Tuffy takes over Chapel Hill Classic

Racers in the men’s collegiate category sweep through a corner on the Briar Chapel criterium course at the 2023 Chapel Hill Classic. Photo by Brian Hueske.

BIKE BEAT

By Michael Schwalbe
Columnist

“Move up, Mike! Move up!” my friend Bud hollered from the sidewalk. That was good advice, but fifty other cyclists had the same idea, and we were all at our limits, riding elbow to elbow through city streets fast enough to get ticketed had we not been on bikes.

On the last lap I was in the lead group of ten. On the penultimate corner before the finish, two riders crashed in front of me. I stayed upright, but avoiding the downed riders put me out of position to contest the sprint. That was my first crit, back in the day, and I couldn’t wait to do another one.

Unlike road races held out in the country, crits are held on circuit courses in urban or suburban areas. This lets spectators see the action up close, as riders navigate corners and jockey for position lap after lap. Adrenalizing sprint finishes are also common. “Crit,” by the way, is short for criterium.

The impetus for this reminiscence and lesson in bicycle racing taxonomy is the upcoming Tuffy Takeover Criterium. Formerly known as the Chapel Hill Classic, the race will take place at Briar Chapel, south of Chapel Hill, on Sunday, March 24. Riders will compete in men’s and women’s collegiate and non-collegiate categories. The first race starts at 8:00 a.m., and the last race starts at 3:30 p.m. 

Men’s collegiate racers give each other elbow room as they navigate a turn on the Briar Chapel criterium course at the 2023 Chapel Hill Classic. Photo by Brian Hueske.

But let me back up a bit and explain how Tuffy took over and got naming rights to the event.

Last year, the inaugural Chapel Hill Classic was put on by UNC-Chapel Hill Cycling—a student club, not a varsity sports team sponsored by the university. The club planned to run the event again this year, but an 80% cut in its budget made this impossible. That’s when NC State Club Cycling, sporting a far better budget, came to the rescue and took the lead organizing role. Duke Club Cycling also joined the effort.

So Tuffy—the NC State mascot who looks like a strutting wolfman in a knitted turtleneck sweater—took over, to the benefit of all. The cooperative arrangement between the three clubs is keeping bicycle road racing alive in the area. Just barely.

The co-president of UNC-Chapel Hill Cycling, Katie Aman, said that meeting costs is a huge challenge. Her counterpart at NC State Club Cycling, Cole Malinchock, said the same. Race organizers have to pay for police to control traffic and for emergency medical techs to be present. There are additional costs for insurance and permits.

Racers’ entry fees cover only part of the tab. Club budgets, in the case of the Tuffy event, pick up much of the rest, along with contributions from local sponsors. Still, no one expects to make money on the race.

Women’s collegiate national champion Katie Aman leads a group of riders on a rain-soaked course late in the day at last year’s Chapel Hill classic. Photo by Brian Hueske.

Dale Brown, owner of Cycles de Oro in Greensboro and organizer of the Carolina Cup races from 1973 to 2018, agreed that bicycle road racing in the US has suffered in the last decade because of soaring costs. He also cited “bureaucratic overreach,” alluding to the difficulty of meeting the permit requirements imposed by local governments.

One thing road racing needs, Brown said, is more sponsors willing to back the sport on a steady basis. Race promoters also need to capture the public’s attention. “You have to be able to promote it in a kind of show business way,” Brown said. The riders have to come first, he added, but pageantry is what helps draw people to an event.

Another common problem is resistance to road closures. If motorists and homeowners complain about the inconvenience, getting permits and local buy-in can be hard. The Tuffy Takeover race is happening because the folks at Briar Chapel saw things differently, thanks in large part to the efforts of Jeff Knisely.

An avid cyclist with background as a racer and race-team manager, Knisely retired to Briar Chapel about ten years ago. The active cycling scene and bike-friendly country roads drew him to the area. Last year and this year, Knisely has served as a liaison between race organizers and the Briar Chapel Community Association.

“I saw that we had a terrific venue for a criterium course,” Knisely told me. “It’s a kilometer long, with six turns and an uphill finish—all around a park. There’s lots of room for spectators and it’s easy to close off.” The Community Association was receptive. The HOA administration is always looking for events that will bring out the community, Knisely said.

How did Briar Chapel residents feel about last year’s race? “The cyclists who live here loved it,” Knisely said. “But other folks in the community—people who had no clue what bicycle racing is like—thought it was cool, too. They were excited to see how fast riders can go through the turns, and a lot of people who are into collegiate sports had flags out for the school teams they were supporting.”

In any case, Briar Chapel residents liked the race well enough to want it back this year. Knisely hopes that in the long run it might be possible to organize an omnium—a multiday event featuring a road race, a cyclocross race, a criterium, and a mountain bike race. He would like to see at least one race become an annual fixture in the community.

The Tuffy Takeover is paired with the Rogue State Road Race, also organized by NC State Club Cycling in cooperation with UNC and Duke, on March 23. The road race starts and finishes at 448 W H Jones Road in New Hill. For spectators, the easier event to watch will be the crit at Briar Chapel on March 24. Bring a cooler and folding chairs. See what bike racing is about, and give a nod to Tuffy. 


Michael Schwalbe is a retired professor of sociology and an unretired cyclist. He has lived in Chapel Hill since 1990.

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