(Publisher’s Note: This story is near and dear to me. I have been involved with John Eustice’s races for many years in multiple capacities. Starting in the Univest days and continuing through today and whatever the future holds. I helped with the Reading 120 event and one of the tasks on the day of was being a driver in one of the leading cars carrying local media. The community support out on the road and the crowds as we came to the finish in Reading was amazing and inspiring. Sadly there were some within Reading that for various reasons were not supporters of the event. Bringing us to today, it is critical for rider development that events like The Reading 120 exist and it is indeed a sad thing to report for the cycling community that a replacement UCI race in PA will not happen. On the upside, join us in Doylestown on Sep 9 for the Bucks County Classic. MR)
I watched Tom Skujin’s wonderful performances and spirited defense of the Polka Dot Jersey this year at the Tour de France with a sense of sadness realizing that he represented the end of a long line. I’d last seen the young Latvian after he finished second at my inaugural Reading 120, a race with an existence that mirrored the oft-used description of life in the Middle Ages: short and brutish. I’m announcing today that my UCI road race, which began in 1998 as the Univest Grand Prix, that I’d been trying to revive since its unfortunate and unnecessary demise in Reading, will not occur this year and it’s being permanently pulled off of the UCI calendar. With that goes the last UCI road race in Pennsylvania and the entire East Coast.
In 1996 I’d been given full command to land, design and run the Olympic Road Cycling Trials in West Virginia. Before that I’d done various jobs for that company that ran the CoreStates races, from racecourse designer to TV Color Commentator, but as the WV race represented tiny budget for them it was gladly handed off to me. I beat Microsoft-backed Seattle for the Trials bid, their fabulous multi-media extravaganza of a presentation crashed before takeoff and my humble stapled printouts (although technically excellent according to USOC) won the day.
The Time Trials were held on a beautiful racecourse that wove through the apple orchards of Martinsburg. Steve Hegg was incredible, he actually had a 10t sprocket and boy did he turn it to capture the berth. Mari Holden went so hard to win that she collapsed at the finish line in such a convulsing, emergency room manner that she made the cover of the Washington Post. I’ll always love Mari for getting one of my races featured in the Post.
After the dust had settled and I’d brought the Trials in under budget I realized that great races, the kind our country really needs, could be created for surprisingly small amounts of funding with excellent production values still remaining. There was no need for top level cycling to require seven-figure budgets as the mindset of the day insisted. You all must understand, there were/are no good races for young riders in the United States. No equivalent of those backbones of European cycling, the amateur classics: Paris-Evreux, Milano-Bologna, U23 Paris-Roubaix, nothing, nada. In 1996, after marrying Lucy and getting some steel injected into my spine, I set out to do something about it.
In 1997 my dear friend, Sean McDonald who is an exalted member of the Order of the Holly Orchard (along with Big Al and Tito – a story for another day) turned me on to a local bank that was expanding and looking for a cycling event. I got in there and before they knew it their sweet little charity ride had suddenly become a full-bore, fire-breathing, bass-ass televised international amateur classic. The Univest Grand Prix was born. And what a race it was, the business and political leaders of the Souderton region were united in giving me carte blanche: “Make the best thing you can possibly make.”
The race opened with a 100K loop that included a 20% wall, lakes and non-stop hills in the best Pennsylvania manner and finished with 60K of circuits on a hilly course in Souderton. I brought over a top French amateur team, V.C. Etupes, and along with almost 300 American and Canadian riders the thing was unleashed. The Etupes boys found a nice long, exposed, slightly uphill road with a side wind blowing hard and our North American boys suddenly discovered what racing was truly about. The finishing circuits were brilliant, Jon Hamblin showed American strength and what our levels could be as he resisted the team tactics of the Etupes trio, succumbing only after being slammed into the barricades with 300m to go but holding on to the podium nevertheless.
We created a TV show for what was then OLN, editing in a Brooklyn attic then literally sneaking Richard Fries and Brian Drebber way, way off hours into Sony recording studios on West 54th for the VO. OLN was happy with the show, and for years afterwards we were able to get American cycling on the tube.
Tom Boonen (one of the most heralded cyclists in professional racing history) and his amateur Kortrijk team came the next year but Tommeke could only muster a second place, underestimating the strength of Quebec’s Alex Lavalle who soloed to the win. Tom was not happy. But we were and so was North American amateur cycling as the kids now knew, like kids in France, Belgium, Italy and Spain, that if they rode well they could be seen on national television. That TV exposure is the most powerful motivating force of all and the race served to stimulate the development and improvement of our entire amateur racing scene. Young teams across the country understood that they had to up their respective games if they were, number one, be accepted into the race, and number two, be able to handle themselves once in it. Every year one could see the teams getting more organized and proficient. No more dirty socks or bikes on the start line.
By 2007 we were rocking. Start to finish network-quality live television on what is now NBC Sports Network, complete with three helicopters, two live moto-cams, team director interviews and teams from Belgium, France, Italy, Holland and Mexico. Niki Terpstra (winner of Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix) rode, Phil Gaimon had his breakout performance there winning the Best Young Rider award, the racing was fast and excellent, and the North Americans were learning how to handle the Europeans.
Then disaster struck in the form of USA Cycling. With no discussion, with no attempt at coordination of team flow or the calendar, they put the Tour of Missouri on top of us. Directly on top, no, but with a Tuesday start after the Sunday criterium the great distance between events turned us into collateral damage. Everything, media, teams, Mavic, talent, was all sucked west leaving us depleted – the momentum of the Univest ground to a halt in a blow from which the race would never recover. Had they been willing to have a Wednesday start, all would have been good and while I doubt that Missouri would have continued, we would have stayed strong and the young riders would have had their national showcase.
Univest hung on for a record 14-years but finally after the 2011 race decided to move on. The entire North American cycling world owes Univest an enormous debt of gratitude for what they did in believing in and supporting our sport.
In 2012 I moved the UCI sanction to Bucks County, where I grew up, to be the logical partner of my Criterium of Doylestown, putting both races under the banner of the Thompson Bucks County Classic. That UCI race, held on the roads that made me strong and fall in love with cycling, was by far the coolest race I’ve ever created with two covered bridges per 16-mile lap, brutal hills combined with long stretches long the Delaware River, different start and finish locations – it was basically a copy of the London Olympic road course. I’d gambled on that UCI race, believing that if I made something great that the Bucks County business community would leap in to support it the way that the Doylestown community had rallied around the Criterium. That didn’t happen, I was unable to find additional sponsorship and after three years I threw in the towel happy at least that my cherished Bucks County roads had hosted a great race.
That fall I was contacted by what I thought was the City of Reading who were interested in picking up the UCI sanction. I leapt at the chance as from 2006-08 Reading had hosted a leg of Dave Chauner’s Triple Crown of Cycling and had been the most organized and friendly city that any of his staff had ever worked with. I experienced a different city.
When I first got there to scout the location I felt as though I’d landed in paradise. Rather than a crime-ridden, nasty ghetto as it is so frequently portrayed, I was seeing 1996 Brooklyn, a place of incredible potential, full of beautiful architecture and strong and straight Pennsylvania Dutch-built townhouses, with a truly magnificent park on its edges that leads into the nature preserve of Mount Penn, all of this set in the middle of some of the most picturesque farmland of the entire United States. I made proposals to the region, explaining how this road race along with the Philadelphia race, my Doylestown Criterium and the Trexlertown velodrome would combine to make Pennsylvania UCI central in America. That I would work towards Reading becoming a national training center for the sport which it certainly could. What’s more, the city had commissioned a study that recommended that Reading highlight its immediate access to excellent outdoor recreation as the means of branding the city in a positive way. Couldn’t have been more perfect.
2015 was in fact a great race. We’d done lead-up kid’s programs, taking “inner-city youth” on bike rides with pro riders like Chris Horner and getting up to 75 kids a session. And boy, could some of those kids ride bicycles. Reading was an enormous cycling talent pool. Thousands of spectators lined the opening 150 k loop to watch the USA U23 National Team, Guatemala’s National Team and all of the top North American teams’ blast through Berks County at warp speed – it was incredibly fast. The deluge hit as the team approached the mountain finishing circuits, chaos ensued, both Tom Skujins and Danny Summerhill crashing separately before remounting and getting back to the front with Summerhill dropping Skujins on the final descent to win. The large finish line crowd comprised of everyone from bike messengers to poor Hispanics mixed with corporate CEO’s, all completely soaked and huddled together in an almost Woodstock feeling under the tents, wouldn’t quit, mesmerized by the action, fixated on the twin jumbotrons that glowing through the darkness. We’d launched the race so well with television, radio, billboards and strong amounts of print and online coverage that when leaders of the community declared the race a massive failure, well, we were surprised to say the least.
I’ve never fought so hard in my life as I did to pull off that first Reading 120. While sponsor sales were good and perfectly adequate, the FBI indictments against the Mayor and members of his staff got things off to a pretty bad start as there was no one left with power able to protect the race, a requisite in such a political town. It remained a political football for the rest of its short existence, finally succumbing in June of 2017, when I had all the money and permits needed, leaving all of those young riders stranded without their UCI race.
The community leaders now have a local criterium, a perfectly good race. But it’s not in Reading, it’s across the river in the rich suburb that gave us Taylor Swift. The kid’s programs no longer exist, the beauty of Reading City and surrounding Berks County, the beauty that drew 40,000 for the livestream, is no longer featured in the world cycling press.
At the finish line of the final Reading 120 I saw a young Canadian racer in crisis on the finish line. He was shaking and screaming epithets. I went over, put my arms around him, and calmed him down. He’d raced 199.7 brutal kilometers and had been crashed out by an Official’s Moto with 300 m to the finish. “I was there, I was there”, he cried, tears streaming down his face, “I was going to finish in the top 10 of a UCI race. It’s the only chance all year I have to ride a race like this, do you have any idea of what’s just been stolen from me?” This is what the race meant to the racers and it was for that young Canadian that I fought so hard to keep it going. Whether or not a banner went up on the fencing or a sticker fell off a car doesn’t really matter. What matters is believing in and sticking to a vision for your community, supporting young athletes and Olympic sport all while understanding and accepting the responsibility of maintaining an historic race, sharing in and contributing to its rich history. I really believed that Reading would become a permanent race, in the manner of, why not, a Tour of Flanders. Every single aspect needed for that to happen was in place. Except for leadership, and that’s what is so sad.
John Eustice, is the organizer of the Thompson Bucks County Classic in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and a long-time cycling analyst who has contributed to ESPN, ABC Sports, Time Magazine, and CNN among others. The Bucks County native resides in New York City. He was a pioneer on the European racing circuit and is a two-time United States Professional Champion.