The streets of downtown Athens, Georgia, become a block party. Fireworks in the parking lot, bars overflowing, thousands of screaming college kids lining barriers. Oh, and there’s also a bike race happening.
This is Athens Twilight, the pinnacle of criterium racing in the United States.
Athens Twilight, now in its 38th year, has grown to be more than just a simple four-corner criterium. The students of the University of Georgia turn out in droves, every bar along the course is packed, and for the racers, there’s lifelong bragging rights and a pile of cold, hard cash on the line. A victory here can set a career in motion or be the perfect ending to one. The winner’s list is who’s who of American criterium racing.
The American criterium-racing scene isn’t truly underway until Athens Twilight. It’s only fitting it opens the 2018 USA CRITS series.
The Twilight was started by USA CRITS founder Gene Dixon in 1980, as a way to help rejuvenate downtown Athens. Little did he know the race would explode over the years and turn into much more than a bike race.
The Twilight takes over downtown Athens, Georgia, as spectators file into some of the city’s busiest blocks to celebrate and enjoy the fantastic spring weather that drapes over the south this time of year. The festival starts in the early morning and the excitement (and booze) builds throughout the day until Athens explodes as the best women and men criterium racers take to the streets.
“Athens has an amazing atmosphere, it’s crazy,” Australian Jessica Mundy (Meteor-Intelligentsia) says of the race. “So many people lining the streets, and the amount of cheering you hear around the course just spurs you on more.”
Athens is the stage. Twilight is the show. The riders are the players, and they always perform.
Athens Twilight is a classic power rider’s course. The plan is simple: put it in the big ring, cut through the corners, and pedal as hard as you can.
After a course reconfiguration from 2015-2016 due to road construction, the race is again back on its classic course for 2018. The four-corner rectangle shaped layout is extremely fast with the men’s and women’s peloton single file for most of the race.
A newly paved backstretch will make things a bit more interesting this year with even higher speeds predicted. However, the dreaded dip coming out of turn four and into the start/finish stretch is still there. The slight dip in the road has been known to swallow a wheel or two over the years. Victory takes strength, and more than a little luck.
The Twilight’s early season time slot makes for intense racing. The pro fields are stacked with talent and most riders have fresh legs and are just getting their season underway.
The door is open for a new champion on the women’s side, as defending champion Peta Mullens (Hagens Berman-Supermint) will not race this year. It’s hard to bet against Samantha Schneider (ISCorp) capturing her first Athens title come Saturday night. She’s been close on multiple occasions, but has never quite been able to stand atop the podium. She is a dominant force on the criterium scene and has a strong team behind her.
For Tina Pic (Colavita-Bialetti) and Laura Van Gilder (Mellow Mushroom), age is but a number. Both riders are racing age 50-plus, but that hasn’t stopped them from winning or sprinting onto the podium. Pic recently captured back-to-back victories in 2014 and 2015 and was third last year. Van Gilder was last on the podium in 2015 when she finished third behind Pic and Schneider.
Other riders to watch include Lily Williams (Hagens Berman-Supermint), Harriet Owen (The Meteor-Intelligentsia), and Laura Jorgenson (Feed Hungry Kids Project).
On the men’s side, the race seems to be the field versus Holowesko-Citadel. The Pro Continental team, backed by George and Rich Hincapie, are a domestic powerhouse. The team has several riders capable of winning on Saturday. Sunny King Criterium winner Bryan Gomez will be toeing the line, and defending champion John Murphy will be there as well.
Daniel Holloway (Texas Roadhouse), Athens Twilight champion in 2014 and 2015, is another favorite for Saturday’s race. The former national criterium champion has openly talked about entering the season a bit tired after a full World Cup season on the track. Although, he did win a tune-up criterium in South Carolina on Thursday.
“It just has a legacy,” Holloway said of Athens. “It’s one of those races that before big press and before big media it just traveled word of mouth. It was one of those things that you went and experienced it and you brought it back … If you look at the winner’s list of Athens its huge and to be a part of that not once, but twice, is amazing.”
Other riders to watch include 2016 Twilight winner Ryan Aitcheson (Levine Law Group), Frank Travieso (Team United Healthcare Georgia), and Lachlan Holliday (Piedmont College).
Also, criterium veteran Adam Myerson, will be coming out of retirement and making the trek down to Athens to guest ride with Levine Law Group.
Why Athens Matters
Unknowns don’t win in Athens, or not very often. This is a race for the big guns. There’s a list of favorites, and most likely one of those will win. Experience plays a part. Since Athens isn’t just an ordinary criterium, it takes a few attempts to figure it out.
However, the stories around the race are stuff of legend. Casually mention The Twilight to anyone with some knowledge of American criterium racing and a smile with most likely cross their face.
There’s the tale of The Crash of 2014, when multi-time Trinidad and Tobago national champion Emile Abraham crashed extremely hard and had to be stretched off the course; the peloton came around for the next lap and careened into the moto bike that was protecting Abraham. While that was an extreme situation, race neutralizations are not uncommon at Athens.
Then there are the post-race endeavors. Athens isn’t a mid-afternoon parking lot crit. It happens downtown, on a weekend, in a college town, and wraps up around 10:30 pm. It’s not unheard of for racers to collect their winnings, change out of their kits and hit the streets. By that point, college students have already been partying for hours and then a bunch of fit bike racers with adrenaline still pumping through their veins hit the street party alongside them. To truly enjoy “The Twilight,” it’s best to be ready to go to sleep in the wee hours of the morning.
From riders blowing their cash at the bars to hitting Waffle House at 3am, the post-race stories are renowned and almost unbelievable. Athens, Georgia becomes the place to be on the night of The Twilight.
For those not in Athens, the race can be viewed live on usacrits.tv on Saturday, April 28.
CyclingTips is the official media partner of the 2018 USA CRITS series. Race coverage of the series will include pre- and post-race stories on each event and feature stories on each D1 Team.