At the outset in 2022, few people expected the Maryland Cycling Classic to be anything more than another Sunday race on the calendar of the Union Cycliste Internationale, the governing body that oversees international competitive cycling events.
Maybe they forgot how seriously Baltimore takes its sports.
Now in its second year, the MCC has paid its dues by delivering global viewership and regional economic impact, and by earning the respect of the world’s top professional racing teams and riders.
Along the way it has also become a convincing example of how to make the sport more inclusive and equitable, and how to develop more racing opportunities in the U.S.
That’s encouraging news for anyone who misses the Tour of California, the Colorado Classic, and the Tour of Utah, professional level races that never returned after the pandemic.
Brendan Quirk, CEO of USA Cycling, the official governing body for all disciplines of competitive cycling in the U.S., said professional cycling is still a European-centric sport.
“The secret is that riders want more American racing, and Baltimore is setting the example for how you do this, through a public-private partnership and the incredible participation of city services,” Quirk said.
He added that seeing Baltimore use the race to build community and drive diversity in the sport was his single biggest take-away from last year’s race.
“The conversations I had with Ray Lewis and Milt Sharp, a board member for the Black People Ride Bikes advocacy group, really prompted me to ask some fundamental questions about whether USA Cycling was doing enough to bring down barriers to access to the sport and to the Olympic dream,” Quirk said.
Almost immediately, USAC launched its Search for Speed program in underserved Los Angeles communities, using a Wattbike at community events to measure the power output of riders aged 16 to 21 and conduct other basic tests with riders who harbor elements that could make them great track cyclists.
“We’re focusing on track for the 2028 Olympics, because that’s where 60% of the available cycling medals are,” Quirk said. “Producing track champions increases our chances of Olympic medals and improves visibility. Ultimately, the focus will filter out to road, mountain, and BMX disciplines.”
Building on success
Chris Aronhalt, president and CEO of KOM Sports, responsible for event management, termed last year’s race “the most successful first-year cycling event” of his 30 years in the cycling business.
According to Terry Hasseltine, president of the Sport & Entertainment Corp. of Maryland, which produces the race, last year’s economic impact amounted to more than $9 million in direct economic impact and $8.1 million in indirect impact for the region.
This year’s event was expected to deliver a projected $30 million in advertising equivalency and exceed $20 million in direct and indirect economic impact. Analysis to arrive at a conclusive post-event figure is still being conducted.
In terms of sponsorship, last year’s list of 24 sponsor partners grew to 36 in 2023, and the number of professional World Tour teams participating in the race increased from four to six.
American cyclist Neilson Powless, who races for EF Education-EasyPost and placed third in the inaugural race, was among those who said they were surprised at the difficulty and complexity of the course.
“This race is designed differently than the traditional European races we’re used to,” added Simon Clarke, who races for the Israel-Premier Tech professional team. “That opens up some creative racing and potential tactics. It’s not a typical race style for us.”
Danish rider Mattias Skjelmose (Lidl-Trek) won the 2023 Maryland Cycling Classic. Powless took second, ahead of Canadian Hugo Houle (Israel-Premier Tech) in third place.
From the beginning, the Maryland Cycling Classic has included high visibility brand ambassadors, including Lewis; Nelson Vails, first African American to win an Olympic cycling medal; Rahsaan Bahati, a former U.S. National Champion in criterium; Mari Holden, an Olympic silver medalist and former World Champion in time trial; and Fred Rodriguez, a four-time U.S. Professional Champion in road racing.
Its organizers have also developed an outreach program leading up to the race that targets community engagement and involvement through festivals, school visits from athletes, children’s bike giveaways, and a charity ride that raised more than $200,000 for the United Healthcare Children’s Foundation this year.
“We wanted to highlight diversity, and envisioned something that would get things going here in a meaningful way,” said John Kelly, chairman of the Maryland Cycling Classic and president of Sparks-based Kelly Benefits Strategies. “I don’t think I’ve seen this done anywhere else, but we wanted that for Baltimore.”
It’s a model, he said, that could easily be applied in other American cities.
“The future of professional cycling in America comes down to races,” Kelly said. “In the past racing hasn’t been sustainable here because it requires significant sponsorship. I think we’ve now proven that it’s possible, and that the public private partnership can deliver the economic impact that we hope will help develop this as a tradition.”