More than 100 pro cyclists pedaled their lightweight bikes across 70 miles of northern Baltimore County roads, up and down hills and beside farmland and water. Then, like a herd of fast-moving, skin-tight-jersey-wearing sheep, they turned south on Falls Road until reaching the streets of downtown Baltimore for a sweltering four-lap sprint to the finish.
In all, they raced just over 120 miles of blocked-off county and city roads for roughly 4 1/2 hours Sunday. And the winner of the Maryland Cycling Classic came down to the final stretch. Mattias Skjelmose, a 22-year-old Danish pro, pulled away from three other leaders with about five miles to go and raised his arms in victory as he crossed the toasty and loud finish line on Pratt Street.
Neilson Powless, the top-ranked American in the race, finished 2 minutes, 20 seconds behind Skjelmose in second, winning a final sprint over Canadian Hugo Houle, who took third, and Latvian Toms Skujins. Skujins, Skjelmose’s teammate on Lidl-Trek, pushed the pace with a little more than two laps left, rolling through Mount Vernon, to help set up the win for Skjelmose.
“I could feel the support the whole way around the circuit, even in the countryside. It was awesome to interact with American fans.”— U.S. rider Neilson Powless
“In the end, either one of us could have won,” Skjelmose said, though he was happy he did in a festival-type atmosphere and 95-degree temperatures that felt much higher on the roads. “It’s always nice winning. This is my first time racing in the U.S. and second time being here. I was surprised by the spectators on the road. I didn’t know cycling was big in the U.S.”
Powless, a 27-year-old rising star in American cycling as the first Native American to compete in the Tour de France, said, “Once Toms got up the road, we had to chase him and Mattias got a free ride. So I knew it was going to be most likely a race for second.” Once Skjelmose made his final push, Powless, Houle and Skujins slowed to conserve energy during the final few miles and took off with just a few city blocks to go.
The scene, with fans banging barricades that bordered the final stretch normally reserved for cars, culminated the second running of this event, which for the second consecutive year marked the highest-ranked pro cycling event in the U.S. Like a traveling show, it sprouted from the fields and concrete of Baltimore over Labor Day weekend, as thousands of onlookers watched and a helicopter captured the images for a globally available broadcast.
This year’s field boasted multiple Tour de France participants, including Powless and the U.K.’s Simon Yates, who finished 11th near the front of the peloton. The competition included pro cyclists from more than 20 countries, and 16 elite teams, including five from the UCI World Tour — the top circuit in the world — a U.S. men’s national team squad, and a sponsored outfit, Human Powered Health, of which a local pro, Scott McGill of Fallston, was a part.
McGill, a 2016 Fallston High graduate, finished seventh, just under 5 minutes off the winning time. The 24-year-old rode in the top 10 with 65 miles to go as the leaders exited the challenging early climbs of the Baltimore County portion of the route, roads that McGill has ridden plenty since he started taking racing seriously when he was 17, he said. He slipped into the peloton as the race turned south toward the city but then pulled away from the middle chunk of the field late for a meaningful high result.
Today, McGill calls Europe, the hotbed of cycling, his home base. He has lived in Girona, Spain — where many non-European pro cyclists train — since January. He relished being home for a week to compete in such a high-profile event in front of extended family, friends and his dogs.
“A lot of them really have no idea what I do, racing in Europe most of the time,” said McGill, who won a stage during the 2022 Tour of Portugal. “For them to be able to see this scale of race here in Baltimore is really special.”
Another area rider, Team Skyline’s Chaz Turmon, originally of Freedom, Pennsylvania, finished 63rd, about 13 minutes back.
Last year’s inaugural Maryland Cycling Classic drew about 70,000 spectators and generated roughly $18 million in economic impact to the region, according to organizers. Chris Aronhalt, the president of Medalist Sports, the organization in charge of operating the race, said at a press conference Friday that he was expecting the scale to potentially double this year based on his industry experience running second-year events. The event added 18 new sponsors or partners this year, said Steve Brunner, the president of KOH Sports, the marketing agency for the race.
Event organizers said an estimated 80,000 people watched at various points along a route that began in Sparks at Kelly Benefits, run by Maryland Cycling Classic chairman and avid cyclist John Kelly. Riders then looped Prettyboy Reservoir, reached elevations of close to 1,000 feet, then eventually rolled down, up and down Falls Road to a sprint loop that passed through parts of Mount Vernon, Fells Point, Washington Hill, Oldtown and Greenmount, and culminated in the Inner Harbor.
From a technical perspective, the path of the race was the opposite format of a typical European pro race – which typically finishes in tough elevation rather than an all-out sprint. Riders attacked each other in waves early on in the hills, and Skjelmose led a six-rider group ahead of 12 chasers who broke away from everyone else just before getting to the city loops to set up the jockeying for final positioning.
“We came into this race with a plan to make it hard around the reservoir, and we definitely did that,” Powless said of his EF Education-EasyPost team. “We took control of the race, but there was still a long way to go. From there, there were a lot of attacks from a smaller group and it was pretty chaotic, but I was happy coming into the circuit in the front group.”
“Baltimore is really setting the example for every city in America for how you do this.”— USA Cycling CEO Brendan Quirk
Stakeholders from the city, county and state also billed the event as more than a race, as a tax-revenue driver on a holiday weekend downtown and a marketing opportunity for the region (thus the helicopter views for the television broadcast), but as a vehicle for youth development in the city and a “gift to American cycling and global cycling,” USA Cycling CEO Brendan Quirk said.
On Thursday, organizers hosted a bike giveaway for a third-grade class at William Paca Elementary School and a welcome reception at the Reginald Lewis Museum to celebrate the achievements of African Americans in cycling. Friday featured a community bike ride at Patterson Park led by event ambassadors and Mayor Brandon Scott. A charity ride on Saturday raised about $200,000 for title sponsor United HealthCare Children’s Fund.
“Baltimore is really setting the example for every city in America for how you do this. It’s through a public-private partnership,” Quirk said. “It’s through the incredible participation of police, fire, all the city services here. You guys have written a playbook.”
Terry Hasseltine, executive director of the Maryland Sports Commission, said at a June meeting of the Maryland Stadium Authority that he was having negotiations with the UCI and USA Cycling about expanding the event.
“We’re looking at a long-term partnership with the city and county to ensure that the event is anchored in the central region and then adding dates on to expand the race throughout other parts of the state,” Hasseltine said.
It will be back, finishing in Baltimore, Stadium Authority administrator Graham Whaples said after Sunday’s race. For their part, cyclists who spoke publicly about the race this weekend seemed in favor of a return to the area, too. “It seems the whole U.S. cycling scene has suddenly come to Maryland,” Skujins said.
“This race fits really well on the cycling calendar,” Powless said Friday, ahead of two UCI World Tour races in Canada later in the month, and the early climbs presented a good challenge. “It’s a good way to prep for other races … and show yourself in the biggest bike race in America, which is incredible to have.”
After the race on Sunday, he said he loved the environment. “I could feel the support the whole way around the circuit, even in the countryside,” Powless said. “It was awesome to interact with American fans.”
Said Yates, who finished fourth in the Tour de France: “I would never have expected it to be so, so beautiful out there. Rolling hills that I’ve never even heard of.” Once he and everyone else got past those, they sprinted downtown to the finish.
Corey McLaughlin is a veteran writer and editor who has covered sports in Baltimore for a decade, including for Baltimore magazine, USA Lacrosse Magazine and several other publications.