Note: This story appears in the Tuesday, June 25 newspaper on Page A1.
First came a distant whistle, then the sight of the speeding pace car, and finally the ringing of cowbells. In just a few seconds’ time, riders sped past and made their way back through the dramatic hills and challenging brick corners of uptown Athens.
The Athens Brick Criterium brought more than 100 riders to town and waves of spectators throughout the 0.6-mile loop. Saturday began with “kid sprints” down Court Street and ended with dozens of top-level riders competing in the Women’s and Men’s Pro races.
In between were numerous other races for riders of varying skill level and experience. There was also a memorial lap held in the early evening to commemorate three well-known members of the Athens cycling community who had passed away within the previous year — Michael Ginder, David West and Larry Guy.
Saturday marked the long-awaited return of a popular event from the 1980s and 90s. Local bicyclist Daniel Brown spearheaded the organizing effort to bring the Athens Brick Criterium back to town following a 21-year hiatus.
As it did decades ago, the race drew many athletes eager for a chance to compete on the difficult course.
The start and finish line was located on Court Street next to the Athens County Courthouse. Riders traveled down Court Street then turned left onto Union Street, which features a bit of an incline. Then came the challenging climb up Congress Street, which levels out and becomes a downward hill for the block heading into Union Street. Many spectators watched from that intersection as riders took a downward, sharp turn in between Ohio University’s Bromley Hall and Buffalo Wild Wings. Those with a lucky spot near the inside turn’s edge saw racers speed past just inches from the barricades. The course finished with another quick turn back onto Court Street.
‘This is a legendary race’
Scott Billman, who races for Johnny Velo Bikes out of Columbus, traveled to Athens to compete in the Masters race. He began cycling in 1973, but this was his first time racing on the bricks. There were multiple Masters races for competitors ages 35 and up, 45 and up, and 55 and up.
“You tend to get a much better racer in the Masters, a better quality racer, but it’ll be tough,” Billman explained before his turn to compete. “I’m usually ranked first or second in my field, but here I’m 16th because of the quality of racers that are here for this event.”
Billman described the Athens Brick Criterium as having an “interesting” course — one that requires a difficult combination of having endurance as well as being a good short-distance sprinter. However, he came prepared for his first-ever race on a brick surface.
“You run your tires a little bit lower so you can handle the bumps more, and I’m told there are lines you want to run here because there are some divots and holes you want to avoid,” he said before his race. “Usually we don’t like to think about that when we’re racing at 20-plus miles per hour, but you’ve got to think about that for safety.”
Most of all, Billman said the event’s return to Athens made for an exciting opportunity for racers such as himself.
“I’m really excited about it,” he said. “This is a legendary race — Lance (Armstrong) rode here, Greg LeMond rode here — to have you guys bring this back is exciting for the community. More and more, (organizers) are cutting down on the road races and picking up on the criterium races. They’re in smaller towns, and it’s nice, but this is a legendary criterium, and to have it here and have it back is great.”
He ended up finishing fifth in the Masters 55+ race.
Billman was not the only one who expressed excitement and a little bit of nerves ahead of their race. Rick Holzworth competes with the Pittsburgh-based La Prima Espresso Co. and described a similar feeling Saturday afternoon before the Men’s Pro race.
“The bricks add an interesting element, but that little climb (up Congress Street) 50 times over the course of an hour will be noticeable by the end,” he said. “It looks like a fun course, cool atmosphere.”
Riders came from all over
Word about the Athens Brick Criterium’s return spread quickly during the late spring, leading to more than 100 riders participating. Most came from outside of Southeast Ohio to compete — in all, riders hailed from nine different states, including as far away as Virginia, North Carolina and Illinois.
There were a little more than a dozen riders from the Athens area, according to the pre-registration website — Dennison West, Neil Ryan, Chris Lewis, Brian Bors, Lonnie Welch, Daniel Brown, Christopher Robertson, Victoria Steen, Samuel Kieffer, Cora Brown, Claire Brown, Adelia Patterson and Alana Patterson. (It’s possible more local riders signed up on race day.)
Organizer thanks local support
Daniel Brown cited the help of many for the event’s successful return. He particularly noted his wife, Ashley Brown, who helped with the raffle and sponsorships.
“We both done our part, and she’s been huge,” he said. “We’ve got a pretty good crew of about six or seven that just really came together. We had a lot of volunteers, and it just blows me away how many people.”
The group met every week for the past six months, Brown said.
“It paid off today,” he added. “It has gone wonderfully.”
Organizers got help from the city and Ohio University, particularly in securing and paying for the course’s perimeter fencing.
“That’s been one of the best things about this,” Brown said, “is the community coming together and working to make this event.”
With the return now over, those involved are already planning ahead for next year’s Criterium.