On a quiet Sunday evening in downtown Oakland, at steady intervals, a buzz would fill the air. Suddenly a swarm of shaven-legged bicycle racers would scream by the corner of 9th and Harrison at 30 miles per hour. This was the Oakland Grand Prix, the city’s only bicycle race, complete with a pro category. Admission: free.
Sunday was the Oakland Grand Prix’s 11th edition. But the downtown course’s history dates back to 1979 and 1980, when it was used in the Perrier Classic. The sparkling water company used the race as a promotional tool, putting on nine days of back-to-back racing throughout the greater Bay Area. The race featured some of America’s greatest cyclists, like three-time Tour de France champion, Greg Lemond. Even by past standards, the race remains vibrant despite a shoestring budget and being run by only a couple dozen volunteers.
The race lacks a big sponsor, the crowds are smaller, and so are the fields. Robert Leibold, who organizes the race via his company, Velopromo LLC, said that for this year’s edition, “We’ve partnered with the Love Our Lake Festival.” But he noted that many downtown restaurants were shuttered over the weekend. “There are a few open—they’ve opened specifically for the race. Most of them are only business day places, so their crews work Monday through Friday from 9 am to 4 pm and then they’re closed,” he said. “If we could show them several thousand people down here [to watch the race], they’d more than probably open.”
But, he continued, “I am a race organizer by trade, not a race sponsor-getter. Not a marketer.”
The small $500 prizelist, which usually breaks down to $50 for the winner and a t-shirt, did not dampen the racers’ gusto. They ripped around the mile-long course—a short lap by road racing standards. But this was the rough-and-tumble nature of the race’s criterium format, which consists of roughly an hour of high speed racing around a city center. “It can go a million different ways. One wrong move and your race is over,” said the men’s race winner, Willie Myers. “But it happens. There were probably six or seven crashes in the race.”
Dean Abt, a member of the local racing club, Team Oakland, stood at the corner of Franklin and 22nd Street. He was a corner marshal for the day, clearing traffic and pedestrians from the treacherous hairpin turn, where a few diners at Umami Burger sat beneath umbrellas sipping iced coffee and casually watching the kaleidoscope of riders pass by. “I make sure no one walks in front of the race and make sure there is no debris the racers could slip on,” Abt said.
“Is this a Tour de France race or something?” yelled a man with tidy braids who happened upon the scene. The screech of brakes echoed over the tarmac as the racers set up for the corner and flew through, disappearing into the shadows of 22nd Street.
“A lot of people don’t know it’s going on,” Abt said. “There’s not a lot of marketing and promotion for the race. It’s grassroots.”
Oakland Police Department officer Kris Razmilovic, a former bike racer himself, monitored the corner of Harrison and Thomas L. Berkley Way. He said he did not even know about the race until he was asked if he wanted to work it during his day off. “This type of thing would be a total draw. You’ve got to advertise it right,” he said. Again, the racers whipped by the corner framed by the momentary backdrop of Lake Merritt.
Smiling riders chatted after the race, which ended in a thrilling neck-and-neck sprint between Willie Myers of Herbalife 24 p/b Marc Pro-Strava, professional James Laberge from Champion Systems p/b No-Tubes, and Garrett Hankins of Team Mike’s Bikes. Myers prevailed narrowly at the line, roaring as he pounded his chest. Leibold and his Velopromo crew jetted around the course in an old van, taking down barriers and picking up cones, “I’d be happy to advertise the heck out the race and get a bunch of people down here, but it all costs money,” he said.
A sweaty and tired Roman Kilun, a longtime Oakland resident and former professional rider, said that the venue is “his favorite race of the year.” With a big-time sponsor, he said, “It could be huge.”