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Massachusetts’ Fitchburg Longsjo Classic is celebrating its 50th anniversary

By Mark Johnson

Art Longsjo was the first American to race two Olympics in one year. When he was 25, the Fitchburg, Massachusetts, native was a speed skater at the 1956 winter games in Italy and raced his bike at that year’s summer games in Australia.

Longsjo qualified for both Olympiads in an era when officials strictly enforced athletes’ amateur status. Because it might be construed as a professional version of his sport, Longsjo could not even accept payment for his town job teaching children how to ice skate. He got by working as a file clerk and with donations from Fitchburg neighbors — a tradition of community bike racing support that continues this July 2-5 with the 50th annual Fitchburg Longsjo Classic stage race.

In 1956, only three years after entering his first bike race, Longsjo also won the toughest race in North America and the longest amateur event in the world, the seven-hour, 170-mile Quebec-Montreal race.

The start of the fixie trend?

Longsjo’s training methods demolished competitors. His regime included a 180-mile fixed gear loop across the Bay State, north through New York state, across the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire then back to his central Massachusetts home. 

In the road race stage Lance went across a gap of about five minutes to the break and ended up winning the stage. — Mark McCormack on the 1992 edition

Today’s Fitchburg-Longsjo race was born of tragedy. In 1958 the rider born of Scandanavian immigrant parents was killed in an auto accident on a rainy Vermont road while returning from another Quebec-Montreal victory. Fitchburg’s mayor supported the idea of a bike race to commemorate the fabulously talented athlete. In 1960 the Fitchburg-Longsjo race was off and running. 

The four day National Racing Calendar event is predated by only one other US event, New Jersey’s Tour of Somerville (which Longsjo won in 1958).

Originally a one-day criterium around Fitchburg’s town commons, in 1991 the race expanded into a stage race with a time trial, circuit race, road race and criterium.

Star-studded history

Past winners are a heady lot: Lynne Bessette won the race from 1999 to 2002. Others to take the top step at Fitchburg include Rebecca Twigg, Jeanne Golay, Connie Carpenter, Wayne Stetina, Louis Garneau, Graeme Miller, Davis Phinney, Tyler Hamilton, Henk Vogels, Chris Horner and Lance Armstrong.

The star-studded list of winners illustrates the caliber of rider to expect at this year’s race, whose pre-registered teams include Colavita-Sutter Home, Bissell, Team Type 1, Kelly Benefit Strategy and Team ValueAct Capital. 2009 French national time trial champion, seven-time Olympian and 13-time world champion Jeanie Longo will keep things heated with her indefatigable presence the women’s race.

Asked what has kept the race going for half a century when many U.S. races are lucky to make it to half a decade, cycling historian Peter Nye says the same tireless town volunteers and supportive business community that helped Longsjo reach the Olympics in the 1950s have kept the race thriving since 1960.

Nye, whose book on American bike racing, Hearts of Lions, is the source for the Longsjo history in this article, points out that Fitchburg’s mercantile links with cycling go back to the 1800s, when the town was the home of the Iver Johnson Arms & Cycle Works, a foundry of guns and bikes, including those 19th-century superstar Marshall “Major” Taylor rode to victories on velodromes across the US and Europe.

Nye recalls racing Fitchburg as a junior in the early 1960s. The locals “treated us special, like heroes. They packed the sidewalks three or four deep all the way around the criterium course. Racers heard a wall of sound following them every lap.”

McCormack brothers are a part of the history

Plymouth, Massachusetts, native Mark McCormack first raced Fitchburg in 1985 as a 14-year old junior. He agrees with Nye that the race’s strong organizing committee, local volunteers, and supportive businesses are its lifeblood.

McCormack won the pro event as a Colavita rider in 2004 and also supported his brother Frank’s 1998 Fitchburg victory with the Team Saturn juggernaut. One of the New Englander’s most vivid Fitchburg memories is from 1992. “It was an Olympic trials event and Lance Armstrong raced. In the road race stage Lance went across a gap of about five minutes to the break and ended up winning the stage. I recall everyone being completely shocked that he make it across the gap.”

McCormack, who is as synonymous with New England bike racing as the Red Sox are with Fenway Park, says Fitchburg is central to the New England road racing scene. “Every road racer is aware of the Longsjo,” McCormack notes. “And most will have this event as a major priority for the season. It’s truly an iconic event that brings cycling together for all of New England.”

New challenges

Race director Ed Collier says one of the challenges he faces is New England weather. A brutish winter downed power lines this year and work undergrounding the lines has temporarily closed a steep access road that traditionally ends the road race stage atop the Wachusett Mountain ski area. As a result the finish for the 110-mile men’s race and 64-mile women’s race will move to the picturesque town square in Princeton.

While Collier regrets losing access to the 2,006-foot high mountain, he points out that the new finish is at the top of a wicked-steep pitch that will create a gut-busting finish sure to mash up time splits and delight spectators. Also, unlike the hard-to-access and often uncomfortably cold and windy mountain top terminus, this year’s finish, across from a quintessentially steepled New England church, will be far more accommodating to spectators of all ages and to local businesses alike.

Collier and his team of race organizers, with input from Art Longjo’s widow Terry, have put together a non-stop celebration to commemorate the race’s 50th anniversary.

A reunion will bring together 13 members of the 1970s Raleigh cycling team. With Olympic riders including John Allis, John Howard, and Dave Chauner, the Raleigh Boys were the first Americans to make their presence known in modern European pro racing when they took a stage and third and fifth overall at the 1973 Tour of Ireland. The team will be fêted along with other past Fitchburg Longsjo Champions at a July 4 banquet that is open to the public.

Additionally, the Raleigh Boys will participate in a 20-mile Champions ride (open to all) that will loop through the woods surrounding Fitchburg and conclude with two laps around the crit course on the final race Sunday. Fitchburg’s historical museum will feature a new exhibit on Iver Johnson bicycles and the town will host a downtown block party and fireworks on July 3.

Racing starts with a 8.7-mile time trial on Thursday, July 2. Friday’s stage is a 75-mile men’s and 34-mile women’s circuit race on a rolling 3.1-mile course around Fitchburg State College. Saturday’s 110-mile men’s and 64-mile women’s road race is followed by a closing day 50-mile men’s crit and 25-mile women’s crit in downtown Fitchburg. Along with the pro NRC races, there are six amateur categories for men, women, juniors and masters. Riders are expected from 35 states and at least five countries.

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