The Chevron Manhattan Beach Grand Prix puts the South Bay on the map with a local tradition for diehard cyclists.
- Written byStefan Slater
For more than a half-century, the Chevron Manhattan Beach Grand Prix (MBGP) has been an iconic part of Manhattan Beach’s cycling community. Originally founded in 1962 by Ted Ernst, the July 6 event marks the 53rd edition and is recognized as one of the longest standing single-day cycling races in the country.
Its demanding, 1.3-mile course draws hundreds of racers from around the world, and thousands of spectators also come to watch the race. The race itself is significant due to its taxing technical nature and overall longevity, but first and foremost the event is about community involvement. It features a variety of categories for all levels of USAC racers and local cyclists, both men and women, as well as a wide range of side attractions for spectators.
“It’s a great local race. I grew up in Manhattan, so I watched it growing up,” says Kevin Phillips, a local cyclist. “I started doing it when I was 14; I’ve probably raced it 15 times.”
Kevin has fond memories of the Grand Prix race, and like many local riders he views the race as a cycling “rite of passage” of sorts for South Bay cyclists.
The event—co-sponsored by the South Bay Wheelman and the South Bay Wheelmen Foundation, with Chevron serving as title sponsor—is not only a longstanding Manhattan tradition, it’s also widely recognized throughout the nation as a distinctly challenging race.
“It becomes a bit of a chess match. The bottom line is it’s a little bit of a game—a mixture of talent, skill and luck,” says Greg Leibert, president of Big Orange Cycling.
The race is a criterium-style event, which according to USA Cycling is a multi-lap race on a closed course of generally a mile or less in length. The race is brutally fast. Cyclists ride for a set distance and time (save for the pros, all of the races are approximately 50 minutes or less) and jockey for position.
Once they start clocking along at a steady pace, usually somewhere around 30 mph, the cyclists have to maintain that pace or else they won’t stand a chance of placing. “If you’re with the front, you have to go that fast or you’ll get swallowed up,” says Greg.
However, it’s trying to keep that blistering pace while also negotiating turns and avoiding collisions with other cyclists that keeps things tricky. It all requires a keen sense of balance and timing.
“It’s really dangerous,” says Greg. “I’m not interested in crashing, but there is this strange tightrope you walk between exhilaration and fear—it is really, really fun.”
The course is typically longer than the average “crit” course, and it features short straightaways and two demanding turns. “The MBGP is as long as you can be and still be a ‘crit,’” says Thomas M. Buescher, president of the South Bay Wheelmen.
Because of its length, and coupled with an increase in elevation, this race tends to be a little more complicated than most of its size. “ requires a higher degree of bike handling skills than a typical four-corner crit course,” says Thomas, who goes on to mention that the location of the course is unique as well.
Many criteriums are located in industrial settings, far removed from heavily residential zones, but the MBGP is a notable exception. Furthermore, Thomas says the race features a community aspect that further sets it apart. “If you compare it to the Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix, imagine if before the main race there were amateur races. allows amateurs to participate on the same course, on the same day, as the professional racers.”
The MBGP features a variety of skill
categories, giving cyclists of all skill levels—especially locals—a chance to compete throughout the day. It’s that aspect of involving the locals, coupled with the spectator-friendly nature of a criterium course—“The attendance is free, and you’re arms-length away from the athletes,” says Thomas—that forms the backbone of the MBGP.
In fact, it was that concept of community involvement that spurred founder, Ted Ernst, to start the race in the first place. “I come from a bicycling background,” he says.
Ted’s father and mother left Germany in 1929 and settled in Chicago. During the Great Depression his father was able to save what little income he had to open his first bike shop in 1934.
“Back then it was traditional for racing-type shops to be active in the bicycle sports, and as a result my dad sponsored races and headquartered a bike club out of his shop,” says Ted, who was 2 years old when his father opened the shop. After riding professionally as an adult, he traveled to California and opened his own shop in Manhattan Beach in 1960.
That next year, he started the South Bay Wheelmen. Following in his father’s footsteps, he started the Grand Prix in ‘62. His original intent with the MBGP was to create something that wasn’t only a competitive cycling race but also a community event for local citizens.
“The gentlemen with the city council took a chance on us. They were all very progressive, and they were looking for something with a good message,” says Ted. “It’s maintained that basic philosophy over the years.”
Ted is pleased with how the race has evolved over the years, and he’s worked hard to push additional events for spectators to help boost community involvement even further. Aside from kids races and food and cycling product vendors, last year the MBGP featured an antique bicycle show, which highlighted how the sport has progressed since the early 20th century.
He notes that technology has changed the game quite a bit since he started riding. “Even though it’s only two wheels and a frame still, all of the other technology is in the rider’s favor,” says Ted.
For Manhattan Beach cyclists, the race serves as a reminder of why they ride. The competitive aspect, for one, is thrilling, but even entering the race stands as testament to a rider’s commitment to and love for cycling—and it all starts with that simple bib number.
“As a racer, pinning on a race number is kind of an exciting process. It’s an accomplishment to say, ‘I’m licensed, I’ve trained enough, and I’m worthy of doing this,’” says Thomas.