When cyclists think of American road racing, images of races such as the Tour of California typically come to mind. But for those who follow criterium racing, or who have been fans of the sport for decades, there’s another race that perfectly encapsulates Americana with a parade-like atmosphere in a small city in New Jersey.
The Tour of Somerville—known as the Kentucky Derby of cycling—is making a triumphant comeback this Labor Day. Why does this matter so much? After a year off due to the pandemic, many worried that the Tour of Somerville, which dates back to the 1940s, would fade away, as many of the older classics have over the years. Thankfully, that isn’t the case, and it’s back with a broader schedule than ever.
Typically held over Memorial Day weekend, the race added events, including a spectator-friendly Twilight Criterium in Easton, Pennsylvania (Bicycling’s home base!) and a public bicycle ride. The weekend will close with a festival in Somerville on Labor Day, culminating with the pro men’s and women’s crit races.
The Tour of Somerville has a long history: It has run 77 times since it began in 1940, and it’s well-known as one of the most carnival-like crits in the country. The race, which started as a small, local crit, struck a chord with the cycling community. As cycling regained traction in the United States in the 1970s, the Tour of Somerville became one of the nation’s classic races, drawing pros from all over—past winners includes riders from Canada, Australia, and 10 other nations.
The Memorial Day weekend aspect is important. Pro racer Furman Kugler won the first two editions of Tour of Somerville in 1940 and 1941. He then went on to serve in the U.S. military and was killed during World War II, as was the 1942 winner Carl Anderson. In part due to their service, the race is traditionally run on that weekend to recognize the sacrifices of those that gave their lives serving in the military.
Riders like Olympian Ruth Winder have won in the women’s field, and in the men’s field, Davis Phinney (yep, Taylor Phinney’s dad!) won back in the eighties, as did Canadian legend Steve Bauer. The winners in recent years tend to be domestic criterium experts, and in 2019, Canadian Maggie Coles-Lyster won the women’s race, while Connor Sallee took the men’s win.
“As a five-time winner of the Tour of Somerville, and a 28-year participant of the race, this event is steeped in bicycling history as witnessed by the incredible community support and racer participation,” Laura Van Gilder told Bicycling. “Nationally, this race was the ‘Grandaddy’ of all criterium races and one not to miss. It remains one of the oldest races in America and still has the prestige of an iconic event on the racing calendar.”
It’s worth mentioning that Van Gilder’s record-setting five wins happened over a 20-year span. Her first win there was in 1999, and her most recent was in 2018.
Joe Saling, known to many as the voice of the Tour of Somerville, won’t be announcing the races this year now that he’s retired from the position—but like every year since he was a child growing up in Somerset, he’ll be out spectating the race. His father-in-law raced every year until the late 70s, and in 2017, Saling’s grandson Noah Granigan won the race—with Saling announcing. Saling calls that moment the crowning achievement of his 50-plus-year bike racing career.
“There was a time when the Tour of Somerville was the most prestigious race in the country to have on your record,” Saling told Bicycling. “When in Somerville. I remember Ron Skarin, who was on a couple of Olympic teams and multiple-time national champion, won Somerville twice in the seventies. And when he won the first time, he said that it topped anything else he’d done in his career. It’s exciting to see the event directors working so hard to bring this race back to its original stature.”
For this reporter, the Tour of Somerville has always been the cornerstone of U.S. bike racing. Getting into cycling as a young racer in New Jersey, it was the highlight of the season. My parents hosted pro teams who needed cheap housing options, my dad made sure he got to the race early enough to get the best seat (and hit the beer tent with time to spare), and I distinctly remember taking my first (okay, only) prime during the pro women’s race. Afterwards, Van Gilder told me I did a good job in the sprint, and I nearly burst into tears of happiness.
My crit-racing career never took off, but that race and the atmosphere around it spurred on my passion for cycling. To say that this race changes lives isn’t an understatement, but if you’re in the New Jersey or Pennsylvania area, don’t take my word for it. Come out and watch the races for yourself on Labor Day weekend.
Saturday, September 4: Easton Twilight Criterium Bike Race (races from 4 p.m. until 9 p.m. ET)
Professional bike racing under the lights in downtown Easton culminates with a fireworks display over the Delaware River—and passes right by the Bicycling magazine offices!
Sunday, September 5: Basking Ridge “Greg Cordasco” Criterium Bike Race (races from 12 p.m. until 6 p.m. ET)
An afternoon professional bicycle race in beautiful downtown Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Named in honor of Liberty Cycle bike shop owner and racer Greg Cordasco, who passed away in 2019, this race will also serve as the New Jersey State Championships for the pro men’s and women’s fields as well as the men’s Cat 3/4 field.
Monday, September 6: Tour of Somerville (races from 9:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.)
Head to downtown Somerville for a full day of bicycle racing, activities, and entertainment. While the start/finish area will be jam-packed with spectators and the patios of the Main Street restaurants on the start/finish straightaway will be packed, I recommend walking around to the back corners of the race to get a better, unobstructed view of the two tight turns on the back stretch. The corner heading onto Main Street heading into the finishing stretch is another spot to watch, especially if you’re secretly hoping to see some race drama, since that final corner can be extremely tough to navigate as the pack speeds up.
For non-racers, there are 25-mile and 50-mile Tour of Somerset County rides happening on Sunday, August 29 that are open to area residents.
For more information on the recreational ride and the three days of bike racing, visit the Tour of Somerville’s website.
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