While cycling isn’t what a lot of people would consider a spectator sport (football, sure, but cycling?), every spring tens of thousands of spectators show up for the Athens Twilight Criterium—a weekend packed with bikes, music, beer, and fun in the heart of Athens, Georgia. And it all started with a man, a plan, and a lifelong love of cycling and his city.
When Gene Dixon opened his bike shop on Prince Avenue in 1973 (he moved to Broad Street a few years later), Athens’ downtown was basically in shambles. Businesses had moved away and others shut down, no longer needed in a “Big Box” chain world. But Dixon saw it not for what it was but what it could be. A few years later, he came up with an idea that could breathe life back into downtown Athens, albeit an unconventional one. He’d have a bike race.
But not just any bike race. As a lifelong cyclist, Dixon could see that just another race wouldn’t be a big enough event to bring people downtown. He needed something different, a twist that people hadn’t seen yet. An idea so crazy it would have to work. He had heard of races in Europe that took place at night. It would be a lot of work to pull off, and the chance of failure was always there, but Dixon got to work developing his idea—the Athens Twilight. Thankfully, Dixon had help from all the right people.
Linda DePascale ran an Athens marketing and advertising agency, and Dixon’s bike shop was one of her clients. He talked over his idea with DePascale: yes, it would be at night, the first ever in the United States, the course would be short so spectators would see plenty of action as the cyclists made numerous loops (up to eighty), and it would be free to the public. With DePascale at his side, Dixon made plans, rallied sponsors—the first being a prominent local car dealership—and pitched his idea to the city. His idea was becoming a reality, and despite no one having ever heard of such an event before, the community of Athens showed its full support.
In 1980, at 8:30 pm, professional cyclists from around the world took to the streets of downtown Athens in the first U.S. nighttime race. The weekend included events for cyclists of all skill levels, but those who didn’t ride came to enjoy the family-friendly festivities. So much more than a race, the Athens Twilight brought the revitalization to downtown Athens Dixon had seen it so sorely needed.
In 2016, the 36th Athens Twilight took to the streets of Athens. While the highlight of the weekend is still the men’s and women’s pro Twilight Criterium, the event also hosts concerts, the Red Bull Chariot Races, amateur races, a kids’ criterium, BMX contests, and the Georgia Brewfest. But no matter what they might come for, when twilight approaches, fans flock to the streets outlining the course, cheering on a sport they might otherwise have never witnessed. Other states have followed suit with nighttime races of their own, but for Athens, a city revitalized by tires racing across the pavement, there is no other.
SEE MORE ORIGINAL TWILIGHT PHOTOS HERE