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Rahsaan Bahati remembers the Carson Cowboys. He was a young boy in Southern California and his fondness for the local team transitioned for the former national criterium champion into becoming a fan of the Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League.
Bahati is now age 39 and he relates his appreciation for teams named after cowboys with players’ names and specific colors on their uniforms to men’s professional criterium racing.
It’s not the first time pro cyclists have raced representing teams associated with individual cities. But the newest iteration debuted Saturday night at the Into The Lion’s Den criterium in downtown Sacramento.
Also read: Bobby & Jens podcast — Rahsaan Bahati
Sixteen men’s teams, with names ranging from L39ION of Los Angeles to the Austin Outlaws, competed in the conclusion of a full day of community activities, amateur racing, and the featured men’s and women’s pro racing.
Event promoters equate the city/team concept to mainstream stick-and-ball sports. Athletes in baseball, basketball, and football compete for city or regional teams bearing nicknames. Competitors’ uniforms—cycling jerseys—include large numbers and the athletes’ names. It’s geared toward television viewers.
“It’s relatable; that’s why have to the jerseys with the numbers,” said Bahati, the retired pro cyclist who worked as one of the race’s announcers. “You may not know the teams. You may not know the numbers. But you may identify with your lucky number, which could be seven. Whatever team is wearing No. 7, you may like them. There’s a connection there between cities, numbers, colors.”
With a purse of $100,000 — touted as the largest in the sport for criterium racing and divided evenly between men and women — the two pro divisions each raced for approximately 75 minutes on a 1.09-mile circuit across the street from the California state capitol. Five primes — ranging from $1,000 to $4,000 — were available in both races as part of the six-figure payout.
The pro women competed for their respective trade teams; the male competitors rode with jerseys bearing large numbers and their names, representing city teams.
“The way it can be sustainable is to have big corporate backers like you see here today,” said Bahati. “And also the support of the cycling community. Without it, you can’t have an event. This is a good litmus test, for the most part, to show what can be done.”
“I am a big believer in taking this to the people in the city. Let’s take this model and put it in the inner city of LA, Chicago, New York, and everywhere and then we will thrive.”
The Into The Lion’s Den was also largely a coming-out party for L39ION of Los Angeles. The UCI Continental team was founded in 2019 by brothers Justin and Cory Williams with heady goals.
According to its mission statement, the organization’s goal is “To advance the sport of cycling, eliminate boundaries, and promote diversity, representation, and inclusion.”
“The team is devoted to using its platform to give back to younger generations and showcase criterium racing in a way where athletes can make a good living competing at home in the U.S.”
The National Cycling League attempted a similar city-based format two decades ago. It failed, primarily because of inconsistent organization and limited funding. The Into The Lion’s Den events were presented with funds secured by its founders, including support from Zwift.
The event was heavily supported by the team’s fans who had the largest presence by several-fold from any other group or company. Four of the six pro podium finishers competed for L39ION. The team’s VIPs enjoyed catered food and an open bar across the street from the start-finish line. A modest, enthusiastic crowd watched the race.
“This journey has been an emotional roller coaster,” Justin Williams said after he won the men’s race (his team field two squads.) “Wearing so many hats was so hard to kind of get locked it.”
“It was amazing to hear how much fun the racers had. Before the race event started everyone was so excited about the atmosphere. Everybody here understands we’re here to put on a show. And how it’s going to make the future bright.”
Williams’ enthusiasm is a businessman’s requisite. Continuing his success in Sacramento and in other locations and with the required funding for 2022 remains pending.
“I think it’s a really cool idea and I think it can be the future of U.S. crit racing, for sure,” said runner-up Luke Lamperti, the 18-year-old current criterium national champion from Sebastopol, California. “If we dream big enough, it can be the next big thing.”
“It’s hard to say exactly what will happen with it. But I think it’s for sure the future. I think we kind of proved that tonight with everyone showing up and seeing what it can be.”