The Harlem Skyscraper Classic, aka the Harlem Crit, has the potential to be the best bike race in New York City. In fact for many years it was. Just seven or eight years ago the race was flush with sponsor cash and drawing in top domestic pros as part of the USA Crits Series.
You can get a taste of this golden era in old YouTube videos like this clip of the 2008 edition featuring professional announcing, jumbotrons in the corners and even an appearance by Tyler Hamilton. Plus the winner of the race somehow crashing out on the finish line:
A few years after that video was filmed sponsorship funds for the Harlem Skyscraper Classic dried up and John Eustice stepped aside as race director, passing that responsibility on to Charlie Issendorf. During this era the lack of significant sponsorship meant no more jumbotrons but the 40-year legacy of the Skyscraper still drew in some top tier out of town riders willing to take on NYC's best. It was during this same era that our squad stepped in to sponsor the Elite Women's field.
After the 2014 edition of the race, co-promoted by Charlie and CRCA, the race changed hands again, this time going to Richard Cox. I don't know Richard and I certainly am loathe to criticize someone willing to take on the often times thankless and very complex task of hosting a criterium in the middle of New York City. But from my perspective the cycling portion of the Skyscraper Classic has declined in quality in recent years.
The Harlem Crit has always featured its share of logistical challenges including a relatively short race day that limits the number of fields and a wide open course that lends itself to having a crashy reputation ("the Skinscraper"). But even with these challenges the race was historically able to draw in nearly 300 riders in most years. Unfortunately the last three years have been a different story at 107 riders, 189 riders and 142 (pre-registered) riders in 2015, 2016 and 2017, respectively:
To top it off the 2017 edition also faced a call for a boycott after the Women's Championship field prize money was set at half that of the Men's. Even worse - the women's prize money was cut by another $1,000 on the start line in a decision strikingly similar to the stupidity displayed by the Nutmeg Games promoter. It's this latter decision that leads me to my laptop at 7PM on a Sunday evening after a long day racing writing this missive...
It's Time To Save The Harlem Criterium
With registration trending in the wrong direction, another year with fields starting as much as an hour behind schedule, a series of unfortunate crashes that marred the 3/4 field and now controversy around gender equality I worry that Harlem is on the brink of being unsustainable as a race.
But I write this not to focus on what went wrong at Harlem this year or in years prior. Instead I am looking to the future and write this to urge Richard and the cycling community to come together to improve and hopefully save this great event for many years to come.
Going back to the potential of the race - Harlem has significantly greater community engagement than any other cycling event in New York City. Between the course-side barbecue grills, the vendors selling Italian ices and the plethora of residents coming out to cheer on the cyclists, Harlem has a local flavor that is absolutely unique. The Brompton World Championships, held as part of this year's race, made a great addition to this vibrant backdrop.
With this in mind and even with it's recent shortcomings, the cycling community will be worse off if the Harlem Criterium ceases to exist - not only will a forty year legacy of racing and community engagement be lost but on a more practical level it is nearly impossible to get new permits for street closures and Harlem is one of just two categorized races on city streets left in New York City.
So as much as I am outraged about the cutting of the women's prize pool I am going to channel that frustration into attempting to improve the race and I hope others will do so as well. If you're interested in lending a hand drop me a line and we'll reach out to the race organizer and see what we can do.
UPDATE (JUNE 21, 2017): NYSBRA has announced that the Harlem Skyscraper Cycling Classic promoter has agreed to reverse the $1,000 prize cut for the Women's field and pay out the advertised $2,500 amount. It is also our understanding that NYSBRA and USAC are going to work with the promoter to implement improvements for the 2018 edition of that Harlem Criterium. A big thank you to everyone that responded to this post by reaching out with offers of assistance.
A few film exposures from the 2013 Edition of the Harlem Skyscraper Classic:
Matthew Vandivort is a New York City based cyclist and sometimes photographer who was also a founding member of To Be Determined. You can follow him online at @photorhetoric or http://photo-rhetoric.com/