Note: This story appears in the Tuesday, June 25 newspaper on Page A1.
The return of the Athens Brick Criterium on Saturday brought back familiar faces to the legendary bicycling event, including several riders and even the daylong announcer.
Among them was Jamie Smith, the announcer at the 2019 criterium, who also announced the event between 1988-98. Back then, he worked for a company called Event Services and traveled the country to different races.
“We came back to Athens every year, just like the sparrows return to Capistrano every year,” Smith said. “We looked forward to this event. It’s a cool town, it’s a cool course and the town was always into it. It was one of the best races in the country for a long time.”
Smith said he remembers noteworthy racers like Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong coming to Athens and recalls an energized crowd. He said the current iteration has the potential to match that, and more — “if the community is behind it.”
Smith heard about the race’s return through an Instagram post and immediately messaged the organizers, Daniel and Ashley Brown. After coordinating to announce the event, Smith left his home of Detroit to return to Athens and brought along a treasured memento.
“I actually still have my T-shirt from the 1998 event,” he said. “I wore it out to the bar here the night before (Saturday’s) race.”
Several returning cyclists also showed up to compete, including Michigan native Joe Skrocki. He rode in the Athens criterium in the 1980s when it was a three-day event known as the A to Z Classic.
“I was bike racing in an elite bubble and this was one of the big races and was a big stop for racers,” he said. “All the big names were here.”
Skrocki competed in the master’s race on Saturday and finished in second place out of more than a dozen riders.
He took a break from cycling in the early ‘90s to invest time in other sports like motorcycle racing and offshore boat racing. He returned to cycling in 2012 and heard about the Athens event coming back due to his involvement in the biking community.
“I’m back at an elite level, so this is all I do now,” he said. “I travel all summer long, all over the country. I go to all the top bike races in the U.S.”
Though Skrocki is an experienced cyclist, he called the hill up Congress Street a worthy challenge.
“The climb isn’t so bad but going down, you’re just exhausted,” he said.
Cyclist Rick Toler also competed in previous Athens criteriums in both 1992 and 1993. This year, he competed in the men’s masters race for riders 55 and older, finishing in fourth place. Toler said he remembers the previous course as being almost completely brick roads.
“There was a section back then where I literally got my wheels in the cracks and it wouldn’t move,” he said. “I had to jump and get unstuck.”
Toler is a seasoned cyclist and estimated he has competed around 4,000 times in various disciplines such as mountain biking and BMX. Like Skrocki, Toler said the North Congress Hill is an undeniable challenge in the Athens race.
“You don’t even know your name by the time you get to the top,” he said. “You’re just trying to drill it. I took two drinks in 35 minutes, that’s all I could manage.”
Toler discovered this year’s race online while he was browsing for competitions this past weekend. He barely made the cut before registration closed and had little time to prepare for the competition. He said he prefers to find races only days before they occur.
“Not that I’m the nervous type, but it just seems I get way more enjoyment out of it when I’m spontaneous,” he said. “It’s like Christmas every weekend because I don’t know what I’ll be doing. I’ve gotten up in the morning some days and found a race and thought, ‘Hopefully I grab all the gear going out the door.’”