The Storm

Cancelation wouldn’t have been unprecedented. Three years before, a no lesser race than the Omloop Het Volk — historic, respected, the embodiment of a Belgian hard man’s race — had faced the same weather and folded. Nobody could say it was just the Americans.

On April 7, 2007, the North American peloton had woken not to a mild Richmond spring day, but to sub-freezing temperatures, high winds, and fresh snow. An inch covered the uneven cobblestones of Libby Hill, the switchback ascent expected to shape the finale of the first U.S. Open Cycling Championships in about six hours.

The 20 American, Mexican, and Canadian teams had reason to be fearful. Icy roads could create havoc in the peloton and in the caravan, and 35mph winds and blowing snow would make for a tense and miserable four-plus hours of racing. For riders coming from warm weather tune-ups in Redlands, Merced, and San Dimas, the unseasonable cold was a brutal shock to the system. For those whose next stop was the Tour de Georgia nine days later, the specter of illness loomed large.

Blog-2But those teams also knew that the U.S. Open was a race the domestic circuit desperately needed, a rare point-to-point, one-day race of 180km. NBC Sports was to air the final two and a half hours — the first time since the Tour DuPont ended in 1996 that an American race would receive same-day network coverage. If America was ever to have its own spring classic, this was it.

Riders boarded a charter bus for the 80km drive to the start in Williamsburg, where wet spring snow coated trees and the colonial town where the race was to start. Temperatures struggled to escape the 20s. The organization announced a one-hour delay, lending weight — hope? — to rumors of impending cancellation. But the delay was not in deference to under-insulated pro cyclists or a concession to untenable road conditions. No, the snow had grounded the television helicopter.

A vaunted Belgian classic like Het Volk can miss a year — for war, for weather, for lack of funding — and return to a waiting and eager audience. The same isn’t true for first-year American races, notably ones that deny two municipalities and a national broadcaster promised returns. The ambitiously named U.S. Open Cycling Championship had already endured a funding shortage and a leadership shakeup to arrive at this point: shivering in the snow and trying to avoid explosion. NBC Sports was on the phone, demanding to know if it needed to cue up a hockey game. It was now or never. There would be no cancellation.

If snowy reveille in Richmond yielded trepidation, the impending start in Williamsburg descended into near-panic. Soigneurs drove from store to store buying up thermos flasks for hot tea while riders huddled in church vans with the heat blasting or commandeered nearby businesses. Only threats of fines convinced some to emerge for sign-in.

When they did, aesthetics had taken a backseat to practicality. The Toyota-United team had holed up in a nearby Starbucks, where employees handed over a restaurant-sized roll of plastic wrap to windproof shoes and helmets. The Mexicans of team Tecos, some of whom had never experienced snow, emerged in outerwear fashioned from trash bags. Elsewhere, riders cut jackets into vests to be worn over other jackets, stuffed newspapers under jerseys, and ripped pads from helmets to accommodate the bulk of winter hats. Soigneurs stretched white and blue surgical gloves over cycling gloves to keep gusting winds at bay.

Blog-3As the race finally rolled up the banks of the James River, headwinds and lingering snow stifled attacks. At last, on the outskirts of Richmond, northbound peloton and southbound storm finally completed their long passing. Skies cleared and winds eased, though temperatures only climbed into the low 40s. Libby Hill stood waiting, dry, sunny, and crowded with fans.

As planned, the race blew to pieces on the hill on the southern end of downtown, overlooking the old canal and the smokestack of the mothballed Lucky Strike power plant. Winner Svein Tuft dropped breakaway partner Pat McCarty on the last run up the cobbles and rode on to win. McCarty just barely held on for second. Eighty-six of the 141 starters abandoned.

Neither Tuft nor McCarty were pre-race favorite, but given the conditions, both perhaps should have been. Tuft, a bearded Canadian, was famous in the peloton for his long, unsupported adventures in the British Colombian wilderness. McCarty had recently returned stateside after a stint in Europe, where he’d earned his stripes in races like the Amstel Gold and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

The organizers had gambled and won big, but the race was never held again. In the end, it was lack of sponsorship money that did it in, not snow or helicopters or riders reluctant to freeze on icy roads. But for one year, at least, the U.S. had a genuine spring classic. It was bleak and brutal and beautiful and a little ill-advised. It was battered by wind and weather for 180km, halved by attrition, and at the end, the strongest man won with an attack on a cobbled climb. And it made for fantastic television.