After more than two hours and 60 miles of pedaling, the U.S. Pro Cycling Championship today came down to a wild, quarter-mile sprint to the finish.
Shane Sutton, a 24-year-old Australian with the skinniest legs in an international field of 72 cyclists, beat another Australian, Danny Clark, by less than a bike length to win $3,000.
"I was in good position at the end," said Sutton, who stayed in the middle of the pack for most of the race around Baltimore's Inner Harbor. "A lot of it is luck."
This was the first professional cycling championship held in this country since 1974. Before the race began, Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer promised an audience estimated at 20,000 that it would not be the last.
"We will make bike racing to Baltimore what marathon running is to Boston," shouted the mayor, who prefaced his remarks by calling Baltimore the best city in the world.
Competitors today, thrilled as they were by the course, the $25,000 in prize money and the spectators who covered bridges, multilevel parking garages and Federal Hill to the south of the course, said bicycle racing has a long way to go in this country before reaching a par with Europe, where the sport is second only to soccer as a spectator event.
Professionals there earn $50,000 to $100,000 a year in prize money and endorsement fees. Races like the annual three-week Tour de France are watched by a television audience of 400 million.
If Baltimore's race didn't have that international charisma, it did have many of Europe's best racers, including two current world champions, four former world champions and about two dozen current or former Olympic cyclists.
"It was really exciting to be able to go with these guys," said John Large, a 21-year-old Canadian Olympic racer. He was competing along with U.S. Olympic team members as an amateur. "These are the best. This is what they do for a living."
Large dropped out of the 62-mile race before it was half over, after getting trapped behind a bike wreck. The crunch occurred after a tunnel on a 100-yard patch of cobblestone that did in a half-dozen riders. Paul (The Animal) Pearson from Bethesda, the local favorite, dropped out after the fourth of 42 laps around the 2.5-kilometer course.
"I never fell off the bike," said Pearson, 27, who turned pro last year after seven years barnstorming the world as an amateur. "But I got stuck for so long that by the time I got out of there I could see the race for me was over."
The top U.S. finisher was sixth-place John Eustice, a 25-year-old former U.S. National team member from Pennsylvania. Like the best of the U.S. cyclists, Eustice competes in Europe on a 140-event tour. This was the first time Eustice had competed in the United States in three years.
Just behind Eustice was Roger (The Motown Motor) Young, who was on the U.S. Olympic cycling team in 1972 and 1976.
For the competitors, the race was a game of fast-moving chess, involving strength and strategy at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. For the spectators, many of whom had never seen a bike race, it was often a multicolored blur of spinning wheels.
"I couldn't name the people in the lead," said Joe O'Connor, who was having a picnic with his two daughters on Federal Hill. "I just like the spectacle of it."