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2015 Richmond Worlds: Acrobatic More Than Classic

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John Wilcockson / Yuzuru Sunada

2015 Richmond Worlds: Acrobatic More Than Classic Speculation ended this week on what sort of course the Richmond, Virginia, organizers would serve up for next year’s UCI World Road Race Championships. Those attending the official presentation on Tuesday—including the Governor of Virginia, the Mayor of Richmond and the UCI president—highlighted the course’s attributes: the slab-paved Monument Avenue with its giant monument to Confederate leader Robert E. Lee; the cobbled downhill to the colorful Shockhoe Slip district on the James River; and, near the end of each lap, three short climbs, including the bumpy cobblestone switchbacks of Libby Hill Park.

Even though the 264-kilometer elite men’s race (16 laps of the 16.5-kilometer circuit) is still 19 months away, cycling insiders have already made stars such as Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert and Peter Sagan the favorites to win the 2015 rainbow jersey. The experts cite the course’s “perfect” set of challenges for classics rides: cobblestones, a technical layout, and those three hills in the final 4 kilometers that should put paid to the sprinters’ chances.

Some have even compared the course to the one raced every spring at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, which features narrow roads, frequent short, steep climbs, and a bucketful of cobblestones. But a closer study of the Flanders course reveals a total of some 172 turns in its twisting 259 kilometers (an average of two turns every 3 kilometers), whereas the Richmond worlds course has 28 turns every lap for a total of 448 turns (including the roundabout around General Lee’s equestrian statue, and two complete U-turns) over the 264 kilometer distance—that’s five turns every 3 kilometers. And there are no less than 11 sharp turns (and three climbs) in the final 4 kilometers of every lap!

That makes this worlds course an acrobatic one rather than merely technical. Compared with a typical circuit used at UCI world championships, the Richmond course has more than twice the number of turns. Looking back at recent worlds, the closest approximations I can find to Richmond’s course are the ones used at Copenhagen in 2011 (14 turns in 14 kilometers) and Madrid in 2005 (21 turns in 21 kilometers)—or one every kilometer, not one every 500 meters or so.

As for annual events, the nearest equivalent is the UCI WorldTour race in Québec, which features 17 turns in a 12.6-kilometer circuit covered 16 times. That’s a total of 272 turns in a race of 201.6 kilometers, or one every 740 meters. That Canadian course also has some cobblestones, two sharp climbs and a long drag to the line in the final 4 kilometers, just like Richmond’s. And because the 2015 GP de Québec is scheduled just two weeks before the elite men’s race in Virginia, it’s a given that many of the likely worlds contenders will race in Canada to not only help acclimate themselves but also ride a race that’ll be like a dress rehearsal.

So what sort of champion will the acrobatic Richmond course produce? Will it be one of those classics favorites: Cancellara, Gilbert or Sagan? Maybe it will be a Grand Tour rider who can pull of surprising victories in one-day races—as Samuel Sanchez did to win Olympic Gold in Beijing 2008; as Cadel Evans did to win the 2009 worlds in Mendrisio; or as Rui Costa did last year in Florence to outsmart two other allrounders, Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde. Or will it be a dark horse, perhaps a rider such as Igor Astarloa, who took the title the last time the road worlds came to North America, in Hamilton, 11 years ago?

Previous to those Canadian road worlds, we have to go back another three decades to find the origins of major events happening on this continent. That would be 1974, when the world’s best racers (all of them Europeans) came to Montréal for a world championships on a climbers’ course over Mont Royal; not surprisingly, only weeks after Eddy Merckx won his fifth Tour de France ahead of Raymond Poulidor, the worlds saw the same 1-2.

A decade later, there was huge interest in an event that was touted as the beginning of cycling’s globalization: the 1983 Tour of America. The Tour de France boss Félix Lévitan, who could see the potential of a race in the world’s largest consumer market, was behind the project.

This inaugural event (that was never repeated) was a three-day stage race squeezed into the UCI’s busy April calendar, starting in Virginia Beach and ending in Washington, D.C. A total of 55 European-based professionals took part in the race along with 20 riders on North American squads: national amateur teams from Canada and the United States, a USPRO national team, and a 7-Eleven-sponsored pro team (headed by Canadian Ron Hayman and Belgian Noël Dejonckheere).

There was considerable interest in this “historic sporting event” because America was being talked about as the new frontier of pro cycling. Writing in the New York Times, George Vecsey said it “had touches of the first American baseball team visiting Japan and the first flight of the Beatles to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show.” Because of the media hype, I was reporting the race for two British magazines, a London newspaper and BBC Radio. And like the other European journalists who crossed the Atlantic I was surprised by the cycling knowledge of the American spectators, who came out in their thousands, cheering the racers and waving banners, particularly on the hilly stage 2 finishing circuit in Richmond, despite heavy rainfall.

That course—similar to next year’s worlds circuit—looped through the historic Church Hill neighborhood, taking in the steep climb of 24th Street past white-painted Colonial-style houses, crossed the cobblestones of Shockhoe Slip, and finished uphill on Ninth Street outside the State Capitol building. The stage winner was Dutchman Leo Van Vliet, whose powerful TI-Raleigh team helped him stay away in a two-man break; just before flying to the States, Van Vliet won the Ghent-Wevelgem classic ahead of teammate Jan Raas.

Three years after that one-off Tour of America, the Europeans returned to the U.S. for the 1986 world road championships held in Colorado Springs on a not-too-challenging course (except for the 7,300-foot elevation!) on the grounds of the U.S. Air Force Academy. The smart riders used the preceding Coors Classic stage race to get acclimated, and it was the winner of the North Boulder Park stage, Italian star Moreno Argentin, who went on to win the worlds in a cool, damp day, after breaking clear with Frenchman Charly Mottet.

Spectators were thin on the ground at those world championships; but 29 years after Colorado Springs we can expect massive crowds in Richmond next year—if we see a repeat of the fan support shown there in 1983 and in the various Richmond stages of the Tour de Trump/Tour DuPont between 1989 and 1996. That was the case in 1994 for the third stage of the DuPont race from Fredericksburg that finished with several laps of a circuit taking in the cobbled climb in Libby Hill Park. That’s where Canada’s best-ever classics rider, Steve Bauer, broke clear of the field and won the stage solo by eight seconds ahead of a chase group led in by Italian Gianvito Martinelli, American Ron Kiefel and Italian Andrea Peron.

A decade after that, another Canadian, Svein Tuft (who now races for Orica-GreenEdge) also took a solo win in Richmond at the end of the ambitious, but ill-fated U.S. Open of Cycling. On an April day of frigid temperatures and slushy roads, Tuft attacked fellow breakaway Pat McCarty on the eighth and final climb of Libby Hill on a finishing loop of 8.8 kilometers, to win by 41 seconds ahead of a charging field.

Three years later, Tuft would finish 20th in the first GP de Québec on the course most similar to Richmond’s. Each of the four editions of the Canadian “classic” has been won after a shoot-out among the strongest riders over the circuit’s tough finale. It’s an impressive list of winners, all of whom are likely to be contenders at next year’s worlds: Thomas Voeckler of France, Gilbert of Belgium, Simon Gerrans of Australia, and Robert Gesink of the Netherlands.

The Richmond course is unusual because of its 448 turns in a six- to seven-hour race. That could be as much as an average of more than one turn every minute; and because of the nonstop succession of turns in the finale, a team that can keep the bulk of its riders in the race will have a relatively easy job of facilitating a breakaway by one of its members.

Only two Americans have won the men’s elite title: Greg LeMond in 1983 and 1989, and a youthful Lance Armstrong in 1993. It would be great to see a third one take the rainbow jersey on home soil in 2015. That seems unlikely, unless it’s our most experienced classics competitor, Chris Horner, or a young gun like Andrew Talansky. But given the success of Canadians Bauer and Tuft at previous Richmond showdowns, maybe another one, perhaps Ryder Hesjedal, will have the power, the incentive and the bike-handling skills to come out on top next year.