WORLDS ’15: PEZ Rides the Course!
The 2015 World Cycling Championships in Richmond goes up, down, and around on a technical mix of cobbled streets, 90-degree turns, and fast straights. PEZ took an on-bike look at what riders from around the world will face at this September’s World’s road races.
– Words and Photos By Chuck Peña –
Ride Like Mike
Ordinarily, the idea of driving 90 some-odd miles to ride 10 miles would be considered daft. But when those 10 miles are the same ten that current UCI Road Race World Champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland) will have to ride to defend his rainbow stripes, you make the drive to ride like Mike. And so I made the trek from my home in Arlington, Virginia to the Ginter Park neighborhood on the north side Richmond – site of the team and elite men’s time trials at the 2015 World Cycling Championships.
The first order of the day was coffee. After all, it’s not a bike ride without coffee. Luckily, just about a half mile (that’s about 800 meters for those who do metric units) down Broad Street from the Marriott is Lift. Not only is Lift right on the race route, it’s the only coffee shop on the race route (take note, caffeine addicts and espresso junkies). I don’t start a day – let alone a ride – without a triple latte and Lift’s baristas didn’t disappoint.
I also got to meet and chat with the owner of Lift, Stephanie Garnett. She was very excited about the Worlds coming to Richmond, and its positive effect on business. The population of Richmond is a little over 200,000 people, but more than twice that many are expected to attend – many from out of town. So, like many other business owners, Stephanie is trying to figure out how she’s going to accommodate the increase in numbers.
But you’re not here to read about coffee.
The 2015 Worlds road race course is a little bit out of the ordinary in that it’s completely inside the city of Richmond and not out on any “open” roads – much like the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic winds through the City of Brotherly Love. In many ways, it’s more like a 10-mile (16 kilometers) downtown criterium course – which means there shouldn’t be a bad seat in the house to watch the racing.
The first part of the race is flat. The start travels down East Broad Street, which, as the name implies, is a wide avenue (and East becomes West). This is a section of the city center with older store fronts – some of which are empty, but many are occupied by new retail (such as Lift) and offices. The feel is nostalgic – a bygone era typified by the Virginia Repertory Theatre with a marquee that looks like it’s from the 40s or 50s. About 0.7 miles (a little over a kilometer), the route goes left onto North Belvidere Street and then, two blocks down, right at Monroe Park onto North Franklin Street. (NOTE: If you want to do what I did and ride the course on your own, you need to know that North Franklin Street is a one-way street coming the opposite direction and I rode on the sidewalk rather than tempt fate with the business end of an oncoming car.) Now you’re on the Virginia Commonwealth University (where my neighbor’s daughter goes to school) campus – a historic area with tree-lined streets and beautiful old homes, many of which are now VCU offices.
About a kilometer up at the end of North Franklin Street is a traffic circle with a statue of General J.E.B. Stuart, who is sometimes blamed for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. As the route goes around the circle the pavement turns to brick. It’s not pavé, but also not buttery smooth – Richmond’s version of sett, the paving stones used on the Champs Élysées. And now you’re on Monument Avenue which is a wide up-and-back avenue separated by a grassy center divider – so along with the sett evokes the Champs Élysées. After J.E.B. Stuart is an even bigger traffic circle with a statue of Robert E. Lee. As you might expect being in the former capitol of the Confederate States, Lee’s statue is grandiose. Welcome to the Fan District with its Old South or antebellum homes. A little over a kilometer on Monument Avenue and the riders will make a 180-degree turn at the Jefferson Davis Monument and double back on Monument Avenue on the other side of the center divider. Back down Monument Avenue and right at the J.E.B. Stuart statue onto Stuart Circle which becomes North Lombardy Street.
At this point (about 3 miles in), the streets begin to get narrower, the homes more modest, and course starts to zig-zag a little. Just less than a half-mile on Lombardy and it’s left onto West Main Street. (NOTE: West Main Street is one-way coming the opposite direction.) You’re now on the southern edge of the VCU campus so lots of places to eat that are student-friendly, i.e., not expensive – some are chains but many are local businesses. One such of the latter is City Dogs for those craving that quintessential American food. I stopped there later in the day for a Coney Island dog. They have an outdoor seating area which would be a great venue for watching the race whiz by – on this stretch, they’ll likely be flying.
A little over a kilometer on West Main Street and the race turns left back onto North Belvidere Street at Monroe Park and then right back onto West Broad Street (which becomes East). A half-mile on Broad and it’s right onto North 2nd Street. (NOTE: North 2nd Street is one-way coming the other direction.) And then left onto East Main Street. (NOTE: Main Street may now be East instead of West, but it’s still one-way coming the opposite direction). This is where the course changes character from flat to not – descending stair-step fashion in the Central Office and Downtown areas of Richmond.
After about 1.2 kilometers on East Main Street the course makes a right turn onto South 15th Street, which puts you in Shockoe Bottom – a former industrial and tobacco warehouse area that’s now a combination of residential and retail. This part of the ride brought back memories for me because one of the first crits I raced (a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) was in Shockoe Bottom and I remember the technical course with climbs meant I wouldn’t be pack fodder like in a four-corner pancake flat crit – instead I think I got a top five placing. It’s less than 200 meters on South 15th Street and then left onto Dock Street, which winds alongside the canal. If you’re a fan of pizza, another great venue for viewing the race would be Bottoms Up Pizza, which has outdoor seating on Dock Street. The race will stay on Dock St. (which becomes Wharf Street) for about 1.3 miles (a little over 2 kilometers) – going past the Virginia Holocaust Museum, trendy lofts, over a set of railroad tracks, and underneath a warehouse building (sort of a mini Mont Blanc tunnel). There’s a small rise at the end of Wharf Street and – about 7 miles in – a sharp left onto East Main Street to start coming back.
It’s in the last 3 miles that the course shows its true colors.
After about a kilometer on East Main Street, the race will turn right into Libby Hill Park and go up the short (about 0.1 miles) winding cobbled climb. According to Strava, the average grade is 10% but it’s 14-15% at the bottom. I’ve ridden on cobbles on the flats, but this was my first time on a climb so decided that discretion, i.e., going slow, was the better part of valor. If you want to watch the action on the cobbled climb, a great venue would be Poe’s Pub, which has an enclosed porch, at the base of Libby Hill. Otherwise, there’s plenty of grassy area on the hill to sit and watch (and bring a picnic lunch).
At the top of Libby Hill (about 8 miles in), the race route goes around the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument onto North 29th Street and then left onto East Franklin Street. Now you’re in the Church Hill neighborhood. What goes up must come down and it’s downhill on the last bit of East Franklin to a left-hander and more downhill onto North 25th Street. Then it’s right onto East Main Street and right again onto North 23rd Street.
What goes down now must go up. First on pavement and then up a steep, narrow cobbled section. How steep? According to Strava the average grade is 14%, but it’s almost 30%(!) at the base and doesn’t “level off,” i.e., less than 10%, until the very last bit at the top. Although only just over 100 meters long, that kind of gradient rivals the cobbled climbs of the Belgian classics. Visions of Spartacus powering his way up to distance himself from his rivals… Me? I tiptoed up and was happy to stay upright (I felt my rear wheel slip several times).
At the top of the climb it’s only about 1.5 miles to go. It’s flat as the race route continues on North 23rd Street and then makes a left onto East Broad Street. But then the road plunges down East Broad Street to a left onto North 18th Street. (NOTE: North 18th Street is one-way coming the other direction.) For those who want to sample what is perhaps America’s most iconic cuisine, there’s a McDonald’s on the corner of East Broad Street and North 18th Street. If you like south of the border fare, another possible race viewing venue is La Bamba, which is a couple of blocks down North 18th Street and has outdoor seating.
When the race turns right onto East Main Street there’s only about a mile to go. It’s flat going past the 17th Street Farmers Market but the road begins to tilt up at the train station and going under Interstate 95. Then right on Governor Street and only about a half mile to the finish line.
But first the racers will have to go up the climb on Governor Street, which goes past different Virginia government office buildings in the shadow of the Virginia State Capitol. The climb averages 7% gradient (so not really a wall, but not a walk in the park either) and knowing that it’s a left hand turn at the top to the finish is a bit reminiscent of the finish of Liège-Bastogne-Liège in Ans. I can’t help but wonder what Alejandro Valverde will think. (Mark Cavendish visited Richmond one week after I rode the course and he thought the climb up Governor would be the defining climb of the race.) From the left turn onto East Broad to the finish line is a just under 700 meter drag race – still slightly uphill right after the turn but flattens out going past the Capitol on the left and Richmond City Hall on the right.
Having ridden the race route and gotten a taste of what the men’s pro field will have to negotiate 16 times, my riding in Richmond wasn’t over. I made my way back to Shockoe and had lunch with my friends, Bonnie and Tilly, at Station 2 at 2016 East Main Street – which is in an 1899 firehouse and has outdoor seating. It’s very near but not on the race route and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants casual American fare. Their specialties are gourmet hamburgers and “adult” milkshakes.
After lunch, I had another go up Governor Street and somehow managed to earn a Strava 2015 KOM (likely eclipsed by the time this is published, but at least I was KOM for a day). Of course, I don’t chalk the KOM up to my climbing prowess but rather that not many people probably ride up Governor Street since it’s one-way coming down. I also rode the Monument Avenue part of the course again and made my aforementioned stop at City Dogs.
And I wanted to visit some bike shops while I was in Richmond, so I made my way further west over to the Carytown area, which is a hip, bohemian, high end shopping and restaurant district. On the 3100-block of West Cary Street are three bicycle shops: Agee’s Bicycles and Carytown Bicycle Co. (separated by one storefront) and Colley Bicycle Works across the street. Knowing that I still had to ride back to Bonnie and Tilly’s house and drive 90 miles back home to Arlington, I only had time to visit Carytown Bicycle Co.
It was the right choice because I got the chance to meet and talk with owner, Tim Mullins, who is both nice and cool. Amongst other brands (including Felt, which I ride), Carytown is a Specialized dealer and Tim just happens to own a Specialized Tarmac in Michał Kwiatkowski’s World Champion livery. I mean, here I am in Richmond riding the Worlds course to write an article “Ride Like Mike” and I meet a bike store owner who rides a bike like Mike. What are the odds? But is owning a bike with the same graphics as a world champion a violation of Velominati Rule #16?
Respect the Jersey. Championship and race leader jerseys must only be worn if you’ve won the championship or led the race.
Well, it’s a bike not a jersey so technically it’s not a violation. Plus Tim has “the look” of a seriously good racer, which he is. More than good enough to win races (which he mentions in conversation but it’s just matter-of-fact, not bragging), so good enough for me. Tim showed me around the shop and even offered to swap pedals out and let me ride his Kwiatkowski Tarmac, but time conspired against me doing so. Maybe next time?
We had a great conversation about the race course (Tim has ridden hot laps as opposed to my would-be bike journo pace) and our thoughts about the race. We both agreed that the race didn’t necessarily favor one rider or particular type of rider, but it’s probably not a race for the pure sprinters. We also agreed that the nature of the course made it likely that the race would split apart – the question was how long it would take for that to happen. Tim liked the idea of a small group getting away early and being able to make the break stick. If you had the right kind of “strong men” in the group who could negotiate the last 3-mile section of the course together, maybe they would have enough horsepower to hold off a chasing peloton on the flatter, faster 7-mile section.
But if they could, for how many laps? We bandied about several names of possible winners, such as Cancellera, Boonen, Terpstra, Degenkolb, Kristoff, Valverde, Sagan, Stybar, and, of course, Kwiatkowski. If I had to make a prediction (knowing full well that it’s way too early to do so), it would be Valverde just because the course has the vibe of Flèche-Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège – both of which he won this year. The reality is that it’s a crapshoot.
From Carytown Bicycle Co. it was back to the Northside. If you want to get away from crowds in downtown Richmond, I’d definitely recommend venturing to this part of the city. I didn’t get a chance to go this time, but Dot’s Back Inn in the Bellevue neighborhood is worth the trip. It’s unassuming on the outside and definitely a diner (it’s been featured on Guy Fieri’s show “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” on the Food Network) on the inside, but the food is just outstanding.
My day’s work: 180-plus miles of driving, 35 miles of riding like Mike, back home in time to be able to have a glass of wine and dinner with my wife and daughter. That’s better than most.
• See more info at the Richmond Worlds website.
Pez reader Chuck Peña is a former weekend warrior USCF racer who – after 15 some odd years off the bike – now just rides for fun, but every once in a while manages to prove Fausto Coppi’s adage true: Age and treachery will overcome youth and skill. He lives in Arlington, VA with his wife, Karen (who works for Revolution Cycles), his daughter, Marin (an aspiring junior golfer who can beat him, but not all the time … yet), and their dog, Cooper. You can follow him on Twitter @gofastchuck.