Twilight’s influence brings biking to new towns

The racers and the crowd involved in the Annual Athens Twilight Criterium make this bicycle race feel like a rock and roll show, which is not surprising given Athens history.

The streets are filled with entranced families, intoxicated revelers and exciting fans cheering on the cyclists. It should come with little surprise that other Georgia cities have adopted competitive, professional level bicycle races. A city known for its influence in music has now become a city known for its influence in cycling.

Gene Dixon founded the Twilight Criterium in 1980. A criterium is a bike race held on a short course typically less than 5 km in length, often raced on closed-off downtown city streets.

By creating Twilight, Dixon had established the first nighttime race in the United States in over 60 years. In its first year, the Criterium consisted of only one race with 40 competitors and has since grown to offer eight separate race classes.

The main Twilight event is the men’s pro-am criterium, the highlight of the Twilight weekend. The race is features over 150 cyclists competing in an 80-km race around historic downtown Athens, while the women’s pro-am criterium takes place just before the men’s and measures 40-km.

The course start-finish line is on Clayton Street at College Avenue. The 1-km course runs clockwise on Clayton Street, Lumpkin Street, Washington Street and Thomas Street.

Twilight has grown in both biker and audience attendance every year since its inception, so wide that it has influence among other bike races in other cities and states.

“Absolutely it has, we do seven races as part of CRIT Speed week and most all of those races came about because we had a high level of great bike racers coming to the South because of Twilight,” Dixon said. “[Speed week] is a way to get [cyclists] together, to stay longer and racing more and ultimately there is more money for them so it’s good for everybody.”

The USA CRITS Speed week (CRIT being shorthand for criterium) is a week of bike races hosted in different cities around Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. “Minus a few zeroes, [Swagger.us] owns the NASCAR of Criterium bike racing,” said Dixon.

The Speed week starts off April 30 with the Athens Twilight, and then hosts events though May 8 in Roswell, Ga, and Sandy Springs, Ga, both criteriums that started because of the popularity of the Twilight Criterium. Races have also spread to Beaufort, Spartanburg, and Walterboro, S.C. and Charlotte, N.C. since Twilight’s foundation.

The Athens Twilight Criterium is also the official first race of the USA CRIT Nationals, which ends in Washington D.C. on Oct, 2, 2011, meaning it is the first high stakes race of the year for pro-am riders on the USA CRIT circuit.

Swagger.us, the organization behind USA CRIT Speed week, is Gene Dixon’s race organization and the organizers responsible for managing and executing bike races for Athens Twilight, other races in the South, and even races as far north as West Chester, Pa. a distant suburb of Philadelphia. In 2004, the town of West Chester started their own Iron Hill Twilight Criterium, directly influenced by Athens own Twilight.

In addition to expanding to other cities within the county, the Athens Twilight has also expanded within itself. In addition to women’s racing, Twilight has added a morning race open to the public through the Athens greenway. There is also an all-day 5-km run before the first bike races start on the downtown course.

The area of College Street between Clayton and Washington St. will feature BMX riders on both vertical ramp events and flatland competitions. The three day event will also feature acrobatics, local merchant food vendors and in true Athens style, two concerts stages featuring local bands.

Since its humble beginnings in 1980, the Athens Twilight race first brought Athens together, and then it slowly expanded its influence beyond the 10 loop and into the world of national bike racing. What’s best is that Athens, the South, and competitive bike racing are better off for it.

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