For the last twenty-five years, the Philadelphia International Cycling Championship has not only been the biggest single-day bike race in America, it’s also been one of the most exciting and most widely attended annual events in Philadelphia. (Never mind the Mummers.)
I attended for the first time in 1991, the year that Dutchman Michael Zanoli won in a bunch gallop. Zanoli’s career may have faded very quickly thereafter, based in no little part on his displays of pugilism in the 1992 Tour DuPont. Zanoli is no longer with us, but the race he won in 1991 lives on (even if it just barely came to fruition this year). The following three editions, from 1992-1994, were some of the most exciting I can remember, with Bart Bowen, Lance Armstrong (when he still rode more on brawn than brains) and Sean “The Animal” Yates all won in solo breakaways.
Plenty has changed since those years. Four bank sponsors – Core States, First Union, Wachovia and Commerce Bank – have all come and gone, leaving TD Bank in their wake as current sponsor. The race lost some of its luster when, in 2006, it lost its status as the US Pro Cycling Championship.
But I still go every year. Haven’t missed it since that first run in 1991. In the early days, I’d start the day on the Manayunk Wall, decamp to Lemon Hill at around lap five or six and then scramble over to the start/finish area on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the last couple of laps. A few years later, I’d skip the start/finish segment, realizing it was just as easy to catch a glimpse of the finish on one of the TVs that well-prepared spectators set up, complete with generators, on Lemon Hill. And for the last several years, I’ve cut it back to Lemon Hill alone. It doesn’t quite have the spectacle of The Wall, but Lemon Hill really is the friendliest, most relaxed place to spend the day. And the beer flows to a much mellower vibe than in Manayunk.
This year, I almost didn’t care who won (Germany’s André Greipel, riding for Team Columbia – High Road). I was there to enjoy the day, check in with old friends (some of whom I now see only once a year, on Lemon Hill) and take in the energy of the race. It was a good time, as always.
Oh yeah, there is one thing that hasn’t changed. Wedding planners, take note. In 25 years, it’s never once rained on race day in Philadelphia.
A crummy shot of Team Ouch's Floyd Landis, one of the biggest names and most easily recognizable faces in the field at the '09 race.
For the first time in the history of the Liberty Classic, the leading gruppo in the women's race -- including local rider Laura van Gilder, at right -- caught and passed the main men's peloton, which was then neutralized until the completion of the women's race.
The mid-race breakaway trio: Tom Zirbel (Bissell Pro Cycling), Valeriy Kobzarenko (Team Type 1) and Daniel Oss (Liquigas).
The mid-day crowd on Lemon Hill.
Mavic Neutral Support, there for the riders as always. I've been trying for 18 years now, but I've never convinced them to give me a wheel.
Philly's finest, always there for the show, leading the motorcade.
The men's field in full flight up Lemon Hill in the closing laps of the race.
Another year, another race. This view of Center City and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, from the "downhill side" of Lemon Hill, was once completely obscured by trees that have since been clearcut to reveal the Philly skyline.