PHILADELPHIA (VN) — Without Jerry Casale, the TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship wouldn’t exist.
Lance Armstrong wouldn’t have won a million after his attack on the Manayunk Wall in 1993. Philadelphia wouldn’t have crowned a national champion for some 20 years.
America wouldn’t have gotten its first race that was, at its best, on par with the great European single-day races.
And maybe Manayunk, the once-downtrodden Philly neighborhood through which the race has run since its inception, wouldn’t have come alive as it has. Maybe.
Jerry Casale was bigger than one bike race. And people outside the sport’s inner rings don’t even know his name. This is a story about a guy bold enough to make a bike race in America. Hell, a guy who helped make the bike race in America.
Casale died in early March, succumbing to a battle with a cancer his friends were sure he’d beat. But here, on the cobbles of Cresson Street, under the railroad, the bikes are still chattering his name. When the group smashes itself into the Manayunk Wall, that’s Casale, right there.
Hill Cycle Shop
“I met Jerry when I was 14,” Dave Chauner, the Philadelphia race’s other co-founder said. “I was riding my bike near his neck of the woods. He had a shop, called Hill City Cycling Shop.”
That wasn’t just any cycling shop. Philadelphia’s Hill Cycle opened its doors in 1929, with Casale’s father at the helm. Casale would later get into the business himself.
His shop was the spot — every city has one. The place kids gravitate toward. The shop people would rather be than work, than home, than anywhere else, really.
“Jerry just kind of picked up on that with the association with his father and the old champions of the 1930s. It was in his blood. And he was Italian. There was always that connection,” Chauner said.
Chauner stopped in for the first time after he’d broken a shifter cable.
“We were kids. He fixed our bikes. We got all excited about things,” he said.
Casale gave him his first job, working in the shop. Chauner would later go on to leave town, but he’d always come back to Hill Cycle.
The Philly Race
Years after Chauner’s cable snapped, the two found themselves at the world championships in Barcelona. It was 1984.
“We were all friends, sitting around drinking sangria and smoking cigars, saying we really need to get something going in the U.S.,” Chauner said. “We thought, ‘Well, let’s do a race in Philadelphia.’”
They picked Philly because they’d grown up here, maybe even because it was a city that needed something to get excited about. “We had no iconic event,” Chauner said of American cycling.
As it turned out, Casale had a knack for making a race happen on the technical side. He was able to marshal city administrators and police to make the route and secure it while Chauner focused on the marketing and sponsorship.
“The vision that we shared and that we drove in all of our events was to try and elevate the level of professionalism. Jerry, he was really adept at putting the staging together for those kinds of events. We just didn’t accept what was status quo,” Chauner said. “We, together, kind of figured it out, but Jerry was the guy who kind of implemented it all.”
From race one, Philly was a titan. Eric Heiden took the first running in 1985. CoreStates Financial Corp. signed on as a sponsor, a bank that, in some form of banking algorithm or another, would remain intact for 20 years. Armstrong won here in 1993. The event became the USPRO championships, meaning the top-placed American was crowned national champ. George Hincapie, Fred Rodriguez and Davis Phinney won national titles here. Sean Yates and André Greipel won the race outright.
Casale and Chauner ultimately forged the longest running and largest single-day UCI road race in America. Say what you will about Philly’s current lack of pro teams or not being the USPRO championships anymore — this race is ground floor in American cycling.
“I think we opened the door for a lot of events,” Chauner said. “I think we contributed a lot.”
Together, they made the 17-percent climb in Manayunk world famous and, depending on whom one speaks with, began a revitalization in that part of this city. To this day, fans line the climb, a teeming mass of people who on any other day might not give a damn about cycling. But on this day, the race belongs to them and they to it.
“Little did we know when we named the Manayunk Wall it would become known around the world,” Chauner has said. “If you ask anyone about the Philly race, they say, ‘Oh, the one with the Manayunk Wall?’”
Yes, that one.
’He was brutally loyal’
Casale and Chauner went on to put on UCI races in San Francisco, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and New York City, to name a few. Personally, the two had a remarkable loyalty to one another.
“Jerry was like a brother to me. We were very different. I was marketing oriented, Jerry was more down home — he was a great mentor for young people. He was a great family man. He really worked hard before he got sick,” Chauner said. “He was just like all of us. He expected a lot from people. He protected people he was close to. He protected me.”
Casale would end up working the technical aspects of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, a nod to his talents. “He would lean on me for advice, I would lean on him for advice,” Chauner said. “It was great.”
Another early promoter of cycling in America, Michael Aisner, responsible for the later editions of the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic and then the Coors Classic, lauded Casale for his loyalty — a theme amongst his friends.
“He held dearly friends. He was brutally loyal. And as the result of that, those around him were loyal back. He worked extraordinarily hard and always had a smile. And he was one of those people who truly loved the sport, and everything about it,” Aisner said.
This is the first Philly race without Casale. It looks the same on the outside, but surely it isn’t.
“Jerry was a quiet participant in this event, in that most of the focus really went to Chauner over the years. But Jerry was the real backbone around which all of it hung. When that goes away, it for sure changes,” Aisner said. “People will do their best to do what Jerry did easily. People will work hard to do what Jerry did easily. I think the city trusted him. Authorities trusted him, because he almost always delivered. The reason why this race is 28 years old is because Jerry was in it for the long haul.”
Throughout the industry, Casale is regarded as a hard worker, a loyal man who loved cycling to his core. Honestly, it’s remarkable, to hear people speak of someone so technically able and so invested in cycling.
“Jerry was like the godfather of Philadelphia cycling,” said Carl Frischkorn, who has been in involved in American cycling for years. “It’s the only long-term, longstanding event, that [American] cyclists have been able to count on.”
It was about more than racing with Casale, though. The big picture never obscured the smaller one. In other words, the bike race wasn’t bigger than a bike racer.
“I think the thing that I most loved and respected about Jerry was the way he’d adopt riders. He’d go up to them in the events and coach them and talk to them. Tell them what they were doing right, how much he cared about them,” Frischkorn said. “It really made those riders feel special.”
Philly, without Casale
“Jerry was a force. He was a friend of this town. He was a friend of almost everybody here,” Chauner said. “And you know what, for all of us, he was just a great person and we miss him very, very dearly. To imagine running this race without Jerry at our side is just something none of us can imagine.”
They will have to on Sunday.
Jerry Casale didn’t make American bike racing. But he built one hell of an American bike race.