anticipation of the exhilaration of bike racing. I left the race dejected after another DNF to my name, but I easily fell in love with the Tour of Somerville’s atmosphere. Believe me when I say it’s easy to fall in love with as either spectator or participant. I was both in the same race.