In an increasing number of cities throughout the United States, people don't have to cross the street to see high-caliber bicycle racing. The sport comes to them in the form of a new circuit of races that cut through urban landscapes. It's fast, it's exciting, and it lets the crowd experience the thrills close up. A completely fenced-in course still puts the riders within a few feet of the spectators.
The format is generally quite different from that of a cross-country event like the world-famous Tour de France, which has just completed its annual month-long connect-the-dots trek.
In the United States, event organizers have discovered that short, multi-lap courses offer an ideal format for packaging cycling's color, excitement, and speed, with a dash of showmanship.
This is evident in the Mayors Cup series, which creates a viewing centerpiece for the sport with races in the heart of 14 major American cities.
The final race of the 1987 series was contested here to the delight of thousands of newfound cycling fans. A nonstop race announcer and upbeat energetic mood music certainly added to the festive atmosphere at the event, which kept a large pack of cyclists swooshing around Harvard Square while onlookers cheered them on.
Connie Paraskevin-Young, winner of the women's division in the Cambridge race, said about the Mayors Cup series: ``I have a really good time, it keeps me motivated. You need a fun series.''
David Pelletier, creator and organizer of the Mayors Cup series, personally chooses and designs each course for maximum speed and entertainment for the riders and the spectators.
He likes the challenge of picking ``ridiculous'' locations and making them work as race courses. He seems to delight in wading through the red tape required to locate a race in downtown areas of already congested cities.
One of the first races he organized for the Mayors Cup series was held on ritzy Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. Among the other cities on the circuit are Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Baltimore, and Dallas.
Bored by the Tour of Somerville in New Jersey, ``supposed to be the grandaddy'' of short-lap, criterium races, Pelletier, an amateur cyclist and a former audio engineer with the Rolling Stones rock band, organized a race in his hometown of Salem, Mass., in 1979. Instead of one continuous race, he planned three races, equestrian riding demonstrations between the events, and such promotional stunts as having Miss America give out the prizes.
This served as a prototype for designing the current circuit, which Pelletier describes as a ``throwback to traveling entertainment, that moves in and sets up in your downtown.''
Because the Mayors Cup series carries a total of $225,000 in prize money, the most of any American cycling event, it has been able to attract world-class cyclists. Still, amateurs race alongside the pros - and sometimes win. It is a competition of speed and strength more than tactics.
Criteriums are unlike any Olympic cycling event, and Olympians do not sweep these races, although many world-class athletes do take part.
Cambridge winner Paraskevin-Young, for example, is a former three-time world sprint champion as well as an ex-Olympic speed skater.
The overall 1987 women's winner was Henny Top, a Dutch Olympian, while the men's champion was Tom Bruznowski of Seattle, a member of the Schwinn Icy Hot Team.