Muscle, spandex, sweat and grit — four key factors in any bike race. But a race track constructed and taken down in less than 24 hours in the middle of downtown Athens is one component that sets the Twilight Criterium apart from many of its sibling races in the Southeast.

Twilight celebrated “40 years of gears” on April 26-27 with thousands of amateur and professional cyclists, new and old to the sport, coming to town to commemorate four decades. Starting Friday night with a slow-paced Joy Ride and ending Saturday night with the rough-and-tumble criterium, attendees of all ages had the chance to participate in festivities.

The event has changed tremendously over the years. What first started as a local attempt to bring cycling into the spotlight has developed into major crowd-pleasing showcase fit for a diverse group of people.

Gene Dixon was the man with the vision. In 1980 — the first year Twilight was hosted — the founder of Twilight owned Dixon’s Bicycling Center on West Broad Street, a “cyclers dream” according to a 1987 Red & Black article. The cycling scene was small at the time, incomparable to the sport as it’s now seen throughout town. Dixon estimates there were about four dedicated riders in his circle.

“It takes a lot to understand the sport,” Dixon said. “We had a group of people in Athens that kind of took the time to figure it out.”

That first year, Twilight was born from community involvement. Linda DePascale, former owner of an advertising agency, was approached by Dixon and asked to help with sponsorships. She said it didn’t take too much convincing to get business to sign up, especially after Buddy Allen of Heyward Allen Motors agreed, someone the community considered reliable, she said.

“[Dixon] managed to paint a picture for me of an event that sounded really fun and really like something that the downtown could use,” DePascale said. “It was with that first sponsorship that we actually were able to get the first year off the ground with matching funds from other sponsors.”

The first Twilight came at the tail end of the construction of the Georgia Square Mall, which opened in 1981. An “economic drain” in downtown Athens was expected by city planners and business owners as a result, according to a 1979 Red & Black article. Both Dixon and DePascale lived it.

But Twilight was able to bring a boost back to the downtown area as businesses participated in the sponsorships and became part of the larger event. The rectangle criterium course was built on Washington, Clayton, Lumpkin and Thomas streets, where it has remained. There was no barricade — only flags lining the course set people apart from the pro-racers. Danny Clark, Australian cyclist nicknamed the “Tasmanian Rocket,” won first place in the men’s criterium. Dixon said Clark performed country music after the event.

“The town itself, this is one of its assets,” DePascale said. “It doesn’t belong to the university; it doesn’t belong to anybody but the city of Athens.”

An evolving race 

Over the years, Dixon and his team have made an effort to add more events to the two-day race and festival. A gambler race was added in 1989, a prize-focused ride open to cyclists of any skill level. An additional kids event, the tricycle race, has given the youngest riders a chance to shine. Jazz musicians made an appearance in 2001 during the Cingular Twilight Jazz Festival, a distinct choice for a town known for producing rock bands like R.E.M.

It hasn’t all been smooth riding. Athens-Clarke County issued an ordinance in 1994, only allowing restaurants, not bars, to obtain special events permits allowing them to serve alcohol in outdoor enclosed areas and banning glass alcohol containers, changing the ban on open containers previously in existence. The ordinance came in response to the 1993 Twilight event which resulted in “broken glass and garbage covering downtown streets,” according to an archived Red & Black article.

Funding has often times been frustrating, Dixon said. Twilight receives a capped amount of about $10,000 every year from the ACC hotel/motel tax. However, Dixon said the cost of city services, such as the hiring out of ACCPD officers, has only increased. Most of the funding for the event comes from sponsorships, registration and the sale of more luxury accommodations, like the VIP experience.

All the moving parts 

Regardless of how many years go by, Dixon is convinced that it's the people that make Twilight special.

From day one, Twilight has attracted cyclists from around the world. Yet the demographics of those involved have changed. Olympic medalists were more common on the course during its earlier years, such as speed skating gold medalist Eric Heiden in 1981 and cycling gold medalist winner Steve Hegg in 1985. Notorious cyclist, Lance Armstrong, raced in 2004 with Heiden returning as well.

Today, Athens doesn’t have any professional cycling teams, just individuals. Ashley Travieso, the event director for Twilight for about three years, met her husband in Athens, professional cyclist Frank Travieso. She’s been working with Twilight since 2004, when she started as an intern.

Without a serious fan-base, Dixon thinks cycling is less likely to evolve into a sport where riders can actually go professional for a living. In giving these professional cyclists a platform through Twilight, Dixon wants the event to become a springboard for people to start follow cycling, rather than just attend races for the festivities.

“You don’t want to follow bike racing. It’s just a bunch of bikes going by,” Dixon said. “You want to follow the people that are doing it.”

The criterium cycling series established in 2007 and headed by Dixon and his team, USA CRITS, has helped launch more criterium races in the U.S., gaining more traction for and attracting more riders to the sport. In the end, the trick is appealing to the right people.

“We’re really trying to focus on what makes a crit rider a crit rider,” Travieso said. “It’s not all about who can pedal their bike the fastest, it’s who can read how a race is developing and being able to take advantage of what’s happening.”

Correction: In a previous version of this article, Linda DePascale's name was incorrectly spelled upon second mention. This has since then been corrected. The Red & Black regrets these errors. 

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