For any city to host an international nine-day event is a big undertaking. And for Richmond, Virginia to host the second UCI world championships the United States has ever had, was met with mixed reviews and skepticism.
Mind you, this is a town in a country where cycling is a niche sport and locals are more familiar with NASCAR than “the bike race.” And hosting this “bike race” meant constant road closures, 400,000 expected visitors, construction and a year-and-a-half of road repaving work.
Skepticism also came from within the sport. In had been nearly 30 years since the UCI Road World Championships had last been in the U.S., after which the championships were held only four times outside of Europe. Would there be any interest, any fans? What about getting all the equipment across the seas? And what about the costs for the smaller nations to travel that far?
But when September 20th arrived and the championships opened with the women’s team time trial, many cynics were silenced. The fact is, Richmond far exceeded expectations. The state capital of 217,000 inhabitants quadrupled in size for the duration of the event, welcoming an estimated 645,000 spectators. Roads had been repaved, accommodations built and events planned. The host and its surrounding areas had put forward around 3000 volunteers and hundreds of police officers to make the event run smoothly, and for the nine days in Richmond there were festivals, bicycle-themed museum exhibitions, movies, bike rides and entertainment for visitors of all ages.
“The event exceeded our expectations on almost every level. From the massive crowds to the riveting racing on the course, the World Championships were a tremendous success.” – Paul Shanks
“The event exceeded our expectations on almost every level. From the massive crowds to the riveting racing on the course, the World Championships were a tremendous success,” stated Paul Shanks of Richmond2015, the organising body responsible for putting the championships on. “Worthy champions were crowned and fans were dazzled by challenging and interesting course designs. We have received nearly universally positive feedback from athletes, teams and fans. It took an entire community to come together to host an event of this magnitude and we could not be more grateful to our partners and our region for stepping up in such a big way.”
From getting around the road closure to receiving results and event updates to being shuttled to and from the race courses, from what we could tell, the event ran like a well-oiled machine. And we’re not alone in that thinking.
“I thought the event was incredible,” commented Bronze medallist Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans and Team USA). “The organisation was top, from the road closures, to course directions. It was really professionally run and the course security and marshals were great. Everyone I encountered in Richmond was friendly and extremely excited that we were racing there. I was absolutely taken aback by the enthusiasm of the spectators, I think America put on a really great event for our visitors.”
The nine-day event saw 1,000 cyclists from 75 countries compete in 12 races. The racing truly was world-class and, except for the team time trial, all winners were first-time rainbow wearers.
“Everything we saw was great – wonderful crowds, exceptional and exciting racing. I heard several of my colleagues comment on the energy this event had that other recent Worlds perhaps lacked,” said commissaire Phil Miller. “For me, as tremendous as the Elite Women’s and Men’s races were, the performance of the young US riders bodes well for the future. This event has been anticipated as a pivot point for cycling – for the U.S. generally, women’s racing specifically – and also as the starting point for a new USA Cycling. It did not disappoint on any of these fronts.”
Leading up to September, the organisation had estimated that around 450,000 people would visit Richmond during the nine days. However, first counts far exceed those expectations, with newspapers reporting that an estimated 645,000 out-of-towners came to Richmond and the region between September 19 and 28. For a country in which cycling is but a niche sport, that’s pretty darn good.
“I have never experienced such boisterous, animated, excited spectators in my entire cycling career. When the USA women rolled out on course before the start of the race, the roar of the crowd was deafening (but in a good way)!” Guarnier said. “Maybe I am biased because the chant of the crowd was “U.S.A.”, but even women from other nationalities were thrilled with the crowd.”
“I have never experienced such boisterous, animated, excited spectators in my entire cycling career.” – Megan Guarnier
Canadian rider Joëlle Numainville echoed Guarnier’s excitement.
“Libby Hill was incredible. This is the best worlds I have ever done,” she said. “The crowd was so loud. Worlds should be in America more often.”
And that is the hope, isn’t it? In an effort to globalise the sport, the UCI purposely chooses countries outside of Europe to host the world championships. For USA Cycling, Richmond and cities throughout the country, the world championships were an opportunity to build on the cycling movement while showing that the U.S. is more than capable to host top-level UCI events.
Already this year we saw international stars line up in Philadelphia for a UCI World Cup road race, last month Las Vegas hosted America’s first UCI World Cup Cyclocross race, and just last week it was announced that Amgen Women’s Tour of California will be part of the first-ever Women’s World Tour.
“There is definitely an increase in top-level UCI cycling events coming to the USA,” said Guarnier. “And each year I see more and more people on bikes, of all ages. It is really wonderful and we can see that with higher level races coming to the USA, more people are being exposed to cycling. I am most excited about the prospect of more UCI women’s racing coming to the USA, bringing cycling to my home country.”
While athletes returned home with honour, rainbow jerseys, medals and ranking points, the region is banking on the event’s economic benefits.
While the region eagerly awaits full accounting, we already know that the number of visitors exceeded expectations, so much so that on Monday, Sept. 28, the Richmond airport saw its busiest day since 2008 with 6,808 passengers boarding sold-out flights.
Leading up to the event, an anticipated economic impact of $158 million was promised to the Commonwealth of Virginia, while showcasing the city and region to millions of viewers world-wide should give a tourism boost in the coming years.
“There will be plenty of time in the weeks ahead to dig into the economic impact for the region as data begins to become available, but at first blush everything looks very positive,” said Shanks. “Beyond the dollars and cents of the economic impact, the world championships is a nine-day visual postcard we get to send to the hundreds of millions of TV viewers around the world. There is tremendous value in terms of brand visibility and awareness that will reverberate for years to come.”
Some rewards are already evident such as beautifully repaved roads, street art, new businesses and an uptick in bicycling culture.
The city of Richmond currently has around 38 kilometres (24 miles) of bicycle infrastructure, 25 kilometres (16 miles) of which were built in the past year-and-a-half alone.
Max Hepp-Buchanan, director of the local active transportation advocacy group Bike Walk RVA , said hosting the world championships will definitely help their cause.
“Throughout the event, we had more people biking and walking for transportation than we have ever had –a glimpse of what Richmond can be like if we continue to build infrastructure to support that,” he said.
Hepp-Buchanan also said he wouldn’t be surprised if an annual local or USAC event will take place on the course. “Libby was built for this kind of thing,” he commented.
Plus, their Conquer the Cobbles event, held on the closed-off roads course the eve before the elite races took place, proved a big hit with well over 1400 people coming out for the ride.
“Although there are no plans for an annual USAC race here in Richmond, I can tell you that there is tremendous buzz about Richmond as a new cycling destination,” Shanks agreed. Long time cycling fans surely know Richmond now and now there are hundreds of thousands of new cycling fans that call Richmond home. So we’ll see what happens.”
Everything said and done, Richmond did a tremendous job hosting cycling’s pinnacle event and, if the locals will have us, bike racers would gladly return to Richmond.