Bikers compete in the Women’s Pro-am race. Photo: Seth Manus. Photos by Seth Manus

Speed, Thrills and Community Spirit: Inside Athens’ Twilight Criterium

As the sun slips behind rooftops, cyclists perform their last-minute rituals: checking tire pressures, securing shoe cleats and giving a tight-lipped camaraderie to their competitors.
Golden rays, now soft and hazy, bask the streets of Athens in a warm glow, shimmering lightly off the chrome details of lined-up bicycles. A loudspeaker crackles to life, cutting through the anticipation and bringing the start of the race closer.
Up-close shot of racers’ tires moments before the start of the race. (Photo/Seth Manus)

“Hey Athens, I don’t think we heard you. ARE YOU READY?”

The streets erupt with excitement as bikers grip their handlebars tighter.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are going in 3…2…1…”

And they’re off.

The Build-Up

Athens Twilight Criterium is an annual bike race that started in 1980. Founded by Gene Dixon, the tradition attracts cyclists from all around the world.

While the main event is Saturday evening, there are activities throughout the whole weekend. There’s always something to watch: live music, a 5K run, kids’ races and BMX tricks. Local businesses sell wristbands that allow patrons to sit outside and consume alcohol within the designated Twilight Criterium beer gardens.

Presented by Michelob ULTRA and benefiting Community Rocks, the event takes place during the last weekend of April (April 26-27, 2024) and is the first stop of the USA CRITS series.

A criterium is a bike race consisting of several laps around a closed circuit. The race begins and ends on Washington Street and includes the women’s pro-am criterium (40K) and the men’s pro-am criterium (80K). The race features a purse of $120,000 for the women’s and men’s fields, and the main criterium offers a cash prize of more than $10,000.

Starting at 8 a.m., Saturday was kicked off with a 5K run, with events following each hour throughout the day. At 1 p.m., patrons gathered to watch BMX tricks put on by the Athens Skatepark Project. BMX, an abbreviation for bicycle motocross, is a cycle sport performed either in competitive BMX racing or freestyle. People of all ages came to watch as skaters and bicyclists showcased their talents.

BMX riders jump over sitting patrons and involve the crowd. (Photo/Seth Manus)

Racers will travel from all over the nation to get in on the action.

Guy Preston, from Jacksonville Beach, Flordia, said Twilight was just one of the races that he and his friends had completed this week.

“We’ve raced for several years now. We’re doing ‘USA Speed Week’ which starts in Greenville, runs through Spartanburg and now we’re here in Athens,” he said.

Preston said Twilight is one of “the top races in the United States” and is leaving the weekend with a first-place trophy for the 60s age group in the Masters 40+ (Cat 1-4).

Throughout Saturday, cheery faces navigate the streets of Athens as they secure the best spot for optimal viewing. As some choose to be front and center, others prefer an aerial view, sitting and watching from their apartment windows.

Students watch the events of Saturday from the Fred Building. (Photo/Seth Manus)

“That kid is killing it,” a bystander yells as the racers fly past.

Hunter Dempsey, a 14-year-old from Cary, North Carolina, wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way of competing in the men’s cat ⅘. Despite an oozing gash on his right shin, Dempsey has been racing for four years and plans to come back in the future.

“The first day, on the first lap of the second turn, I tested the speed limit and tried to separate from the group like I always do and fell,” he said. “But I got back up, took a piss, took a free lap and ended up placing third.”

Dempsey was only 13 years old when he raced in the Twilight weekend last year for the first time.

“My dad got me into it, and I’ve just always loved it,” he said.

Not only is this an enjoyable event for racers, but locals and students come together as the streets of Athens essentially turn into a block party.

Drew Dollar, a senior at the University of Georgia, was excited to attend Twilight for the first time.

“The vibes are exceeding what I ever could’ve imagined,” he said. “It’s really cool to see everyone out here enjoying something together.”

Patrons gather to watch the women’s pro-am race. (Photo/Seth Manus)

A Different Opinion

Two years ago, the festival was moved farther down Washington Street to accommodate the construction on Clayton Street. Hank Sewell, the manager of Paloma Park, made a deal with the organizers of Twilight that he would sponsor the event and supply free food for racers if they didn’t put food trucks and beer gardens outside of the restaurant.

“Come the race, food trucks and beer gardens, right outside of Paloma,” Sewell said. “They did not uphold their end of the bargain at all.”

“It’s great when Athens does open containers,” he said, but to make the event more effective, Sewell recommends that “organization, communication and consistency are three easy things for them to work on.”

Overall, Sewell is a fan of festivals in Athens.

“I love having something like this, but it doesn’t seem like anything gets fixed,” he said. “It looks like they fumble their way through it every year.”

The Main Event

As nightfall approached, viewers secured their spots as the countdown to the women’s pro-am criterium grew closer. With the wave of a flag, the women cyclists took off, starting the 40-kilometer race as rock music and strobe lights lit up downtown.

Waving the flag to signify the start of the Women’s Pro-am (40K). (Photo/Seth Manus)

The women took off racing the four-corner, 1K course. It was neck and neck up until the end, but Alexis Magner, who took home gold in the women’s pro criterium last year, crossed the finish line with her arms up, feeling nothing less than triumphant. 

Alexis Magner crosses the finish line in the Women’s Pro-am (40K). (Photo/Seth Manus)

After Magner secured her victory, it was time for the men’s pro-am (80K) to begin. To survive the 80 laps, riders must get through their first lap unscathed and in the perfect position to pass their competition.

This seemed to be no problem for Tom Gibbons, who broke away from the main field with 52 laps remaining. With 47 laps to go, Gibbons had a 26-second lead. One-rider’s crash broke up a four-rider breakaway with 30 laps remaining, allowing the main field to catch up.

Despite the setback, Gibbons was first to cross the finish line, shrugging as he secured the first-place prize in the men’s pro-am (80K). The crowd erupted with cheer as he was quickly covered in beer and congratulations.

Tom Gibbons crosses the finish line for the Men’s Pro-am (80K). (Photo/Seth Manus)
Amid the festive chaos, unity swarmed the air, binding everyone in a singular, pulsating moment.
Athens Twilight is more than a contest of speed and endurance; it’s a celebration of community spirit, and for Magner and Gibbons, a night they will never forget.
Alexis Magner on the winning podium of Athens Twilight. (Photo/Seth Manus)
Tom Gibbons on the winning podium of Athens Twilight. (Photo/Seth Manus)

Kate Moore is a senior journalism student at the University of Georgia.

 

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  • LaRue Manus

    When I told him the picture of the Stars and Stripes jersey could be a cover photo, I had no idea this was in the works. Thank you for showcasing Seth’s photos!

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