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Is Richmond ready for the worlds?

  • By Bruce Buckley
  • Published Apr. 11, 2011
  • Updated Sep. 20, 2011 at 12:02 PM EDT

RICHMOND, Va. (VN) — Cobblestone streets, punchy riverside climbs and historic boulevards weave through the cycling landscape here, but talk to Bill Agee about the prospect of hosting the 2015 UCI road world championships and his thoughts turn to parking decks.

George Hincapie attacks on Richmond's Church Hill during the 1994 Tour Du Pont, won by Viatcheslav Ekimov. Photo: Gary Newkirk/Getty Images

Like many Richmonders, Agee fondly remembers the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the community filled downtown to watch the likes of Greg LeMond, Davis Phinney and a young Lance Armstrong battle top international talent during the Tours de Trump and Tours DuPont.

“There would be literally thousands of people stacked in those parking decks, six stories high, looking down on the race,” recalls Agee, third generation owner of the 100-year-old Agee’s Bicycles in Richmond. “It was like being in a stadium. That’s what was so impressive about it.”

Fifteen years after the last Tour DuPont passed through its streets, Richmond is hoping to reunite with the international cycling community. Richmond stands alongside the sultanate of Oman as one of two bidders for the 2015 championships. The city and its “Richmond 2015” team, led by sports marketing firm Shadetree Sports, has six months to prove that this secondary-market community can host the sport’s top talent and hundreds of thousands of their fans.

“When we mention cycling here in Richmond, 95 percent of people remember Tour DuPont and how great is was for the community,” says David Kalman, managing partner and co-founder of Shadetree Sports. “Richmond has proven it has the ability to pull off something of this nature and that we have the commitment of the city.”

Tim Miller, Shadetree’s lead project manager for Richmond 2015, notes that cities smaller than Richmond have hosted past championships, including the 1986 host Colorado Springs, which is roughly half Richmond’s size. Likewise, Richmond isn’t so big that the event risks getting lost in the shuffle.

“If you put the world championships in New York City, it would be one of hundreds of other major events going on there,” he says. “If you put it in Richmond, it becomes the biggest thing going on. It will be talked about in the community from the moment the bid is announced until the race is over. It would get the attention it deserves.”

Course is key

Among its chief concerns, the Richmond team must prove it can piece together a championship-caliber course. For now, Shadetree holds details about possible routes close to the vest until UCI officials chime in with feedback. But Miller says the team is keen on showcasing local landmarks and maximizing the city’s tough topography. Richmond’s downtown streets rise dramatically from the lowlands along the James River up a network of steady multi-block ascents to the historic neighborhoods perched above. If past pro events offer any indication, riders would likely face multiple circuits of short power-sapping grades.

The U.S. Open of Cycling finished in Richmond after attacking this cobbled climb in Libby Hill Park. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | cbgphoto.com

“We’ve laid out a couple of courses that we think are world class,” Miller says. “A course in Richmond won’t be a pure sprinter’s course or a pure climber’s course. It’s going to be a power course that’s good for an all-rounder.”

Miller says the Greater Richmond Convention Center would likely serve as the start-finish area. In addition to housing the race headquarters, the convention center location could take advantage of one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Broad Street, to create a long straightaway finale. A Broad Street finish would mean either a sprinter-friendly flatland approach from the west or a drag up a steady climb from the east to separate a fatigued field during the final kilometer.

Heading through downtown to the city’s east end, organizers are also eyeing the Church Hill district, which offers additional ascents through 19th-century neighborhoods up to the high point at Chimborazo Park.

Near the top of Richmond 2015’s wish list of historic areas is the tree-lined Monument Avenue. The roughly 3.5-mile-long strip provides a flat and fast straightaway that gives the climbing legs a rest but offers a touch of challenge with its stretches of cobblestones.

Highlights from past races may make the list as well. The streets around the Shockoe Bottom district and neighboring Tobacco Row have typically served as a prelude to climbs up Main Street toward the Virginia State Capitol area or through cobblestone routes up to Church Hill. The Tour DuPont incorporated Taylor’s Hill to put racers on the rivet. The 2007 U.S. Open Cycling Championship, which ran from Williamsburg to Richmond, introduced a twisty cobblestone climb through Libby Hill Park.

Greg LeMond won the Tour DuPont in 1992. AFP Photo

Although course discussions seem focused within the city limits, organizers also have the option of adding miles through rolling rural terrain that lies just outside Richmond. While grades are gradual east of the city, heading west takes riders into the more-varied Virginia piedmont.

“They could come up with some amazing routes,” says Craig Dodson, a domestic pro who has lived in Richmond since his days racing for Team Nature’s Path. “You’ve got the cityscape with punchy elevation gains from either side of the river. Then you’ve got bucolic landscapes outside the city. Some of what you find is really mind-blowing.”

Shadetree roots

Shadetree’s roots in Richmond cycling run deep. Kalman and Miller both grew up in the area and eventually worked together at Medalist Sports, which served as promoter of the Tour DuPont.

In 2003, Miller organized the inaugural CapTech Classic, an NRC criterium held in downtown Richmond. Meanwhile, Kalman had gained an international reach with Shadetree Sports, whose projects have included reviving the Tour of Ireland in 2007 and 2008.

Kalman says discussions about bringing the worlds back to the U.S., which hasn’t hosted the event since Colorado Springs, started up two years ago. As the idea of pitching Richmond for the U.S. site gained traction, Miller was brought onboard.

Over the next year, the team garnered support from Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones and other key stakeholders.

“A lot of the people in local government that were responsible for making the (Tour DuPont) a success are still in place,” Miller says. “That’s one reason we can say that we’re confident about our city government. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.”

John Worden shouts instructions to Chris Horner and Nate Reiss in the 1996 Tour DuPont, won by Lance Armstrong. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | cbgphoto.com

Although the team was gaining momentum, efforts shifted into high gear last fall when the UCI announced its interest in holding the 2015 championship in a non-European city, and that bids would be due in September 2011.

On December 21, with the blessing of USA Cycling, the City of Richmond formally announced its intentions. “That’s when the clock really started ticking,” Kalman adds.

Public-private partnerships

With just over six months left until bids are due, the Richmond 2015 team has a lot of ground to cover. It’s greatest test could be securing sufficient funding. The city of Quebec threw its hat in the ring for the 2015 event, but withdrew its bid March 25, citing that it couldn’t afford its estimated $20 million price tag.

Miller notes that Quebec planned to use taxpayer dollars to fund its event — a difficult sell during a global recession. Richmond, however, is looking to tap a variety of financial sources.

“For us, it will be a public-private partnership,” he says. “We are going to lean heavily on the corporate community as well as working with the city, the state and the country as a whole to help make this thing real.”

Miller, who estimates that Richmond’s budget will tally between $12 million and $15 million, adds that the team needs to secure financial guarantees by the deadline, not actual dollars. “After winning the bid, we would have four years to get the sponsors together,” he says.

The team needs to build support abroad among both international cycling officials and potential corporate sponsors around the globe. Despite speculation that Shadetree partner Darach McQuaid, brother of UCI president Pat McQuaid, could play a heavy role in the bid, Kalman says his partner remains “focused on (the Tour of) Ireland.” However, he won’t rule out the possibility of recruiting McQuaid to help if the team wins the bid.

Although its local coalition is strong, Richmond is looking to bolster its list of supporters by courting key political figures and adding some high-profile cycling heroes to lobby on their behalf.

Among Richmond 2015’s unofficial spokespeople is U.S. National Road Champion Ben King. A Virginia native, King has raced in and around Richmond since he was a junior. Given that today’s pro peloton features four U.S.-based teams, compared to one during the days of Tour DuPont, King says the U.S. is overdue for a world championship.

“To have the worlds anywhere in the U.S. would be tremendous for our sport,” he says. “The prospect of having it in Richmond would be a dream for me.”

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