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Maryland Cycling Classic Finishes Extraordinarily

Ahead of the Maryland Cycling Classic, there was a flood of news articles that became overwhelming for any cycling fan or hobbyist. The news came in abruptly, whereas most news about major events such as the Grand Tours begins several months in advance, the Maryland Cycling Classic only started to gain traction in the news about one month before the starting date.

For those unaware, Maryland is a relatively small state that acts as a major junction between people traveling from as far north as New York and south from Virginia and Washington DC. The state has a lot of government facilities, military bases, a few casinos, an international airport, and tourist destinations such as Maryland harbor, all of which more than often creates a huge traffic jam along the Baltimore beltway.

Cyclists racing at an annual event in Poolesville, MD.

Cyclists racing at an annual event in Poolesville, MD.

Despite all the traffic and highly profitable locations, it is no secret that there are many areas in Maryland stricken by poverty. Especially in Baltimore, wherein some streets are closed off by police at night due to astronomical crime rates surrounding the government housing projects, aptly named "the projects." The major cycling event provided more benefits than one would expect, beginning on a beautifully positive note by giving back to the community hosting the event.

On September 1st, the state hosted Bike Jam rides, which are short friendly 1-mile rides open to all ages and led by ambassadors of the Maryland Cycling Classic, including Olympians, former professional cyclists, and even some riders that took part in the main event. In the same day, event organizers along with partnered organization United Healthcare gave away 50 bicycles to young riders at the mixed grades school James McHenry Elementary and Middle School. During a visit to the school, organizers also taught young riders the importance of bicycle safety and gave simple riding courses.

Ahead of the event itself Brendan Quirk, the CEO of USA Cycling, brought a huge spotlight to the event in a speech stating that it is, "the most important bike race that’s happened in America in the last 5 years. It’s a godsend." Those words rang all across the United States. During peak racing season, all 50 states have cycling events all categories running every month. For many nations, the ability to attend just one organized event every now and then is a huge deal. For example, Taiwan is largely only known for the Taiwan KOM, whereas the US has multiple UCI Gran Fondo events, numerous climbing events such as the Mount Washington Hill Climb, and especially a lot of criteriums including a Pro National criterium event. That is to say, hearing from the head of USA Cycling that this event is more important than any other event in all of the United States in the past half-decade is saying a lot.

For those unaware why it is so important to the health of pro cycling in the United States, the Maryland Cycling Classic is the newest one-day professional cycling race with a UCI Class 1 Pro Series status. The men’s-only race is one of four UCI races remaining in the US, making it a rare opportunity for domestic elite riders to compete against some of the world's best and perhaps even earn some coveted UCI points. This event provides an excellent chance for cyclists in America to show off their skills and compete at an international level.

The course itself was a very technical one, proving a challenge to any rider, with 7,500m of elevation spread across 194km. The cyclists make four laps of a 7.4-mile circuit featuring 19 turns and short climbs through districts such as Fells Point, Washington Hill, Old Town and Mount Vernon, in the heart of the state. The end of the race featured a flat sprint section finishing at the intersection of E. Pratt and Market streets. Weather conditions played a huge role in determining the winner, as it was a very hot and humid day in the oceanside state.

The route, as viewed on OpenStreetMap.

The event was projected to draw more than 50,000 spectators following a worldwide broadcast. Before the event began, Commerce Secretary R. Michael Gill estimated that the race could generate an economic impact of between $11 million and $14 million for the state of Maryland.

The Maryland Cycling Classic was originally set for 2020 but delayed due to the coronavirus. "We are thrilled to bring professional bike racing back to Baltimore," said Sean Kelly, president of Kelly Benefit Strategies, the local organizing committee. "The response from the cycling community has been incredible, and we can't wait to showcase some of the best cyclists in the world."

Kelly said the event has a three-year commitment from the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), cycling's governing body, 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. Traill, a local 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.

The city of Baltimore has been working to improve its reputation as a place for hosting major sporting events. In February, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association’s men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were held in 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. Despite the security of 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," he said. "That this is Charm City - rich in history with great potential."

There was no lack of talent present at the event. The one-day race featured 111 riders from 27 countries. There many recognizable names such as Australian rider Michael Matthews and Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen, both of which led Team BikeExchange-Jayco's sprinting power. Italian Giacomo Nizzolo and Belgian Sep Vanmarcke represented Israel-Premier Tech. EF Education-EasyPost's lineup included American Tour de France stage winner Neilson Powless and young Dutch sprinter Marijn Van Den Berg. Trek-Segafredo fielded American young talent Quinn Simmons, who was supported by multi-time Tour of California stage winner Tom Skuijns. Human Powered Health, America's top ProTour team, showcased U.S. national champion Kyle Murphy in their squad alongside Robin Carpenter and sprinter Arvid de Kleijn.

In the end, it was Sep Vanmarcke from Isreal-Premier tech that took home the first-place victory. The 34-year-old Belgium native outsprinted four competitors to capture the inaugural event, crossing the finish line in 4 hours, 34 minutes, 45 seconds. Vanmarcke said he bided his time before making his final push at the intersection of E. Pratt and Market streets. He was part of a group of 12 cyclists who broke away from the peloton at almost the midpoint of the race in Baltimore County. The same 12 riders entered the city circuit and stayed together until the penultimate lap when Powless, Skujins, Vanmarcke and Zukowsky pulled away.

Andrea Piccolo, Powless’ teammate, caught the group of four on the final circuit. Vanmarcke trailed all four in the final straightaway before finding the energy to mount a comeback at the intersection of E. Pratt and Market streets in Baltimore City. Vanmarcke said he conserved his power before making that final push. Zukowsky, who rode with team Human Powered Health, placed second, and Powless, the top American finisher in the 2022 Tour de France who rode with team EF Education-Easypost, finished third. The pair was listed as finishing at the same time as Vanmarcke.

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