Gene Dixon is founder and Event Director of Athens Twilight Criterium, a weekend of bicycle races and events held annually in downtown Athens, GA since 1980. The main pro event, which draws top national and international cyclists, takes place in the evening and is one of the first of its kind in the US.
Gene has worked hard over the years to grow the Twilight brand, and through his company, Swagger, he has developed a national criterium series called USA Crits, and also helps numerous cities nationwide organize their own bike races, in spots like Boise, Idaho and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Early on, Gene identified that cycling in America was not being presented in a way that took advantage of its potential. In Europe cities host races at night, and design it to be a fun event for spectators. When starting to plan Twilight In the late 1970s, downtown Athens was a ghost town. Everything had moved to the mall: there was one restaurant downtown, and maybe two bars. Gene saw an evening bike race as a means to help revitalize the downtown neighborhood.
Despite running an organization that prides itself on being casual, Gene clearly has a knack for seeing the big picture as well as the moving parts. He considers his main skill set to be figuring “how to get people on and off the streets in a hurry,” a critical logistical demand for doing what Swagger does, particularly in big cities like Atlanta.
Another of Gene’s strengths is the ability to organize something worth attending, even for those who aren’t big racing fans. Cities really value this, because they have invested a great deal of money in revitalizing downtowns, but no one’s there to see it. A nighttime bike race enables cities to showcase their towns to huge audiences, and local businesses benefit.
A Backwards Business Model
A key challenge to running Twilight and other road races is the infrequency of the event; it’s one and done annually: “You do it once, and if it doesn’t work, you’re screwed. Fortunately, we’ve made every mistake in the book.”
Asked about those mistakes, he describes the humor in the hindsight. He helped organize a race in downtown Austin, TX, between 5th and 6th St. when Lance was in his prime, cycling was big, and this was a major event. But rapper Ice-T had a concert adjacent to the race, so the entire area was mobbed between the two events. Gene and his staff ended up needing a mounted police escort to get out of downtown, which was memorable, at the least.
Gene also recalls a seven-story crane that they found on their finish line in Atlanta, the day of the race. The city apparently hadn’t gotten the permits. “What’s easier to move, a finish line or a crane?”
It’s amazing and inspiring how the Twilight events have ended up helping change people’s lives, and that’s great for me, too. I have all of these old friends in high places in the industry, so I try and keep up — of course that also helps out with our ability to keep finding sponsors!
Through the years of running the Twilight event, it’s been amazing for Gene to see how the network of those involved has grown and seen success, even indirectly. Gene calls them “Twilight Babies,” but admits that he likely needs a better name.
Micah Rice was involved early on, and he now runs a refugee center and is the national events director for USA Cycling. Years ago, Chris Pic’s dad owned a French restaurant in downtown Athens. Chris would stand in the window and watch the Twilight races as a kid, and ended up a world champion racer. Nate Field, an old friend of Gene’s involved in Twilight, is now the road manager for Maddux cycling, which is a big deal.