Illustrated covered the Tour of Somerville on May 26, 1980
Memorial Day wheels into Somerville, N.J. pretty much as it does in small towns across the land, with a gusto lost to big cities. Rags wave, bands play, Boy Scouts march and the fire engine gleams, a hearty endorsement of patriotism and the start of summer. But there is a difference. What will attract thousands of people to this pleasant county seat, 35 miles west of New York City, is an afternoon of bicycle races called the Tour of Somerville. There are races for boys of all ages and a 15-miler for women (right), but the focus of the day is perhaps the country's premier bike race, the 50-mile event for men. About 175 of the best riders from the U.S. and half a dozen other countries line up across Main Street, curb to curb and five rows deep. Then, at the gun, they're off—east on Main, left on Bridge, west on High, left on Mountain and back to Main—43½ laps of Somerville before one of them throws his arms into the air and Memorial Day is over for another year.
The Somerville Whirl
By Sarah Pileggi
Somerville is a quiet town of 13,300 souls, the sort of place that probably saw its best years in the closing decades of the last century, when there were trolley tracks on Main Street and lofty elms for shade in the summertime, and the solidest citizens lived in imposing houses on High Street. Now the trolleys are gone and so are many of the elms, and a number of the big houses on High Street are lawyers' offices, Somerville being a county seat and the practice of law, consequently, one of its major activities.
Until the Tour came along 40 years ago, the biggest things to happen in Somerville occurred in 1778, when George and Martha Washington spent the winter there, and in 1926, when the Hall-Mills murder case, a titillating affair involving a minister and a choir singer, was tried at the county courthouse. Therefore, when Fred (Pop) Kugler, owner of Kugler's Bike Shop on North Doughty Ave. and a retired professional bike racer himself, founded the Tour to give his bike-riding son, Furman, something to do, Somerville was more than ready.
Furman was already the national junior champion when he won the first Tour of Somerville in 1940. He also won the second Tour, and folks began to grumble. Pop Kugler, they said, was running the race solely for the benefit of his son. So in 1942 Furman didn't compete. Instead he served as trainer for Carl Anderson, a good young rider from nearby Clifton—and Anderson won. In 1943 the race was called off for the duration of World War II. Furman Kugler went into the Navy, Anderson into the Army, and before it was over, both were dead.
Nevertheless, by 1947 Pop Kugler was ready to begin again. The race was re-christened the Kugler-Anderson Memorial Tour, though no one ever calls it that, and No. 1 was permanently retired in memory of the two boys, both of whom had worn it. Pop Kugler went back to knocking on doors, just as he had before the war, single-handedly raising all the prize money for the race from the citizens and merchants of Somerville.
"It was a one-man show," says Joe Saling, who went to work for Pop Kugler when he was 15 and bought out the business when Kugler retired in 1967.
Today the prize money for the main event is $3,725, distributed among the first 15 places, plus whatever Saling, now the race announcer, can drum up during the race in primes (pronounced preems), which are prizes of cash or merchandise for the winner of a given lap.
Last year, rain and dangerously slippery conditions caused a big pileup at the corner of Main and Bridge halfway through the principal race. By the time the riders behind the spill were able to get back up to full speed, they were several hundred yards behind with no chance of catching the pack. The situation could have created a dull race had not Saling, with his microphone, leaped into the breach. Keeping the crowds informed of the jockeying for position up front, he also managed to create considerable interest, first among the spectators, then among the riders themselves, in the outcome within the second group; so much interest, in fact, that when the lead man of the second group crossed the line he threw his arms into the air in the traditional bicycle racer's gesture of triumph, just as if he had finished first.
Next Monday the population of Somerville will triple overnight. Spectators will crowd the sidewalks along Main from the curb all the way to the building walls, and on High people will be picnicking in the same places they have picnicked every year for decades. First the midgets (ages 8-11) will pass by, then the intermediates (12-14), the juniors (15-17), the women and, finally, the senior men in the 50-mile main event. They will represent the cream of the Olympic and national cycling teams of the competing countries. The women's race, 14 laps of the 1.1-mile course, will include Karen Strong of Canada, who won last year, Jackie Bradley, a former national intermediate champion, now age 16, and Sarah Docter and Beth Heiden, the speed skaters who become cyclists for the warmer half of the year. Among the men will be the 19-year-old Nevada sensation Greg LeMond, last year's junior world champion; Eric Heiden, he of the five Olympic speed-skating gold medals, who caused a sensation of his own in San Diego the other day when he came within .17 second of a berth on the Olympic cycling team after training for a week and a half; the Stetina brothers, three of them, from Indianapolis; and Danny Clark of Tasmania, who has recently been a hit in European six-day racing and is said to be in fine form. The amazing Canadian rider Jocelyn Lovell will also be on hand. In 1974 Lovell won seven of eight Canadian cycling championships, at distances of from one to 180 kilometers, the equivalent of winning everything from the 100 to the 10,000 at the AAU track and field championships.
As for the spectators, at the cost of not one penny and from the best location in the house, the sidewalks, they will be able to watch some of the world's finest athletes whirring past on their silent, delicate machines 77 separate times. Which, all things considered, surely makes Memorial Day in Somerville the greatest bargain in sport.Download PDF