At 3:30pm today (Seattle Standard Time -- 6:30pm in the RVA) the UCI World Championships will officially be underway on American soil for the first time in 29 long years, or two short ones if you prefer. Hosting the UCI World Cyclocross Championships in Louisville, KY in winter of 2013 was a nice warmup event to this week's action, and if the fan experience in Richmond is anything like what Louisville delivered, America will have done a lot to cement its place in the second tier of the sport's hierarchy.
It still strikes me as unbelievable that we are having this conversation, awaiting an event I never saw coming. On some level it's perfectly sensible -- mondialisation is a common buzzword in cycling as the sport strives to grow its base outside western Europe, and America contributes a fair amount in sponsors, teams, races and (for better or worse) riders. The distance to the east coast isn't insurmountable for a sport that occasionally extends to Oceania and east Asia. Lend us your festivities for a week and we will happily shower them with money and eyeballs.
Photo by Gary Newkirk, Getty Images Sport
But Richmond as a host seemed to come out of nowhere. Maybe next week when I am there in person I can find someone who can walk me through the story of how this came to pass. Richmond is not without cycling chops, as the above photo of George Hincapie attacking on Church Hill during the 1994 Tour DuPont attests. And in retrospect it's probably an ideal choice, compared to places further from Europe, or closer to large cities, or too far from anything, or lacking in terrain. But flashy often wins out over here, and personally if you had told me the World Championships were coming, I'd have simply asked if Boulder was ready. Or maybe Santa Barbara. Salt Lake City as a longshot. Not anywhere in the East.
Among American subregions, however, the South appears on the surface to be surging in cycling interest. Cycling has a bizarrely elitist sheen to it in this country, in contrast with pretty much everything it has stood for over its history, and the European nature of the sport and its conflict with cars -- all of this made it a poor fit for the down-home, traditionally-oriented and football-obsessed Southern states. At one time. Now that the sport is here, there and everywhere, Southerners are apparently unwilling to miss out. I don't want to pontificate on culture war stuff or the usual cars-versus-bikes thing. I'm sure people riding around Greenville, SC, even world class athletes, have stories about morons in pickup trucks. [Everyone everywhere does, outside of a few places in Europe, or maybe Beijing.]
But the American scene for world class events is finding a home in the South. The weather is warm and (maybe) sunny much of the year. Roads and venues are not hard to find, and probably more affordable than their Californian or Coloradan counterparts -- important to budget-conscious race organizations. Louisville and Cincinnati (borderline southern cities) host probably our two biggest CX events. Chattanooga and Greenville are battling for Nationals-hosting supremacy. Two of the bigger NRC events are the Joe Martin Stage Race in Fayetteville, AR and the Winston-Salem (NC) Cycling Classic. Five of the 17 events on the National Crit Calendar are in southern states, in places like Tulsa, OK and Anniston, AL. And now the World comes to Richmond, the former Confederate Capital.
Photo by me
Ultimately, hosting an event like this is about putting on a serious sporting event and a huge party -- something Southern cities know a lot about. [And other American venues too, don't get me wrong.] Louisville was a surprisingly positive experience for a lot of people who doubted that the city would embrace the event properly or that it would work for fans and athletes. Sure, weather was a massive challenge, scrambling the schedule, and causing heartburn for fans who couldn't get there until later on Saturday. But in hindsight it was very necessary, professionally handled, and kind of awesome in a way, having four races back to back with every great crosser you could think of on hand. Even the people most directly harmed -- Belgian tourists en route for a Sunday event -- couldn't complain too loudly once they found out who won. More pertinently, the event will be remembered for a great course and the loudest audience most of the racers had ever heard. American fans knew they were receiving a gift in hosting the race, and made sure to show their gratitude to the visiting powers of cycling.
Photo from https://farm4.staticflickr.com/3902/15003122595_8e548b344a.jpg
29 Years Ago...
In 1986 the Road World Championships came to Colorado Springs, a much less improbable event than Richmond 2015. The Coors Classic was at the top of its game, Greg LeMond, Andy Hampsten and the 7-Eleven boys were in full flight, and it didn't take much for teams to just stick around after Coors for a couple weeks to ride worlds in early September. The event had visited Venezuela and Montreal already, so Colorado, a stop on the trade team calendar, was a logical enough host.
The road races apparently coincided with track events... details are sketchy... but anyway there were a total of four events, all happening on the same day, including a women's race, amateur race and a team time trial. The women's event was won by Jeannie Longo of France, of course, and you can see how obvious that was in the joy shown by American Janelle Parks above in taking silver. It was as good as a win. Moreno Argentin won the men's race, and Italy and the Netherlands shared supremacy in the form of three medals.
It's hard to remember anything about that day, given the lack of media, but it seems like a relatively subdued event for one of such significance. There was a good crowd in the final km, but the weather wasn't great, Argentin isn't that memorable a champion, and the big stars like Kelly, LeMond, Hinault, Fignon and the various Coloradans riding for team USA all finished together in the group nine seconds back. Colorado Springs is a great place to design a course, but is also a small town and apart from Denver isn't especially convenient to anywhere.
And that is probably the biggest difference between then and now. I'm not in Richmond, not privy to much information you don't have and haven't followed all the proceedings enough, but I can nonetheless guarantee you this: Richmond will go down as one of the most enthusiastic hosts of any UCI championship event. By all appearances the city seems to be doing what any small city would do insofar as putting on its best face and welcoming the eyes of the entire world. Its reputation is relatively friendly and unpretentious, and will be easy to navigate for cycling fans. Back in the 1990s it turned out huge crowds for the Tour DuPont(!), so it's already got a positive track record. And most important of all, it's a manageable drive or flight away for about 150 million people. Whoever wants to go will mostly be able to, and they won't face a lot of obstacles in their way (with the usual caveats about showing up at the last second probably not being a good idea). The weather (so far) will be pleasant, even summery. The city will make people feel welcomed, fed and watered. And the tens or hundreds of thousands of fans lining the streets will roar like cycling crowds rarely do.
I can't promise the races will go off without a hitch, or that the course will deliver exciting action. I can't say whether the city will find itself overwhelmed by the size of the incoming crowds at some point -- go early, stay late. But I can say that Richmond will make cycling feel wanted in America, all week.