Watching the TD Bank International Cycling Championship, set for Sunday in Philadelphia, can have a strange effect on people.
The 156-mile course is the longest one-day race in the nation and typically attracts between 200,000 and 300,000 spectators. The highlight is the famous "Manayunk Wall," a half-mile monster of a hill with a grade of 17 percent, which bicyclists have to power up 10 times during the course of the competition.
Most people witness this spectacle of human endurance and marvel at the incredible speed, athleticism and strategy of the cyclists. They don't see a career path. But Scott Zwizanski watched the race and decided he would become a professional cyclist.
"It was probably the biggest influence of me getting involved in the sport," said Zwizanski, now 34.
Zwizanski, who grew up near Philadelphia and watched the race during his high school years, has been a professional cyclist since 2004 and has participated in the Philadelphia championship every year since 2005. He's a member of the UnitedHealthcare Team, and hopes to participate again this year, but a hand injury might hold him back, he said.
The road race got its start in Baltimore's Inner Harbor in 1982 and 1983, said organizer Dave Chauner, president of Pro Cycling Tour.
When the competition moved to Philadelphia in 1985, "we convinced the city they ought to run this 156-mile race on a 14.4-mile circuit," said Chauner. He also was the one to decide the course should include the hill now known as the Manayunk Wall, named for its neighborhood.
"We found the steepest, toughest hill you can find," he said. The race is also the only professional cycling road race that takes entirely within the boundaries of a major city, he said.
The race is open by invitation only to professional cyclists, and this year, 23 men's teams and 22 women's teams will compete. They come from all over the world and include all 12 ranked U.S. teams, including the top-ranked one, Team HTC. Each team can have a minimum of five riders and a maximum of eight.
The race starts at 9 a.m. and finishes about six grueling hours later. The best way to see it, said Chauner, is in the catered VIP tents, with free parking. One tent is at the start and finish line, and the other is at the Manayunk Wall. Spectators can buy tickets to one or both of the tents, he said, and travel between them by shuttle bus.
The women start 10 minutes later then the men, and cyclists in each group stay bunched together, he said, so "the tactics are very important." Announcers are all around the course to explain the maneuvers, he said, and large-screen televisions in the tents capture the action when the cyclists aren't actually whizzing by.
"It gets very exciting," he said. "The fastest laps are the last laps."
The weekend events start Saturday, with amateur time trials at 7 a.m., open to the public so cyclists of all abilities can try for their personal best times on an eight-mile course. A health and fitness expo and live music are scheduled for both Saturday and Sunday, course-side on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and a "TD Bank Family Fun Zone" will provide entertainment for children on Sunday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Zwizanski, who travels the world for competitions, said the Philadelphia race is one of the most fun to watch, because the riders go all-out, instead of saving energy as they would in a multi-day event. "It tends to make the race much more aggressive and faster," he said.
He also said he races up hills steeper and longer than the Manayunk Wall, but "it's just the fact that it's ten times up it," he said.
"It's a great race for the spectators," he said. "Sometimes you can't even hear yourself breathing because the crowds are so loud."
If you go
Philadelphia is hosting the 27th TD Bank Philadelphia International Cycling Championship, owned and managed by Pro Cycling Tour. Events are Saturday and Sunday and the race starts at 9 a.m. Sunday. It lasts about six hours and is expected to attract as many as 300,000 spectators.
Getting there: Philadelphia is a straight shot up I-95 and about two hours away by car.
Tickets: One of the best ways to see the race is to purchase tickets for a VIP tent, which provides catered food and drink and an up-close look at the cyclists. For information or to buy tickets: procyclingtour.com/2011Hospitality.htm.
Packages: Exceptional Cycling Tours is offering a "Weekend at the Race" package that includes a Friday night dinner with a cycling team, a bike ride to Valley Forge Park, lodging and more. Call 610-574-3534 or go to exceptionalcyclingtours.com and click on "Our Tours."
Information: The Pro Cycling Tour website, at procyclingtour.com.