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The Richness of Richmond

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I feel a little like I'm sitting in the Seal Rock Inn, at 3am on a day shortly after the 1972 U.S. presidential election, minus the fear, loathing, talent and craziness but every bit as wrung out from an experience that may take a little time to fully absorb. No, I can't compare myself to the Good Doctor apart from being a fellow member of the human race. I'd be a fool to say more. But it's dark in our house as this post gets underway, where all the sane ones are asleep for a few more minutes or hours (depending), and the energy level has gone out of Richmond, Virginia like the MAXXIS banner at the bottom of 23rd street a few minutes after the peloton passed by for the final time (if not before every racer had cleared the course). The unsustainable momentum of glory, excitement, fun, excess, laughter and food has finally been overcome by the limits of the human body. Everyone has to recover. And I have to go.

Peter Sagan is now the World Champion, and so too is Lizzie Armitstead, Vasil Kiryienka, Linda Villumsen and a host of younger riders about whom I knew nothing before this week. America's run as host to the cycling universe is done, perhaps for my lifetime, though I'm optimistic I'll get one more go-round on home soil. The UCI honkies can check "USA" off the list of member nations allowed to briefly handle their precious jewel of a sport, but like any jewel it belongs to them only on the pages of official Swiss documents, and it will long outlive the people regarding it this way before it returns to the Earth from which it sprung.

Digesting the final event, the Men's Elite Road Race, has started as the libations begun wearing off, a few hours ago, when a flawless video stream became available at the Richmond 2015 website. I suppose it was always there, the same video a few people managed to punch up on their phones after the race passed by our post on the 23rd street barriers and zoomed back to town at an alarming rate. As Anthony McCrossan retold the story for us, it unfolded like others had in the previous two days, slowly, reluctantly, and eventually with a sudden, inevitable, colorful explosion of athletes emptying their souls on the roads of the Confederate Capital.

Am I being melodramatic? I don't think so. The primary reason we can take a single day and legitimately anoint it as the "world championship" is because the six-hour, 260km format calls upon the riders to go beyond accessing blood sugar and oxygen. To overcome the elite field at the end of a long day, you have to have that extra bit of motivation, a feeling beyond mere programming and physical response, a desire to win borne of suffering or ambition or revenge or dreams or I don't know what else.

Take Tyler Farrar, for starters. I'm a long-time fan of my fellow Washingtonian, beginning back when I could admire his results in the ways of conventional fanhood. He was a winner, and a likable one at that, on a likable team. The competition caught up with him and the subsequent years grew leaner in terms of results, but yesterday we saw a side of Farrar that told us more than we could glean in years. We saw brute strength, which maybe was there all along, just deployed to a sprinting discipline where it was no longer enough. That's certainly a story we've heard told before. Sprinting is a tough racket.

But we also saw a love of the race that I've heard Farrar express in conversation, and which isn't as evident on the road when he's usually on orders to wait and see about a sprint. Farrar was off the leash, or let himself off of it, and if it wasn't a winning move, it was a gutty one. Farrar attacked after Kanstantin Siutsou, and the two old pros looked good together for a couple minutes as they hoped for disorganization behind them. Strategically, I will be interested to discover what the thinking was. I presume it was something like Farrar didn't love his chances of holding wheels on the final few climbs, and if the attack were even moderately successful, he'd find himself in a slimmed down sprint for glory.

The Italians organized themselves behind, however, anxious to improve on a paltry pair of frustrating silver medals. Farrar and Siutsou never got much space, and the dream was over before Libby Hill, but not before the American went down in one last counter-acceleration, a doomed, defiant act of emptying every last bit of firepower reminiscent of a lone infantryman in a foxhole, surrounding by an overwhelming invading force but determined to have some of them join him in Hell. Not sure we will ever know all the forces that drive such an attack... the pride of being on home soil? The desire to drive away all the bad juju of the last four years? Or just a guy who dearly loves to race his bike, by which I mean to seek victory, and this was the only path forward?

Several other riders deserve recognition. Lars Boom died on Libby Hill, after looking all day like a man possessed on the climbs. After tracking Zdenek Stybar's vicious attack on Libby Hill, the Dutchman went looking for one more acceleration that wasn't there, and by 23rd Street he was off the back. Edvald Boasson Hagen also went after Stybar, but neither could make it stick. At the bottom of 23rd it was time for Greg Van Avermaet to try or die on the cobbles, but it was Sagan who went around him with the ease of a guy who looked like he was going to do something memorable. Of all the riders searching for a way to escape on the modestly selective features of the Richmond course, only Sagan had enough in the tank and knew exactly when to use it. Sagan turned left, lowered himself into a fearless descending pose, expanded his lead with some expert cornering, and blasted up Governor Street to out the race out of reach. He stopped wobbling just long enough to cross the line with a muted victory salute, looking like he had maybe another 25 meters of attacking power in his legs. The chasers -- Michael Matthews, Ramunas Navardauskas, Alexander Kristoff, and so on, had run out of road.

What now do we make of Sagan? As I suggested above, it's a little weird to call someone "world champion" because of one race, given how fickle the classics are, even the longest ones. But Sagan has some items on his resume which make it a bit more sensible. He looks set to win the Green Jersey at the Tour de France whenever the spirit moves him, thanks to both a top-five sprint and an ability to climb which is devastating to the hopes of his fellow points competitors. Sagan started off the business end of his career winning sprints as well, including four stages in the Tour de France, but as those boxes all got checked, his focus turned more toward the Monuments of the sport, particularly the spring ones. As his program began to officially revolve around the Tour of Flanders, the win rate slipped. This year, riding for a new team, owned by the Donald Trump of cycling, things seemed downright chaotic at times (the hallmark of a season under Tinkoff leadership), and it was right and proper to wonder whether Sagan's career had already moved past its peak -- a notion that seemed laughable only two years ago. And seems stupid as I write, reminding myself that he's still only 25 years old.

Sunday was a reminder that Sagan is still firmly in his peak years, and that they might go on for a while. His winning move was as powerful as it was masterful. The reckless descent and perfect cornering reminiscent of the guy we saw riding his bike up onto the roof of a car. The ability to finish out the attack was the product of years spent going uphill with astounding efficiency for a rider of his build, the same efficiency he used only four months ago to win the Amgen Tour of California. His instinct to get off his bike and high-five Tom Boonen and others was the same playfulness we saw all summer at the Tour, when nobody made life just behind the scenes more interesting.

Is Sagan the ideal World Champion? The naysayers will say nay, and I don't begrudge them their opinion any more than I do the women (and men) put off by his boorish behaviors not long ago. I can't look into his soul and tell you what he's riding on or whether his stepping over the line of decency reflected a lack of decency or a mere lapse. To me the evidence suggests a rider whose career can be believed and a person who is genuinely fun to have on hand. A lot of American fans see him that way and seemed to delight in his win.

To the rest, 2016 is his chance to sell himself as a World Champion cut from the sport's traditional cloth as well, one who respects the jersey just like he respected the requirements of the sport to win Sunday. After two years of seeming to be wandering in the wilderness a bit, Sagan came to North America with a single-minded purpose -- winning this race -- and I'm told everyone around him has seen his dedication to the task. Sagan was at Interbike briefly to mingle with sponsors, but not to get taken in by Las Vegas. However much he likes having fun, that brand was not compatible with his task. Obviously he stuck to his plan, given the results. Where he goes from here, I am sure he is now just beginning to contemplate, but having taken responsibility for winning the jersey, there is good reason to feel he will take responsibility for defending it.

Just a few random notes... What were the Dutch doing on the front all morning and into the early afternoon? I can't make up my mind about it. Obviously doing the work is not better than not doing the work, viewing such things in a vacuum, but if you can afford to do the work and set up your key people properly, then it's worth the cost. I guess of the big power teams the Dutch had no sprinter, and therefore had the most interest in a hard race that would come apart at the end. Boom for sure seemed incredibly eager to take his chances on the climbs, and if the predicted monsoon had materialized maybe we'd be looking at another mud-stained smile full of his pearly whites. Certainly inattentiveness would lead to Niki Terpstra heading out for one of his patented strolls. But no scenario where the Dutch wait around for nothing to happen was going to see the race fall in their laps. It didn't work, but at least they tried, and when the road narrowed and position battles took place, they were in the right spot.

Germany played things OK, with Degenkolb being in position to attack in the final climbs, or follow attacks, in the person of Stybar. But the race was too hard for Greipel, who sagged backward in the end, and though I haven't seen the entire replay I recall hearing that Tony Martin was spent on chasing breaks inside the final 40km that Germany didn't place a rider in. Italy, I think, were always just going to play for Viviani, not believing the race was hard enough to do more, or having the right rider for a classics-style conclusion. Actually they had several maybe-types, like Oss and Quinziato and Trentin, but one of them would need something truly special to overcome a star-studded field.

If Belgium had a credible threat it seemed to come in the person of Boonen. Van Avermaet was the pre-race favorite mentioned most from their roster, with Gilbert...being Gilbert. But it was Boonen, ten years removed from his own Rainbow win, who seemed like his best self, powering up 23rd Street every lap on the front, which is exactly how he sees his proper place in a cobbled race. His greeting with Sagan after the line was also vintage Tommeke, hungry for a win but not to the exclusion of being happy for others on their day. I have no idea what their relationship is; for all I know Sagan might be going out on some of those multi-team training rides around East Flanders that we all know about, through the magic of Google Street View. In the small world of any professional sport friendships often transcend teams, especially at an event like the Worlds where the national team is a temporary scrambling of trade-team relationships to begin with. Anyway, it was just very gratifying to see a great champion like Boonen smiling and hammering up the cobbles like he was shot from a torpedo tube.

***

Lastly, it's time to talk about what this experience was really about -- gathering the Cafe into meatspace. When I've gone to races, which happens all too infrequently, I've been torn between playing media professional (cough) and socializing. The former could lend itself to some more interesting posts here, and I briefly lay awake last night thinking about how, if I'd been more organized, I could have probably rounded up some interviews (would they be interesting? On the eve of a big race, maybe not.). By necessity I only briefly orbited the Proper Press world, and as the week wore on it seemed like where I belonged was with friends, on the barriers, in whatever state you call that, screaming encouragement to the peloton that never seems as close to home as it would on this day.

The week was a reminder of the wonderful friendships I've made over the decade of writing at this site. I can't count how many people I connected with, and don't want to count how many more were around and I didn't manage to connect with, but there is no question that Richmond 2015 was our biggest and most gratifying gathering in the history of the Podium Cafe. To those who made it and said a quick hello, it was a real pleasure to put faces to names. To those who were hanging around the table of our temporary HQ in the morning (getting ready to ride or go race-watching), or who wandered back after the action was done, it was really enjoyable to enact a real Cafe experience. And of course, to my comrades in calling out to our heroes, hanging over the barriers and soaking in the action that brought us all together in the first place, ... that was fucking GREAT!

One last props, to Richmond. I think it worked as I predicted it would -- marked by friendly locals, boisterous (if not exaclty Euro-style) crowds, and a well-considered plan to keep things to complain about to a bare minimum. Local estimates put the foot traffic at some 50% more than expected, which I don't think can be verified but probably means that things went well. Apart from a couple drug-addled freaks screaming around the course for a few minutes, I don't recall anything going wrong. Oh, except that apparently the region spent a little too much time trying to reassure people about the traffic issues and ended up scaring everyone away until the final weekend. So maybe those attendance figures are a bit face-saving. Who knows. I just recall a clever course working the way it was designed, with pockets of delighted fans spread around at intervals that were easy to reach and settle into for exactly the kind of experience you'd have hoped for. Chapeau. Let's do this again in less than 30 years, if possible.