Photography: Andy Bokanev | Words: Matthew Beaudin
“It was good. It was bad. It was not fun. And it was fun at the same time.”
In the evenings before the Worlds road races, the downtown streets of Richmond, Virginia appeared a ghost town. Barriers lined the road, protecting the parcours from nothing but air and parked cars. Statues of dead Southern war heroes presided over the hollow Monument Avenue.
Locals complained of less business than promised while those in favour of the races in Richmond harboured a silent concern: don’t let these American world championships turn into a reason to keep them away from the U.S. for another 30 years. When the host city was announced several years ago there was a low rumble over its worthiness to host one of the most beloved days on the road calendar. A Worlds? In Virginia?
Outside of the United States the area isn’t known for much beyond Thomas Jefferson, the city’s central role as heart of the Confederacy and epicentre of the Civil War, and tobacco production.
Races are played out on open roads and their routes often trace the ugly scars of history. In Europe they follow the fronts of world wars. In Richmond, the Worlds course wound through a city that carries the bruises of slavery and the Civil War. The men’s elite peloton rode up Monument Avenue 16 times, in the shadows of statues of long-dead Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
Not many seemed to know that the city has a history of bike racing, from the U.S. Open Cycling Championships to the Tour de Trump, and the time Michel Zanoli punched Davis Phinney in the face.
Races, like racers themselves, are in search of identity. Northern France will permanently belong to the granite stones and vice versa. It is impossible to hear “Sanremo” and not think of La Primavera (the spring) for racing fans. What would this race be but its obvious choice? A loud, dangerous American criterium.
Saturday’s rain, paired with the urban nature of the circuit, meant myriad dangers. Wet manhole covers studded the boulevards with slick lips while painted lines in each corner promised to steal front wheels. Juniors and U23s had trouble celebrating properly after victories because of the treacherous road below.
As the town slowly filled up, the nerves increased too. A pileup in the U23s made things worse. The short cobbled climb of Libby Hill had turned to grease and stone once the rain hit. The women’s race on Saturday saw a very strange, push and pull sprint, and Lizzie Armitstead continued her dream season by managing to easily win a sprint she had the bad luck of leading out. She crossed the line with tears already in her eyes, the new champion of the world.
By Sunday, Richmond was full. Where the women’s race began the men’s race picked up. The circuit was tight and technical, and its crowning feature, Libby Hill, was full of fans and offered the marquee shot of the weekend, in a crowded, cobbled switchback that could have been in any one of the great cycling nations.
“There’s plenty of places where it’s hard to believe this is Richmond. Libby Hill could be Belgium, the Netherlands, you name it. Four years, five years, we’ve been at this, and to see all these people out? A long time ago a lot of people weren’t sure that Worlds could work in America. Nobody would care. We’ve got the cycling world here and lots of new cycling fans as well,” said Lee Kallman, who worked for years on the organising committee to bring the race to town. “The people have spoken.”
The Americans rode as well as a team without a true favourite could, placing men in each move on the road and putting themselves in position to grab onto a winning break that never came. “Everything that they did was exactly how we mapped it out,” national team director Michael Sayers said after the race. “To be safe we were always trying to put someone in front of it. We asked them to come and race full gas for 260, and that’s what they did.” Ben King, Taylor Phinney, and Tyler Farrar all took turns for the cameras out front before the peloton ate them back up. Alex Howes ended as the best-placed American, in 12th.
In the end, it wasn’t Libby Hill that decided the race but rather the short section of stones on 23rd street. Peter Sagan, who’d been wonderfully anonymous for hours, came to the front, matched Greg Van Avermaet’s acceleration, gapped the Belgian slightly at the top and throttled him on the descent toward the finish. He set a 90-degree left-hander on fire without a centimetre to spare. The Slovakian survived the final drag up Governor Street to claim his single biggest victory to date, and the one that’s put what seems to be an entire season of second places out to sea. He then started throwing bits of his kit into the crowd in youthful, earned exuberance. His competitors high-fived, embraced, and praised him. Justice was served in Richmond, for both Sagan and for a nation eager to prove it could put on the big show.
“It was a very proper race. It was a very hard race. I wasn’t expecting it to be this hard,” Belgian Tom Boonen said. “In the beginning the group went away, and everyone’s like ‘ah, It’ll be an easy day’ and then the Dutch guys started pulling and everybody was à bloc the first three, four laps. And everybody got a little bit scared I think, because they were suffering so much. In the beginning there was 50, 60 guys up there, a lot of good guys. After that everybody was on their toes all the time and nervous. It affected the entire race.” Boonen rode by Sagan at the finish and offered his hand to the winner, a sign of sure respect and happiness for the younger rider who has been carrying excessive pressure for years. “Pffff,” Boonen said. “If you ride away on 1.5 or 2km of the finish line of this group then of course you deserve to win.”
Niki Terpstra agreed, about both the race itself and Sagan. “He was in great shape. The strongest rider. I think we have a great champion,” he said. “It was hard. It was crowded. Do you want more? It was nice. For the spectators I think it was a great race. All the organisers want to put more hills. More and more and more. But actually the more hills you put in, the more predictable the race is. And this is more entertaining. I think it was a balanced parcours.”
And while the United States finished just outside the top 10, it rode a tactical and smart race on home soil. Phinney, for his money, seemed happy. “It was good. It was bad. It was not fun. And it was fun at the same time. I think we can be happy… and we can be happy that we gave the people of Richmond, Virginia something to cheer for all day. That was special for us,” Phinney said.
Just one day later Libby Hill was empty again. A few crushed cans remained and men worked to take down the fencing and tend to the hill’s hangover. The fans and racers were ghosts in newspaper stories, and cars passed underneath the statues of Civil War generals, keeping watch over the past of Richmond.