The Manhattan Beach Grand Prix at 50, and why Ted Ernst still matters in the world of cycling

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Staff Photo by Brad Graverson

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From a large blue-ringed binder, Ted Ernst comes upon the black-and-white mimeographed program from the first Manhattan Beach Grand Prix cycling event.

“This is the only one we know to still be in existence,” the 79-year-old says with a twinkle in his eye, carefully pulling it out of the protective plastic sleeve.

It’s just four total pages – a standard sheet of paper, with information on the front and back, folded in half.

Complete with a coffee cup stain on the top left corner.

“Somehow, we rescued this one,” he laughs.

According to a Daily Breeze story that appeared on Saturday, Sept. 1, 1962 — a younger Ernst is pictured with the race’s queen — that inaugural event was sponsored by Manhattan Beach Junior Chamber of Commerce as part of “a statewide program by the California Jaycees to help keep residents home and off the road during the three-day (Labor Day) holiday.”

Whatever it takes to get things rolling.

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It was also “authorized” by the Manhattan Beach City Council and “sanctioned” by the Amateur Bicycle League of America

“It was a legitimate, legal bike race, from that first day on,” Ernst says
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A half century later, some things may have change, but the things most important stay the same. Ernst’s vision to stay the course – literally and figuratively, on Valley Drive and Ardmore Avenue between 15th Street and Pacific Avenue – has made the difference.

When the 50th Manhattan Beach Grand Prix arrives Sunday, Ernst will take modest credit for having the vision to get it started long before a majority of the participants were even born. But everyone else knows better. His photo albums and newspaper clipping portfolio have all the history right there.

An avid cyclist who started the South Bay Wheelmen club a year before the first MBGP and was inducted five years ago into U.S. Cycling Hall of Fame in Davis, Calif., for his contributions to the sport, Ernst reflected on how this special day has become a South Bay tradition:

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QUESTION: Fifty is a big number . . .
ERNST: That is correct, very few things go on for 10 years, let alone 50 . . . so much manpower, so many dedicated people. I’m not the only spoke in the wheel. If it wasn’t for the thousands of people through the years that helped, who enjoy cycling, doing things for the community and their fellow man and women, then it doesn’t happen. You can’t lose that sense of community.

Q: What kind of dreams did you have about where this could go when you started it?
ERNST: You can dream and hope it gets bigger, but you never really think THAT big, unless you have some grandiose scheme. You just say, well, I want to try this and see how it goes . . .

Q: What kind of gameplan did you have?
ERNST: You know what, with the nice club that we had, we knew we could do it every year. That wasn’t a problem. It was just a matter of more participants coming, cycling getting more popular. It just got bigger on its own and we just never let it get too far ahead of us.

Q: Did you need prize money to get riders to come out the first time?
ERNST: No, we just had to have a race. No cash. Just trophies and some merchandise. And it was fine. The professionals didn’t really start until the ’80s. There wasn’t any professional league of any size then and they didn’t allow the professionals to ride with the amateurs at that time.

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Q: Was it harder to get kids into cycling back then when the community may have had a pull from surfing and beach volleyball going on?
ERNST: It was very difficult at that time with a lot of things happening. I think it caught on earlier when you went more inland from the beach scene — Torrance, Redondo, Lawndale. There were always X-amount of young people that just didn’t want to get into the ‘school’ sports, and cycling was there as a team and an individual sport. They could challenge themselves just like the kids do with skateboards today, practicing for hours and never stopping.

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Q: But then again, you’d see more kids on their bikes back in the ’60s and ’70s, just riding around the neighborhood. Maybe not as many kids are encouraged to ride bikes today. Not even as a means of transportation, with parents driving them places all the time.
ERNST: A bike is a big independent thing. It’s part of growing up. And you can see the better you as are a young bike rider, the more you pay attention to the rules when you get to drive a car. It’s a real case of maturing and accepting responsibility for your actions, whether you’re riding on the sidewalks or the street. There’s a real correlation between growing up and having responsibility.

Q: Some of the big races today – the Tour de France, the Amgen Tour of California – are really based on star value. Your event has been able to carry on without those kinds of trappings. You’re referred to it like a Major League Baseball team’s Triple-A division. Is that still essentially what makes it work?
ERNST: A lot of the hardcore fans want to see the big, big stars but our budget isn’t there. We always have had national champions or Olympic champions – they are stars in their own right. Many of our competitors have gone on to race in the big tours in Europe, so we do have big stars getting prepared for the super big time. The spectacle of being able to come out, sit there with a picnic lunch, watch the races, be with your family enjoying the day, everyone participating — that’ll always be what makes it work. But then, the competition is always hard, too. It’s tough. No matter what category. They’re not just going 5 mph hour and sprint to the finish. They’re going to break away and strategize and put a good effort into it.

Q: Some times, things can get so big they lose their essence and forget about what’s important. Are you comfortable with how it has progressed?
ERNST: We hope we never forget what’s important. That’s the key. It keeps you humble and your feet on the ground. We know our race is a good one, on a technical course, a tough course, that the guys who do well in our race will be good on the international level. We really are the foundation to a lot of this maturation of the cycling racing.

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Q: What about having the same course after all these years? Were there any push to maybe change it sometimes?
ERNST: The only thing you could have a two- or three-day race, a road race in the country, have a race in another part of the city and combine them for points scoring. But that takes a lot of manpower and professional management. We can manage a good one-day event, have all the profits made go toward the Lions Club charities, staying grounded, not eliminating the beginner races. You get fans who see cycling on TV and say, ‘We can just go watch it in our backyard.’ The big races go together with the smaller races. One can’t do it without the other.
We all build up to something. When you lose the community effect, it can feel cold. You only have time for one big race. You might as well go to Staples Center or the Coliseum and just watch one event. You don’t have a hometown effect anymore. And 50 years going here, we’ve kept that feel. Some may try to push it to another level, but they’re not the ones doing the work or finding the money. There’s a limit to what we can do.

Q: What challenges has the race had over the year? Any rain outs?
ERNST: One year in the ’60s we had a wet course from the rain, and we just turned the course around, so they came down the hill to the end to make it safer. In the beginning, we’d have neighbors turn their sprinklers on and get the course wet, too. That was a challenge.
Then there were the old train tracks. A train would sometimes come through the area once or twice a week, just to keep their right-of-way open. But one time, the train came through on a Sunday – during the bike race. We got the train to stop at one point, have the race come through, pull the barricades, let the train go, stop it again at 15th street near the old Metlox building, run the race, then let it go onto Redondo. It was great. We actually stopped a train! Usually, we’d have to stop for a train.

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Q: Technology has also come such a long way, not just in the construction of the bikes and helmets, but also in how people view the race. How has that all tied in?
ERNST: It’s easier to enter, see results. The new technology is really a good thing. Before it was harder to contact racers, get them interested. Now you can play tiddlywinks and have a great following. If you’re a bike racer, or a bike tourist, enjoy BMX or mountain bike or charity riding, you have access. There wasn’t any of that at the beginning for us. Nobody knew about all that stuff. We have a great website now (linked here). No streaming video yet. I’ll leave that to the younger people.
But in 10 years from now, I could see it all looking very familiar – a nice, solid event. That’s our position in the cycling panorama as it is.

Q: There’s a bike path along the beach community, linking Torrance past Santa Monica, but it didn’t get built until the 1970s. Do you think the race had an impact in getting that done?

ERNST: It helped because guys in the country beaches and the Department of Beaches, like Dick Fitzerald, were supporters. I was on the original citizens advisory committee for the path in the ’70s and a lot of proponents of the path and some city councilmen wanted to have it built. Cycling was starting to grow and the bike path was right for the South Bay. For this whole area. There wasn’t a lot of cycling around here. You had to go to Paramount or Encino to get cycling. Santa Monica had some teams and clubs, but down here there wasn’t much happening.

Q: How has the community part of this race been just as important to you as the professional element?
ERNST: We haven’t lost our enthusiasm for it. You have to figure that many of the people who raced in the kids’ races 25, 30, 40 years ago, they bring their children and grandchildren out now to participate or watch because they had great fun doing it. And it’s a nice established community program that it’s become an integral part of Manhattan Beach. That’s where it is – the kids.

Q: What’s been the most rewarding part of watching this evolve?
ERNST: It’s a reward in itself seeing this reach 50 years. It’s really cool. Fifty years. Who would have thought? It could have fallen apart, people might have grown disinterested, the community might have said, ‘Get lost and go somewhere else.’ But we must be doing a little bit something right that we’re having the city say, ‘Welcome to our back yard, welcome to our home.’

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Ted Ernst, right, during a race in Chicago in 1956.

Q: Do you think about how your legacy will be for this race?
ERNST: I’ve never really considered legacy as such, I’ve just done what I’ve done because it was part of my profession, avocation, sport, hobby and life style as it were.
At the local level, having started something that many others also thought was worthy and having them carry through and take over the promotion of a healthy sport and continue the bike race as such was a good enough reward if one wants to call it that.
On the national and international level, being elected into the United States Cycling Hall of Fame by one’s peers across the nation is an honor and reward because having success in accomplishing something deemed worthy of lasting appreciation.
That, I suppose, is legacy enough if one has that goal. But I never thought of it as a goal. It just happened.
I just grew up in cycling. My dad did, had a bike shop in 1934, I grew up doing that, and if I’m remembered for having done well for my sport, giving something back, that’s really the measure of a person’s value.

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