Athens Twilight Criterium: More than a bike race, it’s an experience

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“I’m pretty good at bunny hopping my bars.”

It’s just past midnight, the murky hours that feel like night but are technically the morning after the April 28 Athens Twilight Criterium. The Levine Law Group squad is at Barberitos, a cheaper, southwestern version of Chipotle.

Veteran racer Adam Myerson, who has over 20 Twilights to his name, is explaining. He does a lot of explaining. He says racer must hit the ground, body to pavement, in order to qualify as a crash. Myerson’s bike may have crashed, but he didn’t. Important point. Because he’s pretty good at hopping his handlebars.

Over burritos, a brief discussion ensues. Myerson’s six-year streak of not crashing is on the line.

The argument simmers out. No one takes on the veteran. Someone calls for a post-race drink. The elders on the team run the show, so we’re off to a place called The World Famous — a townie bar of sorts. The guys have done the party scene of downtown Athens and are down for something a little more mellow these days.

Ryan Aitcheson, Twilight winner in 2016, gets the first round. As it turns out, that would be the only round. The team is tired. Tired from 90 minutes of leg-breaking pace just hours ago, from the crashes, from getting in late last night. They’re tired because Athens Twilight is more than a bike race. There are 30,000 college students screaming in your ear, a DJ spinning records, disco lights dancing on the street, and the inescapable sound of race announcer Chad Andrews hollering into the microphone.

The Athens Twilight is the pinnacle of criterium racing in the U.S. and the event with the most prestige. There is nothing quite like it.

A right of passage

It’s 8am on Saturday morning. Race day. Downtown Athens is quiet. The course fencing isn’t in place, the road isn’t shut down, the start/finish line isn’t even evident.

In addition to being the opening event of the season-long, eleven-race USA CRITS series, Twilight is part of the four-race USA CRITS Speed Week series. Speed Week started on Wednesday in Walterboro, South Carolina before moving to Spartanburg, also in South Carolina, and then Athens, and finishing in Commerce, Georgia on Sunday.

Athens is the crown jewel. It’s held on Saturday night, smack in the heart of one of the South’s great cities. The chaos of Friday’s tune-up race up the road in Spartanburg meant riders rolled into Athens after 1am on Saturday morning, after a two-and-a-half-hour transfer.

There’s a coffee shop on the corner. Inside is the men’s defending champion, John Murphy, of the powerhouse Holowesko-Citadel squad. He chats with a friend. Athens is like a second home to him. “It’s the race that got me into cycling when I was 12,” he’ll say later.

Twelve-year-old Murphy was swept away by the race’s atmosphere, a potent mix of athleticism and mild debauchery found in few other places.

Back in the day — Twilight was started in 1980 — open containers were allowed during the Twilight. Kegs lined the course with the nearest one no more than 10 feet away. Those days are gone now, gone the way of the boombox and massive hair. Lots of things have changed since the 80s. Some things haven’t.

The Twilight still screams right down the main boulevard. Bars extend their patios right up to the fencing. No more kegs, just VIP areas. Same idea, different era.

The University of Georgia is still around the corner and by mid-morning Saturday the streets are crawling with college students. Final exams start the following Monday, which makes the Twilight the final weekend to let loose before hell week and summertime dispersal. The Twilight is a right of passage as a student at UGA. Everyone goes to the Twilight. It’s just what you do, current and former students say.

It’s midday and downtown Athens is simmering. The East Coast humidity has set in and the energy is starting to bubble. It will continue to grow until the professionals finally take to the course as the night’s entertainment. And at that moment, Athens will erupt.

Legend Tina Pic has won Twilight on three occasions, including consecutive wins in 2014 and 2015. Photo: Bear/USA CRITS.

Race Time

A moment of silence. The pro women are lined up, one foot clipped in and one on the pavement. Sixty seconds without the DJ, without Chad Andrews bellowing. Just days earlier, former professional cyclist and Twilight lover Jackie Crowell passed away of cancer.

The U.S criterium scene is a large family. Everyone knows each other. It’s the same faces competing week in and week out. Many in the women’s peloton knew her, and tears flow in the silent moment ahead of the women’s race. Andrews struggles to get his words out.

Crowell’s parents donated $1,000 worth of primes to the women’s race. They were announced as “JackAttack primes” for the way that Crowell had raced during her career.

The race itself is intense. The attacks are frequent, the elbows are out, and riders don’t mince words with one another. The course is wall-to-wall fans, with some sections five-deep. As the sun sets, the lights of Georgia Theatre brighten corner one, providing the ambiance of a Broadway play, with the riders on center stage.

No rider could get away from the bunch on this night and the strength and power of ISCorp begins to break the legs of those at the back. The team is home to star sprinter Sam Schneider.

Schneider lined-up having been victorious at many of the biggest U.S. criteriums — other than Athens. She had stood on the podium multiple times, but never been on the top step. However, this year was different.

“I think I was 13, so 2003 would have been my first Athens experience,” Schneider said. “I haven’t been [here] every year since, but it’s always one on the calendar that I like to try and win and I finally got that win this year. It took me that whole warm-down lap to really comprehend what happened and really get excited about it.”

U.S. national criterium champion Erica Allar (Piedmont College) sprinted to second behind Schneider, with Harriet Owen (The Meteor-Intelligentsia) rounding out the podium.

More than a bike race

The main event at Twilight is the men’s pro race. The sky is dark, the fans are rowdy, the energy is electric and DJ Johnny D has found his groove. Yes, Twilight has a DJ.

“I’ve been around Athens for a long time, so when Twilight reaches out, I say absolutely because it is literally one of the coolest events in Athens other than an SEC football game, when you are going to see this many people,” said Johnny D, whose real name is John DeGeorge.

Johnny D has been DJing Twilight for the past 10 years. He simply receives a text about a month out with the race dates. No need to ask him, the USA CRITS folks know that he’s always in.

His relationship with Athens comes from the heart. Johnny D’s brother used to own a nightclub downtown called The Loft where he would keep the party going until the early morning. While cycling is not his background, he’s picked up a thing or two over the years and he’s learned how to feed off of race announcer Chad Andrews.

“Chad can look at me and tell me to do something from across the course,” Johnny D said. “I know that he needs me to bring the energy up or bring the energy down depending on what’s going on in the race. If they’re rolling neutral bring the energy down, and if they’re about to take off bring the energy up!”

Erica Allar (Rally Cycling) won Athens Twilight in 2012 and finished second on Saturday. Photo: Bear/USA CRITS.

Murphy takes two

When the men’s race gets underway, downtown Athens erupts into a wall of noise. The mood is electric, the racing is fast, and the crashes are incredible. Myerson hops his bars and skids into a hay bale. However, he didn’t hit the ground, thus no crash. The streak is alive.

A four-rider break moves up the road and includes Murphy, his teammate Bryan Gomez, and Kevin Mullervy (Clif Bar). Local legend Frank Travieso (Eda-Evolution Cycling) has also made the split.

Chants of “Frank the Tank” start on the backside of the course and grow loud enough to be heard on the stage. The breakaway laps the field, which creates a hectic final sprint. Four riders have a shot at the win, but everyone else will be sprinting as well for the minor placings.

Holowesko-Citadel puts the hammer down on the final laps, preventing any attacks. Murphy takes the sprint for his second straight Twilight title. Gomez makes it a Holowesko-Citadel one-two and Travieso finishes third. “Frank the Tank” has been third at Twilight on four occasions now.

While Murphy celebrated his victory, a pink jersey is circling the course. It’s Myerson and he’s soaking it all in.

“The cool-down lap after Athens is special. The only other cool-down lap I feel is similar is [Tour of] Somerville where everybody is handing you beers,” Myerson said. “I did three laps to just really savor it and finally actually look at the crowd because everyone sticks around for the cool-down laps, too.

“Every Athens may be my last one, so that really helped me appreciate it.”

John Murphy (Holowesko-Citadel) captured his second straight Twilight title in 2018. Photo: Bear/USA CRITS.

The day after

Athens Twilight is a bike race, but it’s more than that.

Morale is low among most of the riders on Sunday morning in Commerce, Georgia. The final USA CRITS Speed Week race seems to be an afterthought following the adrenaline rush from the previous night. Also, the legs are tired. There’s a hung-over feeling in the air, both figuratively and literally.

“It’s absolutely anti-climatic and it’s really hard to race today,” Myerson says before Sunday’s race. “It’s definitely a big come down from Athens …

“We’re running on fumes today and sometimes people like to go out and have some drinks after Twilight, so they don’t show up in the best of shape for the Sunday race, and you just gotta get out there and pedal hard anyway.”

The Athens Twilight Criterium is an experience like no other. As the racers move on and the students of UGA begin their final exams, Twilight will not be forgotten. It will be talked about and anticipated, until the next April, when the streets of downtown Athens will shut down once again to enjoy the capstone of American criterium racing.

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.

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