October 3, 2012

After Twilight

Life in the Fast Bike Lane

Cyclist Oscar Clark at this year's Athens Twilight Criterium.

Every spring, thousands of cyclists and spectators descend on Athens for one glorious Twilight weekend of criterium racing, road rides and general revelry. It’s the only bike racing most Athenians will see all year, and when that weekend is over, we mentally box up those cyclists and put them away until next year.

So, what do they do the rest of the year?

“They do an Athens Twilight essentially every weekend,” says Christian Foster, co-owner of Athens’ own UHC/706P (United Healthcare of Georgia presented by The 706 Project Cycling Team), a category-one amateur race team that grooms talent for the pro teams and performs community outreach for Athens. (The 706 in their name is a nod to Athens’ area code.) The nine-man roster includes a former member of the German national team, a former Jamaican national champion in cycling, a current U.S. Collegiate National Champion from Tasmania and a bunch of Americans.

“Our guys race at least twice a week, if not three, four or five times a week, depending on the type of event,” says Foster. “The racing season begins out west in February and goes all the way through September. These guys will see anywhere from 75 to 125 race days annually per rider.” The team also raced internationally this year in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.

Foster, Brian Molloy and Eric Murphy are co-founders and equal partners of UHC/706P. Molloy, owner of The Hub Bicycles in Five Points and a favorite in town for helping people with bikes, is responsible for the team’s equipment and facility concerns. Murphy, who, according to Foster, “has produced some of the most accomplished amateur teams in the Southeast,” serves as the team coach. Foster handles team operations. While Molloy and Foster are former racers, Murphy is an active racing member of the team, winning this year’s Georgia XC Series (GSC) and U.S. Cup East Series in mountain biking, as well as the category-one state criterium championship. They all share in sponsorship responsibilities.

“Our team is designed to essentially grow and groom talent, so we want our riders to advance to the professional ranks,” says Foster. “Right now, we’re satisfied being a top amateur team. Down the road, if we have the opportunity and the resources to step up to the professional level, we’ll certainly consider that. But for the time being, we’re happy to be a regional amateur team that races national-caliber events and essentially preps riders for a chance at the big time.”

“A lot of guys will step back a year to the amateur ranks so they can be the big guy on the team,” says Molloy. “Or they’re a little fish in a big pond on a pro team and they’re just working their butts off to support the more experienced riders. Oscar Clark raced pro last year and he took a step back and now he’s racing for us this year.”

“Oscar was a support rider for one of the best professional teams in the country last year,” says Foster. “We made him an offer and essentially told him he’d be our team leader and our riders will support him.”

Since then, Clark’s led this year’s USA Criterium series, which Twilight is a part of, for seven of the 11 national races. The 11th and final race is in Vail, Colorado this Sunday, and Clark is in second place in the overall points competition. “Oscar’s up there on the leader board against top professionals, even though he’s an amateur,” says Foster. “He races at the highest level, so he’s been able to leverage better results that put him back on the radar of some of these professional teams.”

Next month, just as UHC/706P intended, Clark leaves the team once again to race on a UCI/US pro squad in 2013. His departure makes room for the next success story.

“This town is so full of world-class cyclists,” says Murphy. “We’ve had two guys in the last three years who’ve done the Tour de France and the Giro D’Italia, the biggest race in the world. There are women living here right now who race on the national scene. There are four or five full-time bike racers living here that just wanted to come live in Athens. I think, for us, it’s just keeping that here, representing the state and the city with maybe one day a pro team, but at least a high-level team to feed riders into pro teams out of Georgia.”

“Athens is a hub for cycling,” says Foster. “It’s a Mecca for cycling in the Southeast. It’s probably one of five or 10 places in the country where people actually gravitate toward these areas. It’s Athens, it’s Boulder, it’s Tucson and a handful of other towns that have a really strong competitive cycling scene.”

Why Athens?

“You can do 100-mile ride seven days a week on so many different roads,” says Murphy. “You can be in the mountains in an hour, which, if you’re wanting to be a top-level cyclist, you want to be near the mountains. The low cost of living, the weather in the winter, the roads are good, and there are so many races in the Southeast that on any given weekend, you can race within three hours of Athens.”

But UHC/706P is about more than just collecting bike trophies.

“We also have ties to regional collegiate programs,” says Foster. “Collegiate cycling is becoming a real up-and-coming sport. We have ties to programs in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia, where essentially if our riders wish to go to school—race collegiately—we support that. We have three riders that will be on scholarship for cycling next year.”

As an additional part of their community outreach, the team also visits schools. “With United Healthcare, we’ll visit schools throughout Georgia,” says Murphy, “but for Allergy Partners of Georgia, we focus on the schools in and around Athens. We talk to the kids about helmet safety, cycling in general, why you should stay healthy, and if, for example, you have bad allergies or asthma, you can still be a high-level athlete. It really has had a great effect. Every time we visit a school, we get emails from teachers and principals like, ‘The kids have been talking about you all week; they really got a lot out of that.’ Most kids and parents don’t know that kids have to wear a helmet and how dangerous it is not to, how little a head injury it takes to have a negative, debilitating effect. And the kids think it’s cool to see these professional athletes come in and tell them they need to eat better and exercise. It’s rewarding for us as riders, too, to see them get all excited.”

“Sometimes we’ve gotten partners to help us so we can give away helmets, because most kids don’t have them and can’t afford them,” continues Murphy. “And sometimes we’ll do a bike rodeo. United Healthcare will bring a truck with 20 or 30 bikes, and we’ll set up cones, have the kids run a course and make them do hand signals. We bring our bikes to show them what a race bike looks like and feel how light it is, and see how our shoes clip into the pedals, and they get a kick out of that.”

Athens also offers various opportunities for people who aren’t students or racers to join in the cycling crowd.

“There are a number of rides around town that are geared to all levels: beginner rides, mid-level rides and the racer rides,” says Foster. “There are rides that average 14–16 mph and go out for an hour to two hours. Most people who are somewhat fit and have the right kind of bicycle would survive those rides and be conversational. The next level of ride is the 17–19 mph ride, and then of course anything 20 mph and above tends to require a good bit more fitness.

“We’ve been focusing on the sporting side of it, but we’re all fighting for the same thing, and that’s the right to the road,” says Foster. “A lot of drivers out there aren’t aware of the cycling laws. So, I think the more of us that there are out there, whether you’re using it as a mode of transportation or exercise or training for competition, I think that’s a positive for the Athens community.

“But I also think there’s a lot of potential for more in the way of bicycle advocacy and ‘Share The Road’ type initiatives,” continues Foster. “If Athens can organize and mobilize behind these types of activities and ultimately embrace cycling culture, we will truly become an epicenter for cycling and our sport will reap the benefits. And who knows? An Athens-born Tour de France contender or champ one day may not be too far-fetched.”

Looks like, for Athens, Twilight is just the beginning.