The Harlem race has been around for 35 years, it’s a staple of NYC racing with a reasonable start time, excellent views for spectating and a great Manhattan location. But attendance has not been great lately-- the race has started to look like a glorified CRCA race, and the City has noticed. Indifferent to accommodating local racers, they need a completing reason before they shut down city streets in the middle of the day, remember the short lived NYC Cycling Championship downtown? Post-Lance attendance was poor and it was quickly called off. The Harlem race was in jeopardy too.
Enter John Eustice, creator and promoter of ambitions races such as Univest Grand Prix, Tour of Connecticut ( Housatonic Cycling Classic) and The Tour of West Virginia (K-Mart Classic). A New Yorker since 1996, John has the requisite experience dealing with local government, great connections in the cycling industry—you can thank him for bringing Michael Ball and Rock Racing aboard, and, a knack for promotion. As John says, “If cycling is to succeed in America , it has to include some good old fashioned American vulgar showmanship”.
Besides promoting races Eustice has been a professional cyclist; he was the winner of the first two US Pro Championships back in 1982 and 1983. He has been instrumental in creating numerous cycling teams, such as the first USA team to race a major Tour: the Gianni Motta Team that raced the Giro in 1984, and Pepsi-Fanini, winner of the CoreStates race (now Commerce Bank Philadelphia Championship).
John also has a career as a television analyst: His is considered as ESPN’s Cycling Analyst, having covered eight full Tours in Europe for them and ABC Sports, and another five for ESPN from Stateside. He is also the commentator for the Philadelphia race and can be seen on Versus this June for their coverage of the Commerce Bank Philadelphia Championship and the Tour of Pennsylvania . He has unbounded energy for everything cycling. Here is his long overdue story, as told to NYVC:
Winning the 1982 US pro championships, Photo: Robert F. George
I want to ride my bicycle
All I wanted to do from the age of 12 on was ride my bike—I knew I would be a cyclist and I never considered any other career seriously. Even at that age I really wanted to race in Europe and I was already aiming towards doing it. I grew up near Philadelphia and there was a wonderful bike shop, Hill Cycle Shop, one of a handful of legendary bike shops that keep the tradition of professional cycling alive. [Hill Cycle was founded in 1929 by the Casale family, –ed.] There were a few in New York , too: Stuyvesant's, which is now “A” bicycles[A Bicycle Shop], Thomas Avenia in East Harlem, and later, Kissena. There was Princeton Kopps Cycle too, and together they were the East Coast establishment that kept the flame burning for American cycling. The shops were beautiful, full of Campagnolos and Masis, Pinarellos and Colnagos, and beautiful hand-made Vittore Gianni wool jerseys—Eddy Merckx used to get Gianni to make his jerseys. Hill Cycle Shop was an incredible jewel box of a bike shop and a very stimulating place for a boy interested in cycling.
The Rebirth of American Cycling
The Philadelphia race, the San Francisco race, the Tour of Pennsylvania all came of Hill Cycle Shop. It was the Casale family that kept cycling going, and they still run the Pro Cycling Tour with David Chauner. Dave Chauner was an Olympian and Jack Simes was the thoroughbred of the thoroughbreds—they used to come by the shop. The shop had a wonderful club team. It was a mix of people who had been to Europe , like Jackie Simes and Chauner, who raced in Holland for years. And there were old guys with the old American knowledge from the six-day era—I rode with these guys and they really knew how to ride their bikes. I consider myself the last of the old guard, having absorbed the knowledge they passed on to me. Remember that in the twenties cycling was as popular as baseball in America , but after the war, car culture took over America and Americans fell in love with the power and romance of the automobile. You see the same thing in China now, where cities are actually banning bikes because they get in the way of the cars. Bicycles are considered socially backward. In America it’s come full circle to where cycling has become a high-end privileged sport—it’s a natural social evolution.
In the early seventies the junior racing scene was big. There were a lot of kids ring, 50 to 60 at a local race and hundreds at the nationals. It kept growing through the eighties, the era of LeMond. In New York you’ve always had this phenomenon of a Hispanic kid who could beat anyone in the world. The Wilson Vasquezes—you have always had them in New York. Jesus Portalatin, who was a big Puerto Rican kid—when he was 16 he beat the East German world champion in a match sprint in Trinidad . I came to New York and rode with him, Nelson Saldana, a Colombian track rider and Billy Cooney, another New York kid I used to ride with. So it was me, the wet-behind-the-ears suburban kid with these two New York City toughs. I would come up to New York from PA all the time to race the Kissena track. And the three of us would race all over New England and Canada getting into all sorts of trouble. It was a great time. I wouldn’t change it for anything.
In the eighties when you went to Europe you really went to Europe —there was no Internet or cable TV, no structured training either. I first went when I was 19. I bought a one-way ticket. Later I saw, over and over, these guys coming back from Europe completely destroyed, and when I went it was ten years before that. There was nothing—no support in place for young American riders. It was also very adventurous in a Hemingwayesque sense. The races were great, very unpredictable, and the skill level was tremendous. Now I find the races are much more formulaic. I would get my ass kicked, come home, lick my wounds, work all winter, and go back. I kept trying to break down that wall, and it took me a long time. I learned a lot. I worked the winters in Switzerland moving pianos, and then I would jump back into the racing in the spring. This was also the era of the first generation of plastic shoes and cleats, and there were a raft of injuries because of them. Between the shoes and the Piano moving I had my share.
Joining the “Mafia”
For a time I rode with the mafias, which to people who don’t know are a group of say five or six riders from different teams who work together in secret. Someone would say "I want to win today" and we would say "Okay, but you have to give us the prize money." I had no money—I was working construction. I’d take all the primes and set the race up for someone else to win and take all the money. It was a great way to learn how to win. It was really hard. You have to beat up the field and chase down those breakaways. It was like a school for professional racing—when I got to the pros I knew what to do. They didn’t want me to leave France as they had a good thing going, but I knew I’d never be able to advance to the next level in the mafia. I went to Belgium and Switzerland to try and break into the pros. They had an amateur elite team in Switzerland I raced for. Once, we had the jersey in a big Italian race - Giro di Umbria. An Australian rider approached me and told me that there was nothing I could do—they had 60 Italians working a combine against us in the field so we should just give up now. I said, "Okay man, I give," but I went to the Polish team and made a deal with them. I got them every King of the Mountain point and we hammered the field for the last 60 miles—no one could do a thing. After that race I knew I could be a professional. I could hold my own with the international amateurs, I could go blow for blow with them. I did well in the Milk Race, 3rd on points and a few second places on stages (before crashing – I finished though) in 1981. But I was on my own, hustling, moving pianos, and trying to make it with no support.
When I finally got to the point where I could ride with the pros and hold my own, be strong once and a while, it was almost too late. I knew how to ride my bike. Of course when I got there it was terribly intimating to ride with the great riders. When you ride with Francesco Moser or Hinault or De Vlaminck—holy cow they were so good. I was a teammate of Sean Kelly’s for a while. In the pros it was different; I couldn’t get in shape soon enough in the season and by the time I finally came around it always seemed like it was too late. I was a NYC bike rider like George Hincapie; I could go all day long, know how to handle the machine. I had a resting heart rate of 28, and I had a sprint. But there were certainly guys who came to Europe and made it happen. Look at Robbie McEwen—there was no support from Australia when he came over, so I can't really complain.
There are so many potential champions in New York City . Every sport has trouble attracting new participants these days, but cycling has been gaining momentum lately. Miguel Indurain started as a runner, the 440. He went to try a bicycle race where they gave him a bike to use. He won a coke and a sandwich. He thought that was nice and he came back the next week. That’s the kind of program you need to attract young people. With what’s happening with the energy crisis these days, you get the sense that young people think bicycles are cool again. When I go riding in the suburbs people actually cheer you instead of running you over like they did ten years ago. There is a sense that bikes are a good thing. The problem is the sport has never been properly presented to young people. What the American media does now with the Tour de France is not attractive to kids, but if you do it right it could be very attractive.
What I think is that it’s going to be someone like Michael Ball [of Rock Racing] who will find the key to make this thing cool. He knows how to tap into what motivates kids. People are going to have to come along and put some good old-fashioned vulgar American showbiz spin on it to make it super cool. It's not the Tour de France—the media is much too tour-centric right now. Look at the Giro: it’s a much, much better race, three weeks of total chaos, its chaotic and unpredictable but beautiful. The best race of the year, really. Look what’s happening with cricket. The Indians have aligned themselves with Bollywood, the games are shorter and more intense with gobs of money, and for the first time the head of the Cricket federation is outside of Europe . There is a real opportunity for dynamic change in cycling. And the future of cycling is right here in America —that’s without a doubt to me. We won 11 out of the last 20 Tour de Frances, our team and training structures have become role models through out the world, our bike manufactures are the most innovative. The only thing we haven’t taken the lead on is events. Now is the time to do it. However, I don’t think we are going to do it by copying the Tour de France. I love the Tour, but I don’t think that's the kind of racing that’s going to capture the American public's imagination. I think we need a fresh look at things. The sport needs to be grown here not as an imitation of Europe , not even as Americans who conquer this esoteric sport in Europe . You have to create a uniquely American sport.
I always got into the press as a racer somehow. I found Roberto Gaggioli in Italy and unleashed him on America , it was my joke on American cycling. I also served as his translator. I started doing live commentary for races. I also started promoting races. The first was the Tour of West Virginia—that became my baby. I figured if I put the race together I could get on ESPN, and that’s what happened. I loved designing the race. And of course there is a huge political aspect to making a race that I found I enjoyed—getting permits to use roads, getting the mayor's office and the police on board. I believe we are doing a good thing with a bicycle race—it’s a good thing for the community. Bicycles bring people together, instead of cars, malls and Burger Kings. It’s different and positive and pretty. I was made an honorary citizen of West Virginia for that, right after Garth Brooks.
I remember hosting the press conference for the New York City Cycling Championship race the year Lance raced it. The room was full of reporters. Lance answers his questions, and then I announce we have Ivan Dominguez, the winner. I turn around and the room is empty. They all walked out, save JP Partland and like one other guy. This is the problem when the sport is reduced to the face of one hero. I would never diminish what he accomplished or how many people he brought in to the sport, but he became a bigger story than the sport and it was hard to convert the attention to cycling.
At first, like a lot of people I felt Michael Ball was doing everything wrong. Then I saw an interview with him on Velonews, and I said, wait a minute—there's something more here. I went to California to meet Michael—I wanted to get him involved in the Harlem race. My wife is a Blue Chip fashionista, so I’ve been around that world for twelve years and I know how to deal with them. The problem is he has been dealing with people who don’t get what he is about at all. I understand his world a bit better than maybe some of the cycling world does, how much image counts. Fashion people live on the edge, that’s just what they do. I believe he is an incredibly big-hearted person, and he loves this sport.
One thing is for sure: If you don’t go to the Harlem race you are going to wish you had. There are some surprises in store. Harlem is New York ’s race—it’s a perfect race course, it’s photogenic, and I believe we can build a much bigger audience. We made the races shorter with more primes, and we have a Jumbotron. The big thing is the NYC Sport Commission and the DOT signed on, and they will be attending along with many other civic leaders and local celebrities. It will be broadcast on WCSN TV and on WCSN.com. You can see yourself on TV and online when you go home. It will be a shame if you are a woman a Cat 3 or a Master and miss that opportunity to really race in a show. A real show.