By Mark Zalewski
For the past twenty-eight years, the city of Philadelphia has been home to one of the monuments of American professional cycling -- the Philadelphia International Cycling Championship. This race has hosted some of the sport's greats from around the world. It has also played a large role in developing cycling in the United States having served as the national championship race for 20 of those years from 1985 until 2005. Names like Armstrong, Boyer, Hampston, Heiden, Hincapie, Horner, Goss, Greipel, Kiefel, LeMond, Phinney, Rodriguez, and Sagan have all competed in or won this race, marking a significant moment in all of their professional careers. But cycling aficionados from all over the world know and revere the race in Philadelphia -- the difficulty of the course with the feared 17%-grade Manayunk Wall and the often sweltering summer temperatures combined with a star-studded field of riders makes any winner here a true champion.
It all began in 1985 when Dave Chauner, Jack Simes and Jerry Casale took their idea of having a true U.S. national championship road race and put it in motion. "Jack and I had been running bike races for several years," said Chauner. "We had run the first USPRO championship as a criterium in Baltimore. But when the TV station there didn't continue its support, we were without a pro class of racing here in the U.S. So we felt we had to make a true road race championship. We knew we had to run a real pro championship to get real pro development here."
The three hatched the idea over cigars and Sangria at the 1984 World Cycling Championships in Barcelona, Spain where they were working with the American team. All were residents of Pennsylvania with Casale and Chauner from Philadelphia.
"We came back and went to the city [Philadelphia] and talked to the city manager who was interested in a way to make the city look more international,” Chauner said. “We told her it was going to be a 250km race on a circuit, and she said if we could find the circuit, the city would permit it."
So Chauner and Casale with local cyclist Jack Toland set off to come up with a course that would both showcase Philadelphia as well as be comparable in difficulty to races in Europe. Simes, then head of USPRO, sanctioned the race as the first official National Professional Road Championship for an initial twenty years, providing the initial prestige necessary to gain sponsorship and media support for the event.
"Jack and I had run races on the Ben Franklin Parkway before and along the Schuylkill River, and Manayunk was the closest place we knew where there would be challenging hills," Chauner said. "Back then it was a very industrial area but it had a European feel with the row houses -- it looked like pictures I had seen from races over there when I was growing up. We decided to take the race from the Parkway, which was made to look like the Champs Elysee in Paris, down to Main Street Manayunk to get everyone there involved. And we wanted the race to come to almost a complete stop, in order to make the climb as challenging as possible, so we had it turn under the train trestle first."
“Little did we know when that when Dave named The Manayunk Wall it would become known around the world,” Casale added. “If you ask anyone about the Philly race, they say, oh, the one with the Manayunk Wall?”
“We also knew the only way it was going to work was with a television and radio partner, like Jack and I had in Baltimore”, Chauner said. We went to every TV station and they listened to us but were all skeptical. Finally we went to WCAU and the programming director, Gordon Hughes, was very innovative and said it was a great idea but then laughed, asking, ‘How does it work?'”
With the course set, a TV partner, and the city backing the plan, all that was left was to find the money to pull it all off. "Toland fortuitously ran into someone from CoreStates and out of that chance meeting came the first three-year deal," said Chauner. "The guys in that company were such visionaries. We signed the deal March 1 and the race was June 23 -- we put the first race on in less than three months!" CoreStates ended up re-signing as title sponsor for a total of twenty years, surviving mergers with First Union and Wachovia through 2005.
The first race in 1985 was won by Olympic gold medalist speed skater turned professional cyclist Eric Heiden, racing for the 7-Eleven team, then the first official American professional cycling team. That first year they were the only all American team in the race, although there were a few more American pros, like John Eustice, with the rest of the field imported from Europe. A total of 76 riders contested the inaugural race and Heiden’s win resulted in a two-page spread in Sports Illustrated, the first ever coverage of an American cycling event in the magazine. The 7-Eleven team went on to pioneer the U.S. assault on European cycling and was the real backbone of American participation in the Philly race for the next several years.
The success of American cycling in the 1984 Olympics, and the general popularity of the sport that followed with the first year of the race, is often cited as one of the initial sparks for helping American cycling get to where it is today. "This race is the archetype for a lot of racing in America. The formula we made with television and a big city venue was key to getting other of the big events off the ground," added Chauner. Within the next several years, the Philly race became the impetus for formation of other American pro teams and spawned other professional road races in Atlanta, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, New York and San Francisco.
Still, Philadelphia itself has always been a key part of the success of the race over the years. "We ran those races in other cities, but none were as big as it is here," said Casale. "Philadelphia embraced the race, giving us the support we needed as the race grew and grew. I think the city and the course really complement each other. It's a city of neighborhoods and it's a perfect event for the city. It's done a lot to revitalize places like Manayunk."
What started in 1985 with a few thousand fans quickly grew over the years to more than 100,000 by the early 1990s. Live television coverage and the long term commitment by title sponsor, CoreStates Financial Corp were significant factors in sustaining the race and enabling its growth. Plus a dedicated group of passionate volunteers and staffers who supported a bigger vision for American cycling soon joined the team and annually contributed to race’s success.
Two-time Tour de France stage winner Davis Phinney, who is one of America's winningest cyclists of all time, won the national championship here in 1991 near the end of his cycling career, finishing second to Italy's Paolo Cimini. But as the first American across the line, Phinney was given the U.S. champion's jersey to wear for the year -- a fitting capstone to a great career.
Over the years, the number of riders in the race increased, along with the quantity and quality of the American riders. In a way, the Philadelphia race served as an ad hoc measure of this. At the same time, the prize money increased, upping the visibility and prestige of the race on the international calendar. But in 1993, the event – then a Triple Crown series consisting of the Thrift Drug Classic in Pittsburgh and the Kmart Classic in West Virginia– served up an unprecedented prize opportunity -- $1 million for anyone who could win all three races, culminating in Philadelphia. Lance Armstrong*, a young professional on the Motorola team and relative unknown to most people, had won the first two races and was poised to claim the $1 million, while the rest of the field was focused equally on winning the race and stopping Armstrong from that goal. Armstrong used 'The Wall' to perfection, launching a brutal attack on the last time up the climb which turned out to be the million dollar move.
1994 saw the introduction of the Liberty Classic, a top ranked international women’s road race that attracted the world’s top female competitors as well as fledgling American teams. Held on the same championship course with a start ten minutes after the men, the Liberty Classic completed four laps of the 14.5 mile circuit for a total race distance of approximately 100 kilometers. Not one of the 19 Liberty Classic races was won by an American rider as powerful German squads dominated women’s racing on the world scene. They took 13 victories with Petra Rosner a seven time winner between 1996 and 2004 and Ina Teutenberg who took over in 2005 and notched a total of 5 wins including the last race in 2012.
In the late 1990s, the new top American team racing in Europe, U.S. Postal Service*, earned a national champion here in 1998 with George Hincapie and then again the next year with Marty Jemison. The beginning of this century saw the first national championship win from 'fast Freddie Rodriguez' in a field sprint, a feat he would repeat two more times in Philadelphia to become the only three-time USPRO national champion.
2005 was the final year of the race as the USPRO championship, but was one of the most exciting. A three-rider breakaway formed during the final large lap that climbed 'The Wall.' Even more exciting was that all three were American racers, none of whom had ever won the race before -- Chris Horner, Danny Pate and Chris Wherry. The final small loops of the course from Logan Square to Lemon Hill saw the huge crowds in a frenzy, while the three riders were playing their tactics. Just before the final climb of Lemon Hill, Wherry attacked while Pate and Horner watched each other. This proved to be the winning move as Wherry held a 10-second lead for the final three miles to the line.
Despite not serving as the USPRO championship beyond 2005 (by then the U.S. had over 100 pros and new National Championship rules allowed only Americans to compete), the Philadelphia International Cycling Championship continued its glory and notoriety as the highest ranked American race on the international calendar (UCI 1HC). Top teams from around the world continued to accept invitations to race here and many sent their A-list riders to boot. Team CSC, which was consistently ranked #1 in the world, sent powerhouse squads as did the HTC-Columbia-High Road team, resulting in three years of back-to-back wins by HTC from 2009 to 2011. The 2012 winner was Alexander Serebryakov of Russia riding for Team Type 1 Sanofi. All in all, foreign cyclists have won 16 of the 28 editions of the race with no American on the top spot since Chris Wherry in 2005. At the same time, the American professional teams and riders have continued to use this race as an assessment of the success of their season and a chance to compete against top international teams on home turf and jump-start their career by adding a top win to their resume.
Unfortunately 2012 marked the final year of key contracts with title sponsor, TD Bank, KYW radio and Comcast SportsNet. These challenges, coupled with a tough economy, prohibitive city costs, a changing sport and the death of co-founder, Jerry Casale, drained the life blood of the annual race and put an end to one of the best chapters in the history of American cycling. By generating some 450 million media impressions, the race not only promoted the sport but uniquely showcased the city of Philadelphia around the country and the world.
What many people do not know much about is the behind-the-scenes volunteers and staffers who came together each year, many helping since 1985 as marshals, motorcycle and caravan drivers, stage crew and hospitality coordinators with day jobs from lawyers and art directors to security specialists and homemakers. For them it was the love of the iconic race, but also about getting together every year for the biggest ‘family’ reunion they could have. From the party atmosphere of 'The Wall' in Manayunk and Lemon Hill to the Lifestyle Expo on the Parkway and the early morning recreational ride on the pro course, Philly’s unofficial summer kick-off was a much welcomed uplift for participants, Philadelphia residents and legions of fans who flocked to the City to experience this unique event.
Michael Aisner, the popular race announcer for all 28 years of the Championship summed it up:
“The Philly race series has been a model sporting event on the American landscape, whose greatness touched nearly three decades and millions of fans. Model in every way: exemplary television coverage, as a day that became an integral part of a city's very personality, a catalyst to gentrify a Philly community at Manayunk, a rich and valued platform for sponsors to intersect with and attract new consumers, and a premier showcase for some of the greatest athletes on earth. Philly as host of one of the greatest annual American sporting events has been the benefactor of everything a city could ever desire.”
* In 2012 it was revealed that Lance Armstrong and many of his teammates on the U.S. Postal Service team had been involved in a doping scandal throughout most of Armstrong’s career. Although he and his teammates had never tested positive at the Philadelphia race, several admitted that they had doped during this period.