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Philly gears up for annual cycling race

Over the last 24 years, the Philadelphia International Championship has attracted cycling's elite riders for a unique event staged only here.

Over the last 24 years, the Philadelphia International Championship has attracted cycling's elite riders for a unique event staged only here.

The sport's best have found success weaving through the city streets dating back to June 1985. Among them have been Eric Heiden (1985), Davis Phinney ('91), and Lance Armstrong ('93.)

Heiden, winner of five Olympic gold medals as a speedskater, went on to become a top cyclist, winning the first Philadelphia race, in 1985. Phinney, winner of the 1991 Philadelphia race, is one of the winningest American cyclists and the first American to win a stage in the Tour de France, in 1986.

Armstrong, of course, is the most celebrated American cyclist ever, the 1993 Philadelphia winner and winner of a record seven Tour de France titles.

"This race defined Lance Armstrong in 1993," said Jerry Casale, the cofounder of the race. "And this race can define the new Lance Armstrong."

In 1993, Armstrong, a relatively unknown member of the Motorola team, won all three races of what was then a Triple Crown series to earn an unprecedented $1 million purse and launch his career.

While the purse may not be what it once was due to a troubled economy - the race was almost cancelled due to a lack of a sponsor this year - the world's elite will be riding the 156-mile race on the 14.4-mile course along Kelly Drive and through Manayunk - including the dreaded Manayunk Wall - on Sunday, looking to add another chapter in the event's rich history.

The course begins on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway near the famous steps of the Art Museum and winds along the Schuylkill, through Manayunk and along the end of Fairmount Park. There are parties all along the way, especially raucous on the Manayunk Wall and near the start/finish line on the Parkway.

The race even served as America's national championship from its inception in 1985 until 2005. That changed in 2005 because the international governing body decided that each country's national championship could not include foreign riders. And local organizers didn't want to weaken their event.

The race was the brainchild of two Philadelphia natives and cyclists, Dave Chauner and Casale. The two raced in the first USPro cycling championship in Baltimore in 1983, and when the race lost support there, a national championship race was needed.

So Chauner and Casale went to city officials with a proposal to create a race in the city to serve as the USPro championship. City officials, seeking more international publicity at the time, told the cyclists they would back the race if organizers could find the right course.

Chauner and Casale did indeed find a course, and on June 23, 1985, the first Philadelphia International Championship was held.

"We started this when there was only one American pro team," Casale said. "Now there are over 20."