As anyone involved in the sport knows all too well, bike racing can be extremely tough, and cyclists come and go as they win, lose, get injured, and wax and wane with the highs and lows of amazing greats, cheats and villains, some of the byproducts of the sport. A small jumble of riders, the hardiest of the bunch, race for years on end, decades even, and still fewer make cycling a career. It’s the rare few who can make cycling their lifetime vocation.
John Eustice falls into the last and most select of these groups. Some may know Eustice best from television: For years he was the face of America’s Tour de France coverage, appearing on ABC and ESPN and seemingly everywhere else, offering his insider’s perspective on races here and abroad. Still others of a slightly older demographic might remember Eustice from the 1970s and ’80s, when he raced in the U.S.—he was twice the U.S. pro road champion, in ’82 and ’83 — and competed for a spell in Europe with the likes of Sean Kelly, under whom he turned pro.
But for many today, especially those on the East Coast, Eustice is best known as a New Yorker, race promoter and cycling advocate. And while his racing days are well behind him, he’s used his experience to found and bolster races like the well-regarded Univest Grand Prix in Pennsylvania and this weekend’s Harlem Skyscraper Cycling Classic in Manhattan. He remains an important voice on all things cycling.
So what drives the passion? “I simply love bicycles — riding them and promoting their use,” Eustice says. “I view them as a positive force for society and believe that racing, with all of its excitement and sex appeal, is an excellent way to encourage their acceptance by the public. The six-day guys I’ve brought over for Harlem are going to race for Transportation Alternatives, a successful pedestrian and cycling advocacy group. That’s a great marriage of what would be considered opposites in cycling: the ‘dorky’ advocacy people versus the ‘evil’ racers.”
A race for Harlem
Eustice’s influence on cycling is reflected by pros and amateurs alike. Matthew Koschara, who used to ride professionally for top teams such as Shaklee and Navigators, today also lives in New York, his base from where he coaches Evelyn Stevens of HTC-Columbia and several elite amateur riders whom he watches as they compete at races like Harlem.
“I took out my first racing license in 1982, back when there was a colorful cast of characters who promoted cycling in New York City, like Pete Senia, Lou Maltese, and Al Toefield,” Koschara says. “They’ve long since passed away, but Eustice has filled the leadership vacuum with the same idiosyncratic style and flair for the dramatic, qualities that have always made New York City racing different from any of the other races I’ve attended in the U.S.”
What perhaps speaks best to Eustice’s ongoing contribution to the sport is that the races he’s helped promote have simply lasted. The Univest Grand Prix has been around for 13 years, and though he refuses to take much credit for it, the Harlem criterium has been around for 37, an event he’s been involved with in recent years.
“They’re both races that are affordable for sponsors yet deliver a major bang for the buck,” Eustice says. “What’s important is to have great racing.
“Look at Philly this year: tremendous race, and unknown riders made it so. We did the US Open of Cycling three years ago, and it was a fantastic race that equaled the TV ratings of just about any Tour stage.
“So my formula is to make certain you give great value, cater to the host community, get TV if you can, and make the races as inventive and interesting as you can,” he says. “And help the U.S. pros. They need it and deserve it.”
Those on the production side of these major events praise Eustice’s work ethic.
“John’s the man behind the scenes and the man in the spotlight,” says cycling photographer Anthony Skorochod, who’s shot races that Eustice has directed. “Every year he brings together dozens of communities and hundreds of volunteers, as he does at the Univest Grand Prix. Not many in the cycling world can accomplish this.”
Eustice calls the Harlem crit “a real jewel.” Located in a beautiful area of the city with magnificent brownstones surrounding it, the race has history, with former winners like Danny Clark and Roberto Gaggioli.
“It’s just got this super-cool Harlem vibe to it, too,” he says. “The founder, David Walker, was a real New York citizen, who loved his city and wanted a race that would excite and encourage kids to ride bicycles. Looking back, 37 years ago, before all of the childhood-obesity mania, he saw clearly that there was a problem. He wanted to get kids back on bikes and make society civil enough for kids to ride safely.”
The secret ingredients to putting on great bike races? “Speed, money, media, drama,” he says. “Make it an entertainment product. And above all, make American races. Don’t make 75-percent Tour de Frances.”
A local racer who’s helped Eustice promote the Harlem classic via social media, Christophe Jammet has worked countless hours with Eustice firsthand to get the word out about Gotham City’s great race.
“John organizes these races because he loves the soul of the sport,” Jammet says. “Races like Harlem embrace the spectacle and enjoyment of bike racing, while shying away from the negativity that has plagued it recently. That’s important.”
Another lifelong New Yorker, Ian Landau, an amateur racer and journalist, agrees. “When I think ‘American cycling’ I think first of John Eustice. It’s not easy to make a living around bike racing in the U.S., yet Eustice has had a consistent influence from his riding days on till his race promotion and commentating today. I don’t think anyone here matches the guy’s passion.”
A candid critic
But Eustice is no one’s yes man, and he’s not always impressed with the direction cycling in this country is headed, arguing that the U.S. needs its own professional circuit designed for an American audience.
“There’s this fixation on the UCI formula of racing,” he says. “We’re being turned into what’s almost a colony for the European racing industry. Our talent is being groomed for European racing and our relationship with Euro cycling is similar to what the Dominican Republic’s is to baseball: a place from which to pluck the best talent.”
As for racing in Europe, it’s a mess, he believes. For one, he says the doping issues have been poorly handled and that cycling’s been looking more like an old man’s sport lately.
“The big races are still great, but the audience is aging, and there’s little imagination in the productions, with the exception of (Giro d’Italia director) Angelo Zomegnan,” says Eustice. “I took my wife to the worlds in Varese, and she just couldn’t believe how old the spectators were.”
Drawing on a lifetime working in the sport, he figures that the North American racing industry spends about $100 million each year on European campaigning and what he calls “Euro-reproduction races” in the U.S.
“Add up the ProTour and ProConti budgets, add in Tour of California and the new Quebec ProTour races — that Steve Bauer’s team can’t ride — and you get very close to that figure. Take 10 percent of that and put it into domestic races, but properly done. You’d be surprised at what you’d get.”
As challenging as the sport can be, Eustice looks forward to continuing to try to make cycling better and is staying involved.
“What else am I going to do?” he offers with a laugh. “This could become a golden time in the sport, if we focus on developing the American circuit and stop sending all our resources overseas. I’m cautiously hopeful. And even if that doesn’t happen, I have enough going on to keep myself busy and happy.”
Still, one can’t help wonder: Having given so much of one’s life to a sport, what does it give back? “My wife calls it the bad mistress, the one that takes everything and leaves you crushed,” Eustice says. “Still, you keep coming back. But, man, when the races click, and the riders go for it, and the TV is working, there’s nothing like it.”
Daniel McMahon is editor of cyclingreporter.com, a contributor-based blog devoted to road and cyclocross racing in the New York City area.
VeloNews.com will broadcast live video of the Harlem Cycling Classic on Sunday, June 20, starting at 4 pm EST