Culture

Races we love: The Longsjo Classic

Why we celebrate a great event that was first held in 1960.

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First Edition: 1960. Seventy-three editions in total

Most wins, men: Four, Curtis White

Most wins, women: Six, Ellen Noble

An unfortunate casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, the Longsjo Classic in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, officially shuttered after canceling its 2020 edition. First held in 1960, the race was the second-longest running pro race in U.S. cycling history behind the Tour of Somerville.

“After 60 years, the Foundation Board made the decision for the Longsjo race to retire, in part so that the finite local dollars required to support the race can flow to other good causes,” said Reese Brown, the event director. Organizers also cited the precipitous drop in participation numbers. In 2010 more than 1,000 cyclists participated in the event. In 2019 just 262 riders showed up.

Originally a criterium, the race expanded to a four-day stage race in 1991 after adding road, circuit, and time trial stages. At its peak the race was a proving ground for North America’s top professional road racers on their way to Europe’s big leagues. The lineup of past winners includes multiple U.S. racing greats: Connie Carpenter-Phinney, Lyne Bessette, Evelyn Stevens, and Ellen Noble all won the women’s event, while Wayne Stetina, Davis Phinney, Lance Armstrong, and Curtis White are on the list of male winners.

Alan Cote, the race director, said Fitchburg’s ideal location between major metropolitan areas made it a destination race for clubs from across the Northeast. In the 1960s and 1970s, elite riders had few options to chase big prize purses on the domestic circuit. In 1969 the Longsjo Classic awarded its winner a brand new Chevrolet.

“All of the clubs from New York City came to race it — we had the German and French sporting clubs,” Cote said. “Big races were so rare that a lot of Canadian riders came down because we’re just four hours from Montreal.”

As the United States Cycling Federation created a nationwide professional racing circuit, the Longsjo Classic became a regular stop for pro teams. The stage race provided four opportunities to win, and the race became a battleground between top domestic U.S. teams like Coors Light, LA Sheriffs, and Navigators Insurance.

And throughout its history the event served as a memorial to one of the forefathers of U.S. pro cycling. In 1956 local hero Art Longsjo became the first American to compete in the Summer and Winter Olympics in the same year; Longsjo was a talented cyclist and speedskater. Just three years later he was tragically killed in a car crash while driving home from a cycling race. In 1960 the town launched the event as a way to memorialize its fallen hero.