When organizers outlined the scope of the Maryland Cycling Classic in Baltimore, one called it “the Preakness on wheels.”
That might be an apt description if the Preakness were the only portion of horse racing’s Triple Crown held in the United States, said Joe Traill, owner of Joe’s Bike Shop in Mount Washington and Fells Point.
“It would be like getting a Formula One race here,” Traill said. “This is rare for anywhere in the United States, let alone Baltimore. Some people have worked really hard to get this done. … I hope people in Baltimore realize what a huge deal this is. People are going to come to watch this race, and it’s not just Baltimoreans.”
This race will sprawl across northern Baltimore County on the Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend, then drop south on Falls Road into the city for four laps of a finishing circuit in and around downtown. It will culminate in a sprint down Pratt Street that could see cyclists hitting speeds of 45 mph — if a solo rider or small group doesn’t get away for the win.
“This type of road race has the best chance of showcasing some of the best talent in the world, the same talent that you can see in the Tour de France, but on American soil,” said Jay Lazar, one of the organizers of the Charm City Cross each fall in Druid Hill Park.
Lazar called the one-day format “really exciting,” saying “that type of racing is full gas from the get-go.”
The Maryland Cycling Classic will disrupt traffic on normally busy roads, especially for the finish downtown late Sunday, but organizers hope to keep problems to a minimum by using rolling closures that will shut down 4 to 6 miles of the course until the cyclists and their support vehicles pass.
The organizers expect more than 50,000 spectators to line the 120.4-mile course to see the only U.S. road race this year sanctioned by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), cycling’s world governing body, which endorses races that include the Tour de France. The event will be broadcast worldwide.
“It’s bigger than just a bunch of people racing in the streets of Baltimore County and Baltimore City,” said Terry Hasseltine, who is president of the Sport and Entertainment Corporation of Maryland, which owns and produces the event. He’s also executive director of the Maryland Sports Commission, which works to bring sporting events to the state.
“We’re hoping that this has a legacy impact and becomes a tentpole event for the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland for many years to come,” he said.
There will be 16 teams, each with seven riders, who hail from more than 20 countries. They’re expected to include a pair of stage winners at this year’s Tour de France: Michael Matthews of Australia and Dylan Groenewegen of the Netherlands, as well as U.S. national road champion Kyle Murphy and America’s top overall finisher in the 2022 Tour de France, Neilson Powless.
There’s a Bridges of Hope Ride for amateur riders Saturday that will raise money for charity. It will start at Kelly Benefits headquarters in Sparks and feature 31- or 62-mile routes.
Sunday’s race also starts at Kelly Benefits, travels north of Butler, skirts the Maryland-Pennsylvania state line, circles Prettyboy Reservoir twice, moves south along the eastern edges of Hampstead, Boring and Glyndon, and climbs a total elevation of about 7,500 feet before entering Baltimore City via Falls Road.
In the city, the cyclists will make four laps of a 7.4-mile circuit featuring 19 turns and short climbs through downtown and Fells Point, Old Town and Mount Vernon. The circuit is generally bounded by St. Paul Street to the west, Pratt Street to the south, North Broadway to the east and East Lafayette Avenue to the north. The finish line is at the intersection of East Pratt and Market streets.
“It’s going to be an interesting race, and I think it will highlight what’s good about our city. That’s the hope,” said John Kelly, the race chairman, who is an amateur cyclist and chief strategy officer for Kelly Benefits.
Baltimore and Maryland can expect long-term benefits.
Hasseltine said “conservative” projections estimate the race could generate an economic impact between $11 million and $14 million through the restaurant, lodging and retail industries.
Kelly said the Maryland Cycling Classic — initially slated to begin in 2020, but delayed by the coronavirus pandemic — has a three-year commitment from the UCI to apply for dates on the UCI calendar. With two big UCI races in Quebec and Montreal the next weekend, Kelly said scheduling the next two Maryland Cycling Classics close to those Canadian events again might heighten interest in North American racing.
“I think the UCI would like to see a healthy fan base,” he said. “The UCI definitely wants to see racing revitalized in America, and USA Cycling wants to see racing revitalized in America. America is a huge market, and people want to see bike racing succeed here.”
Traill, the bike shop owner, said Americans tend to gravitate toward international sports when a familiar face succeeds. He recalled bike sales doubling from 1999 to 2005 when Lance Armstrong won seven consecutive Tour de France titles before he was stripped of his victories due to a doping scandal.
“When we see it on our own soil or when we see our own Americans racing, that definitely has a huge effect,” Traill said. “It does have to be someone that catches the imagination.”
Still, interest in bicycling spiked during the pandemic. Bike shops nationwide reported inventory shortages caused by increased demand and supply chain issues. Also, the recreational pursuit has become popular among U.S. athletes, such as Hall of Fame linebacker and former Ravens star Ray Lewis, who will participate in Saturday’s charity ride.
Kelly cited statistics showing in the United States that there are 750,000 hard-core cyclists, 11.5 million lifestyle cyclists and more than 61 million casual cyclists.
He said the hope is that the Maryland Cycling Classic generates a level of enthusiasm on par with those of Ravens and Orioles games.
“People have to see it and experience it,” he said. “The business community knows what a Ravens game is like and an Orioles game is like and what the [Colonial Athletic Association] basketball tournament is. Seeing a bike race is a little bit different.”
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said last week that there is an untapped bike culture in Baltimore that’s ripe for such a large-scale event.
“I was walking up Pennsylvania Avenue on Monday night, and lo and behold, there were 50 young people riding together, and they were going crosstown,” said Scott, who rides his bike at Herring Run Park and joked that he likes to see how quickly he can pull away from his executive protection unit.
“People are really excited about this. This is a big deal. People are excited that we’re going to have folks participating — national champions, Olympians, cyclists from 20 countries,” Scott said.
The Maryland Cycling Classic is one of several large-scale sporting events on the calendar in Baltimore.
In February, the city welcomed the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association’s men’s and women’s basketball tournaments to Royal Farms Arena, and in June both parties announced a two-year extension through 2025. In November, Navy football will meet Notre Dame at M&T Bank Stadium and archrival Army at the same venue in 2025.
After a successful run at Caves Valley Golf Club last year, the BMW Championship will return to Owings Mills in 2025. The Baltimore Convention Center and Morgan State University will co-host the Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympic Games in 2028 and 2032.
The city partnered with Washington in a failed bid to host a portion of the 2026 World Cup.
Hasseltine said the successful bids mean “people see Baltimore as a place of opportunity.”
“It also says that Baltimore can really roll up its sleeves and help you get things done. Becoming a major contender to host the World Cup — yes, we lost, but it raised our profile as a place that had a can-do attitude, and it showed that we can go out and support the largest sporting event in the world and be a contender. … It says that people want to come to Baltimore. They want to come in, see Charm City, and take it all in. We see the value of sports and delivering economic viability.”
Lazar, the Charm City Cross organizer, said he and others in the Baltimore cycling community have scouted areas to watch earlier portions of the race while still making it to the Inner Harbor to see the finish.
“The terrain here is phenomenal. Anybody who comes in from out of town and has a chance to ride is both amazed and excited what they can turn this into,” he said. “It’s got a real chance to do something great.”
Despite the security of the UCI’s three-year commitment, Kelly said he and other organizers are eager to put Baltimore on cycling’s world map.
“I like to say that we’re sending a postcard, that this is Baltimore, that this is a great city,” he said. “We’re rich in history, and we have a great city, and I want people to know it.”