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Cycling Champ Laura Van Gilder Returns to Somerville Memorial Day to Defend Race Title

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4-time women's champion Laura Van Gilder will return to Somerville on Memorial Day to defend her title. Credits: courtesy Laura Van Gilder
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Laura Van Gilder speaks with fans following her victory in the 2017 women's race. Credits: Rod Hirsch/Tapinto file photo
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Tour of Somerville race announcer Joe Saling interviews his grandson Noah Granigan after he won the 50-mile race last year. Credits: Courtesy Ron Czajkowski
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Cyclists at the starting line on Main Street in 2017. Credits: Rod Hirsch
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Tour of Somerville race announcer Joe Saling, left, with broadcast partner Ron Czajkowski. Credits: Rod Hirsch/Tapinto file photo
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SOMERVILLE, NJ – Laura Van Gilder, 54-year-old cycling champion from Cresco, Pa., will return to defend her title at the 75th annual Tour of Somerville on Memorial Day, attempting an unprecedented fifth win in the 25-mile women's race, just one of several races that begin at 10:30 a.m..

The Kugler-Anderson Tour of Somerville, often referred to as the Kentucky Derby of Competitive Cycling, is the main attraction late in the afternoon. The 50-mile men’s event is the oldest of its kind in the USA, which each year honors the first two winners, Furman Kugler and Carl Anderson, both of whom were killed in World War II.

Van Gilder will be competing against women half her age. 

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Van Gilder has a strong following in Somerville, with supporters gathering beneath a “Go Laura” banner on High Street each year.

Though she lives across the Delaware River, the Pennsylvania native is considered a “home town” girl by many; her relationship with borough residents goes back several years, having met many of her local fans originally at her family’s restaurant in the Pocono Mountains. Each year, the circle of friends seems to grow.

“I will be returning to race, wouldn’t miss it,” she said. “I’ll certainly try to get the victory, but I’m sure many others will be hungry for it too,” she added.

The Mildred Kugler Women's Pro 25-mile race is designed for the top women competitors, and attracts a field of international cyclists. Last year, several Canadian women cyclists competed in memory of the 2016 women’s champion, Ellen Watters, who was killed in a cycling accident seven months after winning the Somerville race. The Canadians were dominant until the home stretch, when Van Gilder was able to sprint by them to cross the finish line first.

A cyclist from Denmark was the second-place finisher.

“Last year was just incredible, it was a tear jerker kind of day,” she said.

She has been racing professionally since 1992 when she was 26 years old.

“At this stage of the game I am happy to be a competitor and participant after so many years of racing, no matter what my place is at the finish,” she said.

Her previous victories in Somerville came in 1999 and again in 2002 and 2005.

“The first time I won it was amazing, I had worked hard and tried for so many years to win it,” she said. “That was special, but each time has been special.

“You figure every competitor that lines up wants to win,” she continued.”The year before last I had only one victory, so I just felt so happy that I still had enough in the tank to be a winner again; that was the first emotion - Yeeessss.

“The next thing was I’m saying ‘I can’t believe this. I’m being grateful for my teammates to deliver me and then it was ‘I cant believe it,’ that I did this again. 

“Then I’m up on the stage being interviewed by Joe Saling; for him to be a part of that day we were all kind of in tears,” Van Gilder said. “Everyone knows how difficult it is to win a race, even when you are at your best when you’re younger. For me, it was a big sigh of relief – ‘I’ve still got it’.’’

Saling, a competitive racer and the “Voice” of the Tour of Somerville the past 35 years, will again broadcast the race in real time with an assist from  local race historian and cycling enthusiast Ron Czajkowski.

Saling is one of the most decorated cyclists in the U.S., having won more than 20 national titles; his wife Dottie also competed, winning state and national titles. She also served as a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Their two daughters also competed in bike racing, along with a son-in-law and grandsons – including last year’s winner of the Kugler-Anderson 50-miler, Noah Granigan.

“I had commented before the women’s race that there was nothing I would like nothing better than to interview Laura Van Gilder as winner; well maybe there was one thing better than that,” Saling said last year, hoping that his grandson would come out on top.

“Laura came over after Noah won and said to me, ‘You got us both,’ “ Saling added.

Race weekend includes the Bound Brook Criterium on Saturday, with a new event added Sunday night to draw more spectators downtown.

Sprint Races on West Main Street will also provide an opportunity for more cyclists to earn some money, according to Saling, a resident of Bridgewater who has been associated with the Tour of Somerville and the sport of competitive cycling for more than 50 years as a competitor, coach and sponsor.

 “We’ve got some pretty classy sprinters signing up," Saling said.. "A lot of them haven’t got a chance in the the 50-mile race, but they can win a quarter-mile sprint.”

Winners of each heat will earn $45; the winning female sprinter earns $1,000; men’s winner earns $2,000.

The quarter-mile sprints will begin on West Main Street at the corner of Bridge Street at 6 p.m.  with the finish line near the United Reformed Church, the actual starting line for the longer races that will be run on Monday, May 28.

There will be several dozen sprints, as the field gets whittled down after each sprint until the final 4-5 racers who will compete in the final, according to Saling.

Monday is the Tour of Somerville, with several exhibition and junior races beginning at 10:30 a.m. leading up to the Kugler-Anderson Memorial.  The men’s and women’s races each offer a purse of $10,000 to the winners.

Monday’s races will head east down West Main Street from the starting line, turning left onto South Bridge Street for one block, turning left again on to East High Street and turning left again on to Mountain Avenue, before making another left on to West End Avenue, connecting with West Main Street, a roughly 1.25-mile course.

Tens of thousands of people from all over the nation and the world converge on the tree-lined streets of Somerville to cheer the cyclists as they speed up to 40 mph past Victorian-era homes and Main Street storefronts downtown.

The Somerville Memorial Day Parade precedes the race activities, ending with ceremonies at the historic “New Cemetery” on South Bridge Street, which commemorated its 150th anniversary  in 2017. More than 2,000 veterans from as far back as the Civil War are buried at the New Cemetery. 

The race weekend begins Thursday evening, May 25 with The Legal Runaround, a 5K walk-run event in downtown Somerville.

Following is a list of scheduled activities from the website. For more details, check the website at  www.tourofsomerville.org.

Unity Bank Children’s Activities Sponsored by Unity Bank, children can enjoy entertainment, face painting and other fun activities.

 Kid’s Festival Center Bring your youngster (and their bike) for an opportunity to test their bike handling skills through our cycling obstacle course. Every kid gets a free bike and helmet check.

 Cyclist Race Center Support the top cyclists in the country as they prepare for their race. See top of line racing bikes as pro teams show how world class athletes get ready and warm up.

 Bike Swap Flea Market Got an extra bike or parts you don’t need? Here’s your chance to turn it into some cash. Check out our swap meet devoted to cycling. Bike shops are invited as are local bike clubs.

 Division Street Music Enjoy local entertainment all afternoon, performed by acoustic groups and entertainers. Supported by local restaurants, sit at one of our tables to grab a snack or lunch.

Sports Activity Center Sport demonstrations from local youth organizations, college teams, and pro sports. Watch, learn, and participate as coaches explain how to join in the fun.

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