The story of the great Philadelphia bike race, the beautiful, sweeping event that would rival any one-day classic in the world, always begins in Barcelona with sangria and cigars.
Nearly 30 years later, however, it does not end that way. It ends with recrimination and accusation, with debt and death, and with a local legacy that, if it continues, will be diluted by economic realities and remain alive mostly as a colorful backdrop for a community block party.
"It's been disappointing," said David Chauner, cofounder of the now-defunct Philadelphia International Cycling Championship. "The skin in this game has been mine."
It was Chauner, along with Jerry Casale and Jack Simes III, who dreamed up the Philly event at the 1984 world road championships in Barcelona, where they were working for the U.S. team. Chauner and Simes were former Olympic racers. Casale, whose father opened Hill Cycle Shop on Germantown Avenue in 1929, was chief mechanic for the team.
They drank the wine and smoked the cigars and noted that the Barcelona road course, which began on a wide boulevard before snaking out of the city and into the hills, might as well be a race from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to East River Drive and then up the flanks of Manayunk and Roxborough. If you squinted, you could see it.
They did more than that. They made it happen. The 156-mile race, most famous for the 10 torturous climbs up the 17-degree grade of Levering Street and Lyceum Avenue - the Manayunk Wall, as Casale christened it for eternity - offered a true test, enough prize money to lure top riders and, for American professionals, the chance to win the stars-and-stripes jersey awarded to the annual U.S. road champion.
Sponsored by CoreStates, and later First Union, Wachovia, Commerce, and TD Bank, the race attracted huge crowds and spawned a now-legendary party culture on the race-day climb through Manayunk. Olympic hero Eric Heiden won the first race in 1985. A 21-year-old Lance Armstrong, three years before his cancer diagnosis, was the U.S. champion in 1993. Sean Yates, Andre Greipel, George Hincapie, Greg LeMond. Maybe the spectators didn't always know the identities of the riders whistling past, but it was the real deal.
"The race was not only the best in the United States, the most important single-day race in the U.S., but one of the best in the world," said Simes, who worked with the race until 1994 and is now involved with developing track cycling in the U.S. "I'm a little bit sorry how it evolved with what it could have been, but putting that aside, there's still going to be a race, and the people have to work with what they have."
On June 2, when the Philadelphia International was originally scheduled, there will be a new race called the Philly Cycling Classic, according to an announcement made last week by U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.). The new race will be a circuit course that is smaller in scope, shorter in distance, less lofty in aim, and centered around the mayhem of the Manayunk Wall scene.
"This race is not going to be a re-creation of the previous race. Nothing would really be able to replace that event. It's iconic," said Robin Morton of G4 Productions, who worked with Chauner and Casale for 17 years on the original race and will be race director for the proposed event. "But in recent years the race lost some of its luster. It wasn't as competitive. But the good thing is that at least there will be another race."
Chauner is not involved in the new race and doesn't expect to ever organize another race in his hometown. The dream - and, for a while, the reality - of the great Philadelphia bike race was undone by the 2008 economic crash; by the scandals that have made companies leery of sponsoring bike teams and competitions; and, depending on whom one believes, by either the city's greed or Chauner's faulty business practices.
"It was always a labor of love. Sometimes, we made a little money. Sometimes, we lost a little money. But it was a partnership with the city. We were charged a flat fee for city costs and anything in excess, the city was willing to absorb because of the economic benefit the race brings to the city," said Chauner, who cited estimates that the race brought $10 million to $15 million in annual revenue to the city's economy. "In 2009, they sat us down and said the policy has changed. We have to charge special events for services. We understood that but never had any real opportunity to discuss the charges."
The bill went from approximately $100,000 per race to $300,000 per race, according to Chauner, and the increase - police and other unionized city workers make double overtime on Sunday - arrived at about the same time the title sponsorship with TD Bank was expiring. That left the race organizers searching for a way to raise a lot of money very quickly for a sport hectored by doping scandals.
"The city didn't want to see how we could make it work, but to see how much they could charge us," Chauner said. "We were always playing catch-up and ended up using the annual race fees to try to pay for the previous race. With the city costs escalating, it was impossible."
The City of Philadelphia sees things slightly differently.
"It was a shell game. Paying last year's debt with next year's money is not the best way to do things," said Everett Gillison, the deputy mayor for public safety and Mayor Nutter's chief of staff. "Right now, they owe the city $325,000, and we're waiting for them to pay so the taxpayers don't have to suffer that loss."
Unable to find sufficient sponsorship and probably facing the loss of the race permit because of the debt to the city, Chauner announced in January that, after 28 editions, the great Philadelphia bike race would not have a 29th. (Chauner is also fighting a lawsuit brought by the family of Casale, who died in 2012. The suit claims Chauner agreed to buy Casale's stake in their jointly owned race company but did not. Chauner says he used the money to pay Casale's medical expenses during his fight with prostate cancer. The matter is unresolved.)
Like the wheels of the bikes, another race rolls into place. The group put together by Brady says it can run the new race with a $500,000 annual budget, approximately one-third of that required by the previous race. The new racecourse will not include the Parkway, and might not even stray into Fairmount Park. It might not get very far from Manayunk at all - the quirky feature of the former race that has become the obvious focus of the new one.
"I'm happy that we saved the race. It's an important part of what this city has become, but I'm saddened by the fact that David Chauner, who I believe did a terrific job, won't be involved," said Ed Rendell, who helped Chauner find race funding during his terms in office. "He was essentially the founder of the race, and I worked with him for eight years as mayor and eight years as governor and watched as he built it into a world-class event."
The new race, the Philly Cycling Classic, won't be that. It won't have the economic scope to attract the world's best riders. It won't travel the wide boulevard that was designed to replicate the Champs Elysees. It might not leave the small hilly pocket of Philadelphia that will be transformed into a one-day carnival.
What is left behind is nothing to be dreamed about over sangria and cigars. Those glasses are empty, and the smoke has long since dissipated. It was a good dream - and a great sporting event - while it lasted.
28 Years of Racing
Highlights through the years:
A women's race, the Liberty Classic, was added in 1994.
No American ever won it.
Eric Heiden, of Olympic speedskating fame, won the inaugural race in 1985.
Lance Armstrong won the stars-and-stripes jersey, finishing first in the 1993 race, his breakout year.
Chris Wherry, riding for
Health Net, became the last
U.S. road champion crowned in Philadelphia in the 2005 race. (Because it was an international event, the U.S. champion was
the first U.S. rider to cross the line, not necessarily the winner
of the race.)
- Bob Ford
Bob Ford: New Philly Classic race has details to work out
The Philly Cycling Classic, the new bike race that will take the June 2 date vacated by the venerable Philadelphia International Cycling Championship, according to U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.), is expected to name a title sponsor this week.
Both the funding for the race, which has a proposed budget of $500,000, and the racecourse itself, could be announced as early as Monday or Tuesday, according to a source close to the nonprofit group cobbled together by Brady.
The organizers for the race, which is expected to operate almost solely within the bounds of Manayunk, Roxborough, and East Falls, has not yet received city approval for the date, and the assessment for city security and cleanup services has not yet been agreed upon. The race is expected to be far shorter and more compact than its predecessor, although it will require no less than a 6.2-mile loop to meet sanctioning standards for recognition by cycling's governing body.
"We've seen a lot in the newspapers, but we have been given no indication what the plans are," said Everett Gillison, the deputy mayor for public safety. "They haven't even applied for a permit, and that's how you get things done in the city of Philadelphia. People can have visions, but you have to have the approval of the city to move forward."
Sources said representatives of the proposed Philly Cycling Classic and the city are tentatively scheduled to meet Friday. Race organizers include Richard Adler, chief executive of the Insurance Triathlon; Karen Bliss, vice president of marketing for Advanced Sports International; Bob Clowrey, co-owner of Winnie's Le Bus in Manayunk; and Jane Lipton, executive director of the Manayunk Development Corp. - Bob Ford