Harlem Skyscraper Classic
USACrits Race #4 — and the story of New York City's most iconic race.
West 123rd Street.
Tucked behind the multi-story brick storefronts, lies a special haven of Harlem: Marcus Garvey Park. Summer here is a loud swirl of street barbecues, Italian Ices vendor carts, and boisterous public pools wrapped in the thick 97º heat. Once a year, around the perimeter streets, everyone in the neighborhood comes out for a bike race.
Here daring and skill are rewarded. Four corners, on flat roads, with tight 90-degree edged rectangle around MGP with a once-in-a-year chance to actually physically race on Madison Avenue means only one thing: a deadly finish. The Harlem Skyscraper Classic is slanged “the Skin-Scraper” for inevitable crashing a course like this encourages, not through dangerous design, but through the opposite—it’s layout simplicity allows riders to take greater risk to achieve position, its strait forward nature makes easily gained advantage easily lost. Its very lack of character is it’s character. With no place to hide, nothing to force your hand, every rider must churn and dive, and jump their way forward each lap with greater and greater urgency as the laps tick down, ensuring a race where everything is in flux; nothing is stable; concentration must be maximum. It begs for mistakes. It begs for risk. Not despite these facts, but perhaps because of them, this is a sprinters classic.
— THE STAKES —
With Holowesko again skipping a race in the series, three teams have a shot at taking the USA Crits overall lead: Team Guttenplan Coaching, Team Clifbar, and our boys. All are with in a hundred points of each other. This Saturday would be a moving day either up, or down for the critical podium top three. Individually, perhaps the most coveted prize, the leaders jersey, once the exclusive property, of Hollowesko's John Murphy, is now, mathematically attainable for one rider: Dave Guttenplan. Guttenplan is just a year into his return from a horrific car hit-and-run sustained during training. The slight distortions in the contours of his face are a sign of his courage returning, and a warning to us all to stay sharp out there. Guttenplan would like that jersey as a sign of his return to the top of the game, and to once and for all close the chapter of his career that reads “comeback”. He and his team must race perfectly, scoring points out on the road, and at the line.
Spencer and the U25 Jersey.
Watch enough racing and you’ll note the kids do most of the attacking, the men do most of the winning. Crit racing is not kind to the young. The sport largely favors experience, craft and long-term fitness. So a chance at a jersey (any recognition, really) is a real spark for top young riders. The Under 25 jersey is such a prize, and Spencer is just points away from taking it. The jersey hunt is an even taller task for Spencer, than one would expect. He has to balance his new found leadership role, his desire for personal recognition, and his commitment to help the team. Spencer, motivated by his recent rise in the sport, has the confidence to go for that jersey today. Perhaps too, without a podium or win at the D1 level, he’s also feeling the need to live up to his recent hype. Praise is funny thing to young athletes. A thing they want more than anything. A thing they fear maybe more than anything.
Jack Sparrow’s Crit-Squad
Dialed, well-drilled, and ready to execute. None of these words apply to our squad today. We’re a band of pirates. But we are motivated. "Stoked" some would say. Each rider Steve Jette, Brian Alba, Cesar Gallego, Ted Horwitz, and “Go-Go” (Chris Goguen) along with Spencer, is fully committed to executing the game plan to top ability. Total trust in each other is there. Courage is the daily dinner for our boys. But only Chris and Spencer have ever raced together. Brian is a brand new Cat 2 and currently sick. Steve and Cesar literally will meet for the first time at the race. Ted is buried in his new job and struggling to get the workouts in needed to really perform at this level. And as far as team plan, the guys have literally never connected on one.
The entire week was spent in dozens of hours of phone calls, text messages, slacked roster changes, ride planning, missed rides, local races, moving, work, careers, and well...life. On race day, we knew we had to keep it simple, but even that was complicated. Jette and Cesar are fast finishers, and at least know their way around the front of a bike race. This would be another level of positioning battle. So, their job, do nothing for as long as possible, be fresh for the finish, link up with the other riders if possible, ride as a unit to make space… don’t worry about a lead out… freelance when it comes time. Stay in the top 20 from 15 on. Score points. Chris and Brian, have to mark the teams we are racing—Cliff Bar and Guttenplan Coaching—saving Spencer from having to cover. Do as much as you can to keep them from scoring or make it really hard on them. Ted will bank on all his skill to hide during the race and save every thing he has for the near closing laps to help move Cesar or Steve forward toward the final sprint. He’ll work for them as long as he can. Even two laps is better than none. Spencer…pick your moments…today is your day.
The only problem with the plan is the other 105 riders have one too.
— ELEMENTS of HISTORY —
The Walker, Toefield, Garvey formula.
Garvey — In 1835, the Common Council considered razing the hilly area to accommodate new streets, but local citizens successfully petitioned to preserve it as a public park. The space opened under the Mount Morris moniker but was later renamed in honor of Marcus Garvey in 1973. Garvey was a evangelist for Black nationalism in the United States. Most notably, a cultural leader behind Pan-Africanism: a worldwide intellectual movement that aims to encourage and strengthen bonds of solidarity between all people of African descent.
Walker — The park and neighborhood caught the attention of bicycle advocate and police officer, David Walker. Walker had the instinct to recognize something that others had overlooked. He saw promise in the younger generations that surrounded him. He also witnessed a clear lack of intramural sport opportunity. Walker created a safety and sports program that supported and encouraged children of all ages to invest themselves, and their passions, through bicycling. What Walker probably didn't know at the time, was that his humble, grass-roots initiative to create a program for kids to learn, prosper and grow, would become The Skyscraper, the oldest and most prestigious cycling race in New York City.
Toefield — Fellow officer, heavy supporter of Century Road Club Association and co-founder of the Kissena Cycling Club. Al Toefield is the man responsible for the injecting the competitive desire into Walker's program. As a seasoned promoter, Toefield oversaw the logistical aspects while letting Walker wrangle the sponsors.
A perfect 3/4-mile four corner square, Marcus Garvey Park was primed to become the city's newest outdoor velodrome. The inagural edition of the Harlem Skyscraper drew 300 racers and 5,000 spectators, who watched Robert Phillips, a 26 year old from Baltimore, defeat Patrick Gellineau of Trinidad. In the same year that this small neighborhood of Harlem celebrated a black cultural leader, Walker and Toefield took it upon themselves, consciously or not, to add to the celebration of ethnic diversity that made the spot special. The Harlem bike race had for quite some time a true golden period, everything Walker and Toefield hoped. It was the great NYC bike race: a reawakening of New York’s black-athlete cycling roots from the Major Taylor and Madison Square Garden Velodrome era. It has since wobbled in decline struggling through gender payout equality and sponsorship misalignment.
This 2018 pre-reg gives hope for a resurgence. 110% rider registration, equal payout for women and men, and a fight for retention of the classic. Nobody wants to see the race die. Harlem has always been home to the hopeful.
Welcome to Crazytown
— THE RACE —
For sprinters across the country, "Harlem" is an opportunity too spicy to pass up. Scott Law, bike still smoking from his winning ways at Tulsa Tough, and Shane Kline, the track specialist and recent winner of the Grand Dame of crit racing, Tour of Somerville, are on the start line, trigger fingers itchy. But, as near un-touchable as these two are at their best, there is a third man on the start list who’s reputation not only precedes him, but kicks in the door, rolls out a Louis Vutton carpet, and hushes the crowd in anticipation.
There’s fast, very fast and then there’s something else entirely. Some riders produce race-winning performances through sheer sprinting velocity that are not just about victory but about their specific physical dominance over others. Crit racing, a sport of tight physical positioning battles, raw speed and nerves of steel, creates a pressure cooker for winning moments and winning egos. Like slam dunks, home runs, and knock out punches, a crit sprinting victory is bursting with intense finality. These kind of victories beg showboating at the direct expense of the racers just vanquished. Winners often flex like the hulk, pound their own chest, roar and howel, or if they have the right kind of swagger, out-right appluad themselves. It's an end zone celebration at 45 miles per hour. 28-yr-old, Belizean born, California transplant, Justin Williams wins like this very, very often.
Crit racing has bred a genre of home-spun Go-Pro Camera "cinema" that are the source of serious race study and/or social media hype and shit talking that every racer eventually watches. A lot. It takes only a few you tube searches to come across Justin’s wins captured first person from his own helmet camera. These racer films are often edited with music to set the tone...Trap, hype tracks, loud with yelling, swearing, and fuzzed out pounding base. Rea Smmuerland, Rick Ross, Kendrick, A$AP, Pusha. The lyrics are packed with brag rap and smack hooks. They talk about violence and success. Justin’s online reputation is only amplified by the fact he’s not the only Williams out there with these films. Cory his younger brother also a race winning sprinter, has his set of films too. Together the Williams brothers project an intimidating swagger, something of the South Los Angeles street menace that raises mixed feelings inside the American Crit peloton, but also gathers views, fans and serious curiosity around the country.
Today Justin’s Belizean fans are out, surrounding the course. For a Caribbean nation only a little over 150miles long, Justin is their super star and Harlem clearly has a significant Belize population. Flags are hanging over the course barriers, Belizean music blazing from cars and windows. Dancing breaks out more than once. Everywhere Justin goes these people yell his name. They are here to see their nation’s son. They are here to feel good. They are here to be seen. Justin shakes some hands and waves. But his smile doesn’t last long. Soon there will be racing and clear unspoken expectations. For a young man like Justin this was a moment to rise to.
But wait! we shouldn't be here.
For our team, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Somehow it was race number four on the calendar and we are holding a top-five team rianking over-all in the series. It’s our first year. A bunch of kids. A passion project founded by six friends that like to race crits and wanted to give back to the sport. Some of us are old (by sports standards). In November 2017, when we decided to try forming a race team, USACrits was not a goal. The idea of “goals” was even a step to far. We wanted up grades, some of our best riders are still just Cat 2’s, most our squad still in college. Those not in college have kids, jobs, lives besides bikes. This winter, we couldn’t even get organized enough to have a training camp. Then our kits came in two months late in March. Our bikes had technical problems. We were showing our age. Along with that, for reasons totally confusing to us, we got hate mail by local teams for even startin a new team. Some stupid kid actually hacked our team site and linked it to another local teams site just to spite us. Why? Who knows. And who cares. We just wanted to make something our riders would love. On the bike was equally challenging.
We only had six racers total show up to the first race of the year because half of us were sick, coughing, throwing up, for the entire month of February. Every weekend getting together to train in the snow and sleet and darkness of a New England winter was near impossible. Sometimes, at 7am on Saturdays, it was just two of us, maybe three, riding hard miles, not talking, covered in salt and mud just try’n to get it done. We rode to Situate, Marblehead, Concord in the dark. Every Tuesday, we hit the gym at 5am before going to work, the whole time thinking of summer. But summer seemed like a Hollywood production, shinny and fake. When Gene Dixon the founder of USACRITS (the countrie's only criterium professional series, and one of the top "crit" series in the world) called in early March and invited us to race the league, we laughed. We told him no way. Maybe next year. Let’s just try and podium a local race, maybe just one of those. He called back. We said yes.
Now something special was happening. Suddenly, we started getting a different kind of text message from people. Emails started showing up wanting to know more about us. Sometime the email from a stranger would just say one thing: “Good Luck.” There were press calls. Invites. Riders from around the country started sending resume’s and guest requests. The crew rallied. Our team Slack channel filling daily with words of encouragement to all our riders. Race videos started getting in-depth tactical analysis. Channels for groups rides, training sessions, cook outs, race videos, travel plans. The positive chatter flowing. This was life, real life. On live stream race days every member of our crew was watching and texting and giving play by play on Slack. Riders started upgrading. Winning. Cat 4’s becoming threes. Cat 3’s becoming 2’s. And our top crew with an outside chance at being one of the best teams in the league.
On the start line in Harlem, this was inside the heads and hearts of each of our boys. They understood their role in the journey from the dark cold and uncertainty of Concord’s isolated roads to the bright shimmering heat and purpose of New York City streets.
As the action unfolded, our boys rode to plan. “Go-Go” made a critical bridge to a stacked and threatening move. Brian, feeling like shit, dragging his huge legs forward to do his best for the crew, to give at least one thing, and so went out into a break with Justin Williams, forcing Guttenplan to react, burn a little fuel. As the minutes added up it was harder and harder for our guys to keep racing, overwhelmed by the speed and the churn. Their willpower alone was perhaps not enough to over come the mastery of older more experienced teams. When the crashes started stacking up in the final ten laps, our guys had to ride through the pile of racers on the ground, burning last lap energy just to reconnect with the field.
With just 4 laps to go Steven Jette skidded to a complete stop to avoid a wreck then raced flat out by himself for a full lap to reconnect with the back of the race, only to just keep working his way corner by corner, breathing so loud you could hear him from the side lines, working and working just to get back into top 20, just maybe clawing back a dozen more points for the team. Cesar risked almost certain doom riding in the least physically demanding but most dangerous middle pocket of the field, saving power for his final last lap rush to the line. The whole time his hips hitting other riders hips, handle bars interlocking then coming free at the nick of time, wheels diving across wheels into every corner. Cesar could hear the yells and cracking of carbon, the smell of burning breaks as crashes devoured riders by the dozen all around him. He just hoped, stayed focused, and waited for the door to open in front of him, where he would drive his bike with everything he could and push, push, push to the line hopefully somewhere in the top ten.
Watching Spencer from a distance it’s impossible to tell there is a bike race going on. Poised and fluid, he floats along near the front of the field, face calm, legs moving in easy circles. But he is an ocean of immeasurable force, just slipping ahead of the wave of riders pressing and building to fold over him. This lap he disappears from view. Then suddenly, he reappears near the front. Then a turn later, gone again. Then back…a surfer coming up for air and the white foam and weight pushing him under. With a lap to go Spencer does not come back up again. As the bell rings, there is everything to race for, the rankings, the jerseys, the team podium. But there’s no sign that any of it will happen. These last sixty seconds will decide it all.
Changes at the top of the Series.
It was clear from the start of the race Team Guttenplan was going for every point they could grab. Points aren’t just possible for the teams on the finish line, throughout the race there are miniature finish lines, with extra points up for grabs. They come at a cost, you have to fight for them, sprinting hard, burning energy but you get points. And points are what it’s all about. They would scrap and claw and cover, and control as best they could the entire race. Tyler Locke would chase breaks and lead out David for lap after lap, keeping the green team in front of the field and in the action the entire day. Sprint after sprint they would take points inching closer and closer to the top step of the series. They could sense their success and rode with chins up, greater determination in the grind of danger and fatigue.
Around the last turn the first rider was already holding a gap to the rest of the field. By the time the bikes straitened up, it was Justin pulling on the throttle full effort, chest low over the bars like a bulldog squaring-off, bike twisting and snapping from side to side as he drove toward the line, massive distance already in front of all but a few riders right behind him. Shane Kline, lean and track fast pulled toward his rear wheel taking the smallest of slip streams behind Justin before moving out into the howling wall of 40mph self-generated air pressure in a last moment attempt to come around for the win. 125 meters to go, Justin pours on the power. Enough power to bend rebar, to split 2x4’s over your knee, to push a stalled school bus 100ft, to turn on all the lights in a high school gym—more power than most human beings produce in an entire 48hrs shoved through a bike and into the ground in just 10 seconds.
It’s an impossible task for Shane. 20 meters from the finish line, he sits back down in the saddle, turns his head and points over at Justin as he crosses the line. A gesture that shows that he always knew today would come down to them, that he wondered if Justin was a fast as the hype would lead everyone to believe, if he Shane—a man that wins races by multiple bike lengths—was possibly top dog. The finger point was a clear-headed act of mixed emotions. An acknowledgment of the moment’s significant rareness in bringing such talent together in contest. A gesture revealing self-confidence, the ability of Shane to know he is great, and he is bested. And perhaps a gesture expressing a relief in knowing there was a moment and he met it. Shane did not punch his bars in a big show, nor did he crassly yell “fuck!” or weakly succumb to the torpor of shocked defeat with an dropped head. Shane was pointing, guiding us to take it in, as he was, to bear witness to what is unfolding.
See this everyone, look upon the Justin Williams Era.
As the race-course cleared, and the official clean up began, riders lingered on the course in groups, talking over the race, waiting for the podium, drinking yet more water. But out on the course, one rider was still doing a lap, a very slow lap, a victory lap. Draped in the red and blue Belizean national flag, surrounded by a scrum of smiling, singing, chanting Belizean men jogging along side, was Justin. As they moved, all of them reached out and put their hands on Justin, pushing him forward.
— RESULTS —
Spencer takes the U25 Jersey and moves into 2nd place in the series. The team moves into 3rd for the series. Our first time on the podium and our first jersey. Note: Dave Guttenplan takes over the leaders jersey, cementing his return to the top of the sport.