Echoes of Greatness

On the corner of South 9th and Carey Street in downtown Richmond, two giants of American pro cycling were catching up, straddling their top tubes, still winded from stage 9 of the 1992 Tour DuPont. One, a three-time Tour de France winner, had just moved a day closer to winning his first race on home soil in seven years. The other was bleeding from the nose.

When Motorola’s Dutch behemoth Michael Zanoli balled his fist and backhanded Davis Phinney during that day’s hectic sprint, it instantly entered into American cycling folklore, a tale to be told at countless mid-ride coffee stops.

But while many U.S. cyclists know the story, few can recall the setting. That’s because despite being a cradle of American history from colonial times through to the Civil War, Richmond has never managed to claim its rightful place in the history of US cycling.

Nestled in the Piedmont region, Virginia’s capital doesn’t have Boulder’s training terrain and dozens of resident pros, Portland’s bike-friendly infrastructure, or Philadelphia’s 30-year tradition of top-level racing on the first weekend of June. Nor can it boast Sommerville’s lineage, stretching back to American cycling’s jazz-era roots, or northern California’s cycling scene and current international stage race.

“He’s a bully, a big guy,” Phinney told the New York Times after his run-in with Zanoli. “I’m 5-9 and he’s 6-6, but I’m not going to give way.”

Richmond might not have the sizable reputation of America’s cycling meccas, but like Phinney, it refuses to give way. Phinney fought back, bloody nose and all, to finish second in Richmond in 1992. When Richmond opens its doors for the UCI Road World Championships it will have fought its way back to the forefront of American cycling after two decades in the relative wilderness.

When the westward-leaning Coors Classic folded in 1988, the decidedly eastern Tour de Trump filled the American stage-race vacuum the following year. Beginning in Albany, the first edition reached its southern terminus in Richmond before turning north-east to finish in front of Donald Trump’s Atlantic City casino. Trump’s real estate empire slid into bankruptcy after the 1990 race, at which point the Delaware-based chemical giant DuPont picked up the baton.

From the start through to the Tour’s 1996 swansong, Richmond was the only city to host at least one stage in every edition. Road stage finales, time trials, criteriums and circuit races were all carved from the city’s cobblestone streets, its old tobacco warehouse district and the steep eastward slopes overlooking the James River’s bend toward the Chesapeake.

The Belgian Eric Vanderaerden, winner of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix and a handful of Tour de France stages, triumphed in a bunch sprint to become Richmond’s first road stage winner in 1989. He followed up with the fastest evening time trial under the city’s street lights, but couldn’t quite close the gap to the GC winner, the Norwegian Dag Otto Lauritzen. Vanderaerden’s four stage wins encapsulated his career – a showcase of both the talent that got him pegged as the next Eddy Merckx, and the inability to win stage races that made living up to that expectation impossible.

Fresher talent impressed the following year. The 19-year-old Russian rider Vladislav Bobrik rode into Richmond 22 minutes ahead of the peloton, seizing the leader’s jersey for eight days before his spectacular collapse on the Devil’s Kitchen climb in the Catskills.

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Australia’s Phil Anderson won in Richmond in 1991, and again in the infamously pugilistic 1992 sprint, spurred on by the 10-second bonus on offer that he hoped would gnaw away at Greg LeMond’s overall lead. The Indian-American Olympic gold medalist Alexi Grewal won the next day’s downtown circuit race, a farewell display of ethereal talent at the end of a vexing career. And in the race’s final year, a 24-year-old Lance Armstrong stomped away on the cobbled ramp of Taylor’s Hill to a solo win, building the foundation of his second consecutive Tour DuPont victory. It was the last major victory of his career’s first act.

Along with Armstrong, a generation of young American pros that would shape cycling’s next decade – for good and ill – cut their teeth on the Tour DuPont, where they faced off against giants of the sport. LeMond began his 1989 comeback with a modest ride in Richmond, and won outright in 1992. Gianni Bugno raced in rainbow stripes with his Gatorade team-mate Laurent Fignon, who was by then past his prime, and seemingly happier for it. Gert-Jan Theunisse brought Alpe d’Huez-winning talent to the Appalachians’ less renowned switchbacks, while Erik Breukink and Andy Hampsten, who battled over the snowy Gavia pass in the 1988 Giro d’Italia, received a warmer welcome in Virginia.

These high-profile visitors helped forge America’s enduring reputation as a place where European pros, famously loath to stray from the continent, wanted to visit and race. They loved the big hotel rooms and menus that extended beyond overcooked pasta and boiled chicken. They loved the wide roads and the enormous purses. But maybe most of all, they loved the reception they received. At home, they were horseflesh. Here, they were rock stars.

Even if North American cycling never really fell in love with Richmond, the city has embraced the sport anyway. During the eight years of the Tour DuPont, crowds estimated at up to 60,000 packed into the city’s downtown, swamping roadside capacity and transforming well-placed parking decks into luxury boxes. In two decades since, those heady days have reverberated through the city’s annual CapTech Classic criterium and 2007’s US Open Cycling Championships. The echo might have grown faint at times, but it was always there.

The cycling world will find familiar roads, familiar faces, and a familiar spirit at these world championships, and Richmond’s name will ring out once more.