During the winter of 1939 Somerville bike shop owner Fred “Pop” Kugler answered a plea from his son. It seems that his boy, Furman, had been winning races up and down the East Coast and wanted to strut his stuff closer to home. In an interview before his death in 1990, “Pop” recalled that “Furman wanted to sleep in his own bed for a change the night before a race, so I figured ‘why not,” let’s give people something to look at.”
The elder Kugler got the necessary licenses and sanctions from cycling officialdom but the one thing he didn’t count on was a snag from Trenton. “I wanted to call it a race,” he said some years later, but New Jersey law specified that no contest of any type for wage, purse, or prize could be held on a state highway. The dilemma was that Somerville’s Main Street was, and still is, state highway Route 28. The state motor vehicle commissioner at the time suggested if the race instead be called a “Tour” he would issue a permit. It was, he did, and it has been ever since.
For the 63rd year this Memorial Day, Monday, May 29, the national spotlight of competitive bicycle racing will focus on the tree-lined streets of Somerville’s historic borough for the 50-mile Kugler-Anderson Memorial Tour of Somerville. Known as “the Kentucky Derby of cycling,” it is the oldest, continuously run bicycle race in the country. When the starter’s pistol sends off the pack at around 2 p.m., 200 of the best professional and amateur racing cyclists will pedal 43 laps of a 1.14 mile downtown circuit at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. World-class and Olympic cyclists from as far away as California, Canada, and Europe are expected to compete, as well as the six men on the U.S. Armed Forces Team, who are jockeying to compete at the Military World Championships in the Netherlands in July.
Furman Kugler won the first Tour of Somerville in 1940 and then went on to win the national championships in Detroit that year. He repeated his dominance by winning his hometown race again in 1941. Furman sat out the 1942 event and that opened the door for one of his closest friends, Carl Anderson of Clifton, to take top honors.
The race was suspended during World War II, which ironically saw Furman killed in Okinawa and Anderson lose his life in Belgium. Renewed in 1947, the Tour was appropriately renamed “The Kugler-Anderson Memorial” and has been held every Memorial Day since. Riders from California to Germany and Australia to Russia have claimed victory in the race in which the American record for a 50-mile event has been broken no less that a dozen times.
Furman’s first 1940 win clocked in at two hours and eight minutes astride a one-speed steel bicycle with wooden rims, which is now encased in a Plexiglass monument in front of Somerville Borough Hall. For Furman’s efforts he won a new bicycle valued at $75 (today’s racing bikes can cost up to $3,000), a trophy, an oil painting, and a badminton set. This year, the racers will compete for more than $20,000 in cash prizes with a winning time likely to be less than one hour and 40 minutes. Today, up to $3,000.
Over the decades, the race has developed its own brand of cycling folklore:
— Like it does today, the first race attracted 20,000 spectators, many who leaned out second-story store windows or fire escapes or set up lawn parties to watch. Then, all were dressed in their Sunday finery.
— The perpetual trophy, still awarded, is known as “the Cromwell Cup,” donated in 1940 by the Canadian government and presented by James Cromwell, the U.S. Minister to Canada and nearby resident Doris Duke’s husband.
— Just years after losing his son to war, Pop Kugler invited four members of the Japanese national cycling team as his guests to compete in the 1953 Tour.
— In 1955, Patrick Murphy, a 21-year-old bridegroom from Ontario, Canada, took time off from a honeymoon in the States to win the race and set a new record of two hours, two minutes.
— Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour de France (a three-time winner, actually), competed at age 16 in the Tour of Somerville in 1978, and came in fourth.
— In its infancy, the race was run on a budget of $6,000, with funds raised mostly from local merchants, Today it costs more than $70,000 to orchestrate what has become a combination of a sporting event and town-long block party.
It’s likely that no one among the 20,000 people who will gather to watch the race along the start-finish line on High Street this Memorial Day knows more about its legacy than Joe Saling.
Saling, the 65-year-old Bridgewater resident and former competitor and long-time race announcer, has raced in 19 Tours, finished in the top-10 three times, won the master’s event once, and has an uncanny ability to keep the riders informed about what’s going on and spectators apprised of the finer points of bike racing strategy.
“The event is a spectacle of color, action, speed, and that unique sound of 200 cyclists racing by lap after lap at 30 miles per hour,” says Saling. “On one hand it’s my job to keep the riders informed about how much racing remains and upcoming lap prizes, and on the other hand there’s so much history and tradition that the average spectator doesn’t know about. So in that respect I become a story teller.”
Saling saw his first Tour of Somerville as a kid in 1953 when he talked his dad into taking him downtown to watch. “I remember it was pouring rain. We stood there and watched for two laps and then my dad said, ‘Do you want to grab a sandwich.’ I said sure, and that was it for the bike race. I thought they were all crazy.”
But the cycling bug bit and the next year he visited Pop Kugler’s bike shop, got an application for a racing license, and eventually eyed a bike on the wall that Pop let him “work off” by helping out in the shop. More than 50 state and 17 national championships later, Saling, a Trenton State College graduate and former teacher and sports marketing consultant, now holds court as the voice of the Tour of Somerville.
This is his advice to first-time spectators or those new to cycling: “Watch the start near the High Street start line. Then once the race begins, walk the one-mile circuit course in the opposite direction the riders are going; that way, you see them coming. Be sure to pause at the corners and appreciate the bike handling skills as the cyclists jockey for position and look for an opportunity to break away from the pack.”
As in past years, the town of Somerville itself on May 29 is a giant party. As the race careens through the borough, besides the cookouts, lawn parties, and impromptu reunions of friends not seen for years, there will be a kids pavilion with rides and animals, an extreme sports demonstration, live music, and of course, food.
“Cycling is a tremendous spectator sport,” says Saling. “It’s a great happening to watch, since nearly everyone can ride a bike and identify with what they’re seeing. There’s the color and excitement to it all that’s contagious.”
Tour of Somerville, Monday, May 29, 11:30 a.m., High Street, Somerville. The 63nd running of America’s oldest continuously run bicycle race with a full schedule of activities through the day. The tour’s five races attract over 500 participants and a crowd 20,000 to cheer them on. Free. 908-725-7223.
The race starts at 11:30 a.m. with a series of preliminary races for cyclists licensed by the United States Cycling Federation. The elite amateurs and pros pedal off at 2:30 p.m. for the 50-mile Kugler-Anderson Memorial, rain or shine. Directions: Take Route 206 north for 16 miles to the North Bridge Street exit into Somerville. Parking in and around the Post Office plaza is best. Then follow the crowds.
Ron Czajkowski is vice president of communications and members services for the New Jersey Hospital Association at 760 Alexander Road, a position he has held for 21 years. Now a resident of Franklin Township, Czajkowski watched his first Tour of Somerville race in 1957, got caught up in the spectacle, and has attended every year since. He participated just once, when he was 17, when he lasted about eight laps and then pulled out of the race under a shade tree, making sure he was as far away as possible from his high school friends who had come to watch him.