Presbyterian Criterium marks 10th anniversary in Charlotte

A decade after its debut, the Presbyterian Hospital Invitational Criterium has become a part of Charlotte's sports culture

It wasn’t a photo finish, but Ivan Dominguez’s win at the inaugural Presbyterian Hospital Invitational Criterium in 2004 didn’t leave the sprinter with much wiggle room at the line.

“I was on one mission only … to try to win the check,” Dominguez said of that first race in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina. “I came out of the last turn about 15 to 18 places back with Mark McCormack in front of me as my leadout rider. He took off and dropped me about nine to 10 guys back … about 200 meters from the finish.”

Dominguez, who along with McCormack was racing for the Colavita-Bolla squad, launched his sprint, but he ran into one glitch en route the finish line.

“Henk Vogels [of the Navigators] saw me coming and start moving my way to kind of slow me down with a bit of blocking,” the Cuban-born Dominguez said. “So I had to brake, then go around and start again on the sprint. I came to Gord Fraser right at the line and he [was] about two to three bikes ahead of everyone.”

Not long afterwards, Dominguez was holding up a check for one of the single biggest one-day payouts in the sport — a cool $25,000 for coming across the line in first place. The presentation took place in front of an unexpectedly large crowd.

“If we got 5,000 people we were going to satisfied,” said Thad Fischer, the race director for “Presby” throughout the event’s existence. “If we got 10,000 people downtown to see a bike race, we were going to be over the moon. And it turned out to be an August evening of about 75 degrees and we had in excess of 25,000 people.”

Fischer has been connected to the sport in almost every way imaginable throughout his career. He’s raced in 14 different countries around the world, owned bike shops in the Southeast, directed both the Nerac and Cheerwine teams, and has helped organize key events such as the Tour DuPont and the 1996 Olympic Trials. But it wasn’t until he got a call from a friend at Bank of America one day that he was given the entire reigns of a bike race.

“I went in as a much as a bike enthusiast and a citizen as anything else,” Fischer said. “I laid it all out and said I would do it big or not do it at all. Ten years ago if you put on a race with $10,000 or $20,000 in prizes, you got the best riders in the country. But I explained to them that we want the best event in the country, and we should put the prize money in there that attracts the top athletes, attracts the community, and attracts the media.”

Fischer got the check writers at Bank of America to sign off on a $125,000 purse, which he maintains was the biggest payout for a criterium the sport had ever seen. But the organizers still had to prove to the city and those inside the sport that sealing off a good portion of the downtown was worth the effort.

“We had a lot of naysayers,” Fischer said. “The blogs were full of things like, ‘Here we go again. Another guy filled with hot air.’”

That initial race did not feature a women’s event, but that was changed the following year in 2005. Fischer believes that the women’s prize purse of $50,000, the lion’s share going to winner Ina Teutenburg, is a standing record for a single-day women’s criterium. Since then, the race has seen prominent cyclists as well as serious up-and-comers on both the men’s and women’s side take top honors in Charlotte. Names like J.J. Haedo, Jonathan Cantwell, Tina Pic, and Brooke Miller have all held Presbyterian Invitational titles throughout the race’s decade-long history.

Apart from maintaining significantly high payouts, the layout of the Presby course is also fairly unique. Instead of a standard four-corner criterium, the Charlotte race is laid out like a barbell with four corners on both ends of the course. The design, which features a return lane through the start/finish area, means that fans get to see the riders twice per lap. Fischer was keen on this design as a way to make sure that fans who were new to the sport weren’t confused by any of the fast paced action normally associated with shorter criterium courses.

“I wanted a course that was long enough that there weren’t groups lapping the field so you could easily decipher who was in the lead, but not such a long lap that it was boring,” Fischer said. “The idea was to have a long straightaway out and back so you cross the largest portion of the course twice per lap, and therefore a lot more action.”

Now that the event features a spring date, the oppressive heat that sometimes plagued the race is no longer a factor. That change, along with its place on both the National Criterium Calendar and the USA CRITS Series schedule, all but ensures a top-shelf field for the Presbyterian Criterium.

Hilton Clarke, who sits atop both standings for the men, will return to Charlotte on Saturday with a powerful version of the UnitedHealthcare “Blue Train” that includes not only Luke Keough, but crit aces Karl Menzies and John Murphy. On the women’s side, Erica Allar (CARE4Cycling powered by Solomon Corp) holds the top spot over Joanie Caron (Primal Pro Women p/b BH).

Thanks to the ongoing popularity of the race and its community support, the Presbyterian Crit has helped raise over $5,000,000 for cancer research and the Brain Tumor Fund for the Carolinas. Fischer seems fairly convinced that despite the other sports that Charlotte is home to, the city has firmly embraced this event for the long term.

“The hardest thing is to get somebody to a criterium, but once they go, the majority are fans for a long time,” Fischer said.

To this day, rumors persist that Dominguez was so excited by his win that he actually flew home from Charlotte with the huge paper check he was presented in front of the crowd.

“No, I don’t have the paper check with me, that check is in one of my friends’ houses back in Charlotte,” Dominguez said, laughing. “He sent me a picture of it to my Facebook account … and I told him, ‘Lets go to the bank right now and cash that thing.’”