Athens Twilight – thrill of racing

The Athens Twilight is really a 30,000 person block party that also includes a bike race. The atmosphere is fantastic with the crowd surrounding every inch of the four-corner loop. The noise level from the cheering and bell clanging is easily on match for any concert. While the majority of the spectators may not appreciate, or notice, the finer nuances of bicycle racing as they gulp down their Tarrapin beer, they can appreciate the action the night provides.

On paper the course doesn’t seem that technical. However the pavement is uneven and broken in sections. Also, turn one (AKA The Georgia Theater Turn) had been narrowed slightly due to construction. With fields well over a hundred this slight decrease in racing real estate would be a cause of crashes.

The women’s racing was explosive in more ways than one. The main protagonists were the Colavita/Foro D’Asolo p/b Cooking Light and Rouse Bicycles teams. In the Rouse kit was Robin Farina, a strong Carolina racer and well known on the circuit. Theresa Cliff-Ryan was just one of several strong ladies on the Colavita squad. Team Tibco could also be relied upon to keep the racing fast.

There were many attacks but the 62 rider field wasn’t going to let anyone go. However, about halfway through the race a large crash rattled the field and the main victim was the Tibco squad. In the melee they lost their sprinter Sam Schneider as well as her teammate Rebecca Larson.

The remaining riders settled back down and it was obvious that this edition of the Athens Twilight was going to end in a field sprint.

The Colavita ladies took control of the bunch and led out their rider Cliff-Ryan to the win. Right behind her was Erica Allar (Rideclean-Patentit) and Christina Gokey-Smith (Rouse Bicycles) in third.

“As soon as the gun goes off I’m ready. The nerves are gone,” said Cliff-Ryan. “It’s great to win back to back.”

Her Athens winning strategy was simple and a classic for criterium racing.

“I always try to stay top-ten and be toward the front. When you get in the bunch sometimes they hit a pothole or link handlebars and there’s nothing you can do but go down. It even happens in the top group.”

The men’s race was the main event of the evening. Whatever sliver of daylight the women had to race in was gone. Instead the course was illuminated by floodlights casting patches of darkness followed by light. The men were racing for 80 kilometers on this one kilometer course.

The action started early as two riders, Carlos Alzate (Team Exergy) and Eric Marcotte (SKLZ-Pista Place) escaped and built a formidable gap on the peloton. At one point it seemed like the duo was going to lap the peloton!

All eyes were on the blue kits of UnitedHealthcare. They had brought a squad thick with criterium talent, including the 2010 winner Karl “Ten-Men” Menzies, and were the favorites. Finally team director Mike Tamayo had enough – signaling with visual queues (due to the noise level there was no way to communicate to his riders other than hand signals) he had the UnitedHealthcare line up at the front and bring back the duo.

“We burned some matches there,” said team manager Mike Tamayo.

Not much later a 12 man break escaped, but due to the composition of the break it lacked the leadership within it to insure that it could stay away. However, four riders slipped away from the 12 man escape group – Boy Van Poppel (UnitedHealthCare), Christian Helmig (Elbowz Racing), Andrew Dahlheim (Bissell), and Luca Damiani (Kenda/5-Hour Energy Pro Cycling presented by Geargrinder).

The quartet was drilling it lap after lap and gaining on the main peloton. With less than 30 minutes remaining the four caught the main group. Unless the chase group of eight caught the bunch the winner was going to come from one of these four.

With these four riders going up the road the original break started to stutter – UnitedHealthCare had Van Poppel in the move, so his teammates weren’t going to chase. From the sidelines Tamayo signaled to his riders that were in the original break to keep driving and lap the field as well. However, no one else in the break would contribute and a few laps later he told his riders to turn it off. He was happy to have Van Poppel off the front with the three other riders. The Dutchman is a former junior cyclocross world champion and his father a Tour de France veteran winning nine stages in field sprints, so with that type of pedigree Tamayo must have felt secure.

With the chasing group absorbed the winner of Athens Twilight was going to be one of the four who had broken away and were now in the main group. Team UnitedHealthCare started the lead out for Van Poppel, knowing that he only had to beat his other three breakaway companions. However, another strong foreign rider was lurking in the leadout – Italian Damiani. As the peloton came barreling toward the line Damiani beat Van Poppel by a throw of a bike.

After a cool down lap an ecstatic Damiani said, “It is unbelievable!”

“It was a goal all last year to win (Twilight). This year we started great but this is the one that people will remember for years.”

“We have really stepped up this year and hired some awesome riders like Ben Day. Everyone has confidence and you can see the results.”

The race was over and the crowds turned their attention to the many bars and restaurants that lined downtown Athens. Just because the race was over didn’t mean the party was.

Heard at the race
“I told you! It was Vietnam out there! We were in the shit!” Jonny Sundt at the conclusion of Athens Twilight.

“By far we have the best criterium riders in the world. Most of the crits in Europe are exhibitions. My specialty was Tour de France and the Giro d’ Italia sprint finishes – a completely different ballgame. This is high-impact, wheels loose around the corners, guys crashing, anything can happen. The third time ‘anything can happen’ and I got caught behind the crash I thought I’d save it for tomorrow (Roswell Criterium). – Fred Rodriguez explaining in the pit area why he was a DNF. This was his fifth race of the season.