Athens Twilight Criterium has been a local institution since 1980, where audiences reaching 40K come out for a weekend of downtown bicycle races and events. This year’s event on April 24-25 is the 35th race in the criterium’s history, which brings in top professional cyclists from around the world.
To mark this impressive milestone, we thought we’d share the story of how a few locals got together to organize the first Twilight 35 years ago. Though many people have supported Twilight over the years, it was Gene Dixon, Linda DePascale, and Buddy Allen who teamed up to make the vision a reality.
Revitalization on the Mind
Gene Dixon has biked all his life. In high school, he biked to school just ahead of a wave of popularity in road cycling. At one point he was among almost two thousand students regularly biking to his school. All that commuting got him in great shape, and led to a lifelong passion for cycling.
After graduating from UGA, Dixon opened up the first bicycle shop in Athens in 1973. His first location was on Prince Ave, before moving to Broad St in the late ‘70s. From this vantage point, it was easy to see the desolation of downtown Athens after major businesses pulled up their stakes and moved to the new Georgia Square Mall. Although it may be difficult to believe now, downtown Athens was basically a ghost town at the time. According to Gene, there was maybe one restaurant and a couple of bars.
A Grand Vision
Dixon saw a critical need for a downtown revitalization, and envisioned a bike race that would bring people back to the city center for a family-friendly free event that would support local downtown businesses. While he had a clear picture of just what that event might be, he knew it would take a lot of work to make it a reality.
Dixon identified early on that cycling in America was not being presented in a way that took advantage of its potential. In Europe they were doing races at night, and they made it more of a fun event for the spectators. Dixon recognized the potential for something special.
He had a great idea for a night — or Twilight — bicycle race, but he knew he’d need funding and organizational support. He knew a lot of the racers through his work in the biking industry, but it was going to take a lot more than just getting cyclists to show up.
Fortunately, his bike shop was a client of a local advertising agency run by Linda DePascale, who was often instrumental in connecting people in the community. He reached out to Linda and shared his vision for an event the likes of which hadn’t yet been attempted in the United States.
Connecting the Dots
Linda DePascale’s marketing agency had a number of local clients in the late 1970s, including Gene Dixon’s bicycle shop and Buddy Allen of Heyward Allen Toyota.
Allen was influential at the Athens Chamber of Commerce, and he and DePascale, one of the few women to own a business in Athens at the time, joined efforts to open the Chamber to bids from women-owned businesses like hers and others to come. Through her work, DePascale connected with Gene Dixon, who requested her help promoting his bike shop.
Though highly creative and by all accounts an impressive out-of-the-box thinker, DePascale credits her success to “connecting the dots that others don’t necessarily see.” That’s why she knew just what to do when Dixon approached her with his grand vision for Twilight.
Making the Pitch
From her work with Heyward Allen Toyota, DePascale knew that Allen valued innovation, creativity, and a leg up on competitors. He had taken over the car dealership from his father, and was always on the lookout for creative ways to develop the business.
DePascale saw Dixon’s criterium as an opportunity to promote Heyward Allen Toyota through an event that had never been done anywhere in the U.S.
Linda recalls, “I tried to explain it as best I could. Fortunately, Buddy saw the vision and was brave enough to give us a chance. He signed on, and Heyward Allen Toyota became our anchor sponsor, giving us credibility and paving the way for more sponsors to fund the free event.”
Allen remembers it well. He liked the idea; thought it was unique. There were no evening races at the time, and it just so happened that they were the first sponsor. Though they weren’t ultimately the biggest sponsor, Allen admits that their early involvement likely helped build some momentum.
Challenges and Success
DePascale recalls the first challenge she and Dixon faced: was a night race in downtown Athens even possible? They knew it was technically feasible, but whether or not it would work in Athens was a different story.
Ultimately, DePascale organized a comprehensive campaign of radio, billboards, TV, and anything else they could think of to help spread the word. They also got early support from the city, who in Gene’s words “thankfully embraced the idea.”
The team ended up with a great, family-friendly event the first year, complete with races for all skill levels. Most impressively, at 8:30 PM that first year, the team watched the first ever U.S. nighttime ‘Category 1’ race, with the top 200 professional racers from around the world vying for top prize.
For Buddy Allen, whose early investment helped make the event possible, it was a clear success. He says that it was a good sponsorship for them, and was happy when Gene went the extra mile of making one of their autos the pace car for the race. That was a nice added touch and a novel way for them to get the brand into the community with an actual product in a big way.
Asked if he and the Heyward Allen team had perks from being the anchor sponsor of the very first Twilight, Buddy smiles: “We had good tickets.”
Twilight Continues to Build Community Connections
Asked about how far Twilight has come, and of the challenges he’s faced to keep the dream alive, Dixon is quick to note how the true rewards come in seeing how Twilight has had a positive impact on others over the years. He calls them “Twilight Babies.”
Although he admits the name may need a little work, the results are impressive. In one example, he talks about how as a kid in his dad’s downtown restaurant window, Chris Pic would stand in the window and watch the Twilight races as a kid, and he ended up a world champion racer. Gene Dixon says that it’s amazing and inspiring how the Twilight events have ended up helping change people’s lives, and that’s something which is great for him as well.
Gene Dixon, announced in October 2010 the formation of the Athens Twilight Foundation. The foundation is a newly seated, 20 person board of directors whose mission is to execute the annual Twilight Criterium in downtown Athens every April. In addition, the group will plan a year-round calendar of fundraising events and support cycling and fitness initiatives.
Athens Twilight has since grown into an entire weekend of sports, music, and even a beer festival. While the focus of the event is obviously the cyclists, we believe that its heart is all about the types of strengthened community connections and relationships that made it possible in the first place.
Please join us this weekend and in the years to come to help keep this amazing local tradition going strong! Visit the Athens Twilight Criterium website for full schedules and details. We’ll see you there!
** Special thanks to Phillip Darden for these amazing Twilight race photos!