"The Worlds Comes to Richmond” is the slogan proclaimed with increasingly visibility during the approach to the city’s big bike event — the Union Cycliste Internationale Road World Championship races, set for Sept. 19-27.
Richmond is primped: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” to channel the jaded, silent screen star Norma Desmond in the classic film “Sunset Boulevard.”
Organizers and promoters hope the race, which should attract 1,000 elite cyclists, will provide a traditionally sedate town the chance to proclaim its newfound hipness and flex its tattooed limbs.
Richmond has never played host to a singular political, entertainment or sporting event of this scope. Organizers anticipate 450,000 spectators and an international television audience with access to 400 viewing hours. And what could be more au courant than the colorful sport of international cycling? It’s an outdoor event, environmentally savvy and is nothing if not fast-paced.
Two hundred vibrant banners are unfurled over downtown streets with messages of welcome printed in 18 international languages. An official comprehensive website complete with daily street closings is up. Hotel rooms have been booked. Trees and flowers are planted. Cobblestones reset. Asphalt spewed and rolled flat. More dramatically, even Kanawha Plaza was bulldozed and decimated earlier this month with desperate, Potemkin-villagelike resolve, lest the sight of homeless in the financial district spoil the televised visuals.
Finally, Richmond can play itself on camera. With its deep reserve of old buildings and distinctive landscapes, the region has mostly been a stand-in for Washington (Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”) and places farther away and back in time such as Long Island, New York (AMC’s television series “Turn”).
But come Sept. 19 the footage will be in real time with a variety of sites providing such wide-ranging backdrops as textured Church Hill, manicured University of Richmond, verdant Hanover County and flashy Kings Dominion.
“Hosting this event is a positive sign that Richmond is changing,” says Nick Feucht, a 29-year-old resident of North Side’s Brookland Park neighborhood, who’s enthusiastic and even poetic about the races.
“It’s going to be interesting,” he says. “There are 7.3 billion people in the world, many of whom ride bicycles. But the very best cyclists will be here, exercising the engine of a human being by pedaling as fast as they can, 35 miles per hour — on city streets where you can’t drive a car that fast.”
When Richmond was named host city for the races three years ago, in July 2012, there were questions. Could the region pull itself together organizationally after such high-profile stumbling as resolving the future of The Diamond? Could it achieve obvious infrastructural improvements and cosmetic adjustments? Would local residents — especially the downtown work force and those on college campuses — know what to expect from the traffic realignments? After all, at various times many center city streets will be shut down for the time trials and road races.
And what about goals beyond logistics: Would the area’s business, cultural and educational organizations seize the occasion to leverage their programs? Would Richmond’s civic and business leaders harness the opportunity for longer-term gains in terms of tourism and other economic development?
There was a dress rehearsal of sorts. Last summer the CapTech USA Cycling Collegiate Road National Championship was held here, shutting down parts of downtown for a number of days. In anticipation of that cycling event and the bigger one to follow, one of the city’s first challenges was rerouting GRTC bus lines that snake through downtown.
That required pulling most buses off a stretch of East Broad in the vicinity of Fifth Street, the site of some of the races’ starts and finishes. The changes led to the establishment of a poorly designed and inconvenient temporary bus transfer plaza along three blocks just north of City Hall. For the UCI races, five blocks of East Broad Street will be closed from Third to Eighth streets for the entirety of the UCI event.
Anticipating the races and major accessibility issues, especially at its Monroe Park campus, Virginia Commonwealth University has canceled regular classes from Sept. 21-25 and reconfigured its semester academic calendar. But it has also embraced the international cycling event, being held in the United States for only the second time in 92 years as a teaching opportunity across departments. “The initial reaction was wow, this is big, we’d better get out of the way,” says Judi Crenshaw, an adjunct professor in the university’s Robertson School of Media and Culture, “But as people learned more about it, it became a big opportunity: VCU was on board for that.”
The university has established an elaborate special website for the event and, if they choose, students have the opportunity to select among some 30 one-credit courses across a broad spectrum of disciplines including the Physics of Bicycling, Event Planning and Promotion, and the Big Win: Corporate Social Responsibility.
Crenshaw is teaching a course in the experience of social media immersion. “We’re trying to take the mystery out of this event that’s from across the ocean,” she says, “its fun, a way to jump right in and leverage the races for Richmond and VCU.”
While most other downtown business and government offices will remain open, some employers will take a liberal view of leave or allow their people to work from home.
A number of downtown churches, knowing they’re cordoned off for two consecutive Sundays during the event, have adjusted their traditional worship services. At Second Presbyterian Church on North Fifth Street, congregants will gather in a Union Presbyterian Seminary chapel in Ginter Park. Another church just few blocks away at Grace and Ninth streets, St. Paul’s Episcopal, is adamant that it won’t let a bicycle race cause it to miss holding Sunday services for the first time in 150 years. The parish is holding early morning and evening Sunday services, before and after the races.
A number of local entrepreneurs are hustling to complete construction of projects to take full advantage of launching operations during the expected bump in traffic from the race.
Citizen, a popular financial district restaurant in the Mutual Building, was planning to move this summer to a larger space at 1203 E. Main St., near the route of a number of the cycling races. It timed the shift to coincide with the event.
“The race was a perfect time to make the move,” says Greg Johnson, co-owner and chef of the eatery. “It’s exciting to have the event of our moving fall within the event of this bike race. And it offers us the opportunity to offer good hospitality to out-of-towners.”
The city’s Public Works Department has been in overdrive for more than a year, repaving streets and sidewalks and installing disabled curb ramps within two blocks of the courses. It’s been accomplished on schedule and on budget, according to a Richmond official.
But if the UCI races are, from a local standpoint, about Richmond presenting a contemporary face to the world, there was one thing planners couldn’t have envisioned: the passions sparked by recent racially-tinged violence in other parts of the nation coalescing with the physical memorials to Richmond’s place in history as the former Capital of the Confederacy.
Monument Avenue, as beautiful a boulevard as any with its tree-lined median, elegant houses, grand churches and heroic statuary, was chosen as the spine of the race courses for visual as well as strategic and logistical reasons. But it became apparent this spring that organizers never considered seriously enough the sensitivity that a number of people might have to the images of Confederate historical figures hovering at key locations along the race route.
This became especially problematic when it became obvious that the focal point of some races would be a U-turn around the Jefferson Davis monument. After the mass killing in a Charleston, South Carolina church, and the widely circulated photograph of the accused gunman posing in front of a large Confederate flag, a group called Defenders of Freedom, Justice and Equality called for the race to be moved from Monument Avenue.
Then, the Davis monument was vandalized with “Blacks lives matter” painted on the Confederate president’s statue. And on the 40th anniversary of Arthur Ashe’s historic tennis championship at Wimbledon, former governor and mayor Douglas Wilder weighed in, chiding city officials for allowing the Richmond native’s Monument Avenue statue to become ill-kempt while the Confederate memorials were pristine.
Joining the ensuing debate over Confederate symbols, Gov. Terry McAullife applied a temporary Band-Aid on the controversy by banning Confederate flag imagery on Virginia license plates, but suggesting that Confederate monuments would stay.
It’s ironic that these debates on race, memory and imagery followed soon after the four-year observance of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, which concluded in April with the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
If the unwritten script had been followed, the images of Richmond’s post-Civil War scorched ruins in April 1865 would have been followed by the 2015 international cycling event — the reality of a Southern city rebuilt, renewed and ready to welcome the world.
Audiences could see that the city on the James River had moved on to become a university town and medical center, full of microbreweries and innovative restaurants, major advertising agencies and law firms, arresting visual art and an explosion of music. But after four years of organized discussions of slavery, emancipation and reunion, the ghosts of the past obviously have a long way to go before they’re exorcised.
There’d always been some question as to whether Richmond would rally to welcome the world, but debating the vestiges of the Lost Cause wasn’t to be in the equation.
Local race organizers reportedly said that it wouldn’t back off from even unflattering aspects of Richmond’s past.
Still, the community has to ask itself: Has a balanced history been told? Davis, Lee, Jackson and others were recognized leaders in their day, responding to the times they knew. But the narrative locally has been lopsided. Could Richmonders have rallied to complete the long-discussed statue saluting Maggie L. Walker, Richmond’s brilliant African-American business, political and civil rights leader, in time for the race? Could the Virginia Black History Museum have been opened by September? Could there have been meaningful and instructive historical sites in Shockoe Bottom, an epicenter of the heinous slave trade? Also in Shockoe Bottom, any significant development of the evocative site of the former slave trade in Richmond, including interpretation of the African-American graveyards, was put on hold because of continuing controversy over a new ballpark.
Other issues cannibalized precious time and budget with the bicycle race approaching. Among them was establishing the Redskins training camp, the possibility of a regional children’s hospital, the fate of the Diamond site and the proposed rapid-transit bus line from downtown to Willow Lawn.
When Mayor Dwight Jones announced that Richmond would serve as host to the races, it was clear that the event was a catalyst not only to spruce up, but also to move the region ahead developmentally.
It also was obvious that Richmond would have to become more bike-friendly.
Certain things have been left undone. The proposed pedestrian and bicycle bridge connecting Brown’s Island with Manchester, already named for the late-Tyler Potterfield, a Richmond city planner, preservationist and cycling enthusiast, was supposed to be finished. Construction of the project, envisioned to symbolize and advance the area’s embrace of cycling and healthy living, has not started due in part to the timing of federal environmental requirements.
The effort to adapt the full length of Floyd Avenue from the Museum District to the Fan into a cycling-friendly straightaway ran into political and neighborhood snags and was uncompleted.
On the plus side, after 10 years in the making, the 52-mile Virginia Capital Trail should be completed in time for the races, wrapped up with the final Henrico County link. The ambitious and splendid foot and cycling pathway connects Shockoe Bottom to decidedly more rural points east, including the outskirts of Jamestown and Williamsburg,
Other major capital projects seemed within the realm of possibility by this summer, at least three years ago. Chief among them was a redesign of the 17th Street Farmers’ Market and its replacement with a new, more open town-square-styled configuration to make it a more commodious events venue. Sluggishness on moving this project along is probably related to issues regarding placing a minor league stadium in the Bottom, an issue with the uncertainty of a hanging chad.
The Greater Richmond Convention Center will serve as the indoor staging venue for FanFest, the hub of the UCI event. It’s a terrific venue, because Richmond can be tropically hot and stormy in September. Big-screen televisions will allow spectators to monitor the races, display spaces will accommodate more than 100 vendors, and there will be an area promoting Virginia products. Fans will also be able to meet athletes and get autographs at an awards podium area.
But as attractive as the downtown convention center may be on the inside, a civic embarrassment awaits those who venture beyond the fortresslike complex: They’ll find adjacent blocks bereft of urbanity. The 6th Street Marketplace food court is shuttered and decaying. The arches of the loggia of the Blues Armory along Marshall Street were recently enclosed by chain-link fence to keep out the homeless. Nearby, Nina Abady Festival Park, just south of the Richmond Coliseum, is forlorn.
And East Broad Street at Fifth, a major crossroads, is underwhelming. The front entrances to the Miller & Rhoads Hilton and the Marriott, the point of some race start and finish lines, have the appeal of a used car-dealership and the lot that occupies the entire south side of the 400 block of Broad is a sea of vehicles.
Fortunately, those looking to wander a little beyond the convention center should find more welcoming oases. There are handsome new restaurants in the 300 and 400 blocks of East Grace Street, in Jackson Ward, and on West Broad. There are more venerable local spots as well, such as Penny Lane Pub, Capital Ale House and Lemaire.
In Manchester, a major disappointment was the postponement of the third annual RVA Street Art Festival, which was scheduled to be held in conjunction with the bicycle event. Buoyed by the success of its two previous festivals — held at the Power Plant building along the Canal Walk and at the GRTC Transit System bus depot near the Fan District — organizers had announced that this year’s festival would be held near the iconic Southern States silos, just south of the Mayo Bridge. But it’s now planned for the spring.
On a higher note, earlier this year the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts collaborated with the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce and the City of Richmond in “Go Bike.” It was a juried contest of original pieces by Richmond artists that could be attached to bike racks. Thirty works were selected from 80 submissions and the final sculptures were the result of castings from the OK Foundry here, design work by Tektonics and welding from the City of Richmond’s Center for Workforce Innovation welding school. The pieces, which were displayed at the art museum, are being installed on racks in various parts of the city.
Other organizations are seeking to put the races in historic, scientific and aesthetic perspective. The Valentine is mounting a special exhibition and extending museum hours to 8 p.m. each night. “In Gear: Richmond Cycles” will feature bicycles from the museum, including planner Potterfield’s bike, and draw from its deep collection of photographs. A shot of Donald Trump in Richmond for the 1989 Tour de Trump should be of timely interest, considering his presidential campaign.
The Valentine also is working in partnership with the Science Museum of Virginia, which is showing “Bikes: Science on Wheels,” a loan exhibit from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Science Center that traces innovations in cycling technology since the 1870s. An admission to one of these exhibitions allows the ticketholder to visit the other exhibit.
The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design, at 2401 Monument Ave., holds a lecture, “Bicycles: Shaping Our Past, Influencing our Future,” Aug. 20. It features Andy Boenau, a Richmond city planner and engineer, and Tom Houff, author of “On Richmond Wheels.”
Some of the most interesting spinoffs have come from independent entrepreneurs.
In the 1600 block of West Main Street, in the vicinity of Lombardy, a number of merchants and restaurant and gallery owners realized early on that the race would move through their neighborhood. They moved quickly to get permits for street closing on three days during the races for a West Main Village street fair. In Manchester at Plant Zero on Hull Street, designer Micheal Sparks has organized a nine-day culinary event, “Underground Kitchen” featuring meals by different chefs daily. In an adjacent, 7,000 square foot space he is installing “Pop Up Revolution,” a specially-designed retail space with more than 20 vendors.
At the soon-to-open Quirk, a boutique hotel on West Broad and Jefferson streets, reservations are being accepted (although construction continues) in anticipation of the Sept. 17 opening. “We’re trying to be patient. The biggest thing is completing the construction” says Kate Brown, sales and marketing director, “We want it done to perfection. You only get one chance to make a first impression.”
“When I told my father the races were coming here, he was ecstatic,” says Stefano Ghigliazza, 25, who works in a Fan bookstore. “He is from Varazze, Italy, and cycling is huge over there. They watch it on television all the time.”
Ghigliazza says his father made hotel reservations a year ago. And while the rest of the family has never been to a bike race, Stefano says his parents will be making the trip from Connecticut and will be joined here by two sisters from Washington and a brother coming from Boston. The Ghigliazzas found lodging in the far West End because most downtown hotels were filled.
Says VCU instructor Crenshaw of the upcoming event: “You don’t have to be in it to enjoy it; you don’t have to be a cyclist or an athlete.”
One thing is certain, the Worlds are just weeks away.
“There is a level of uncertainty as is anything of this scale, but you don’t know what it is until the race happens and you deal with it,” says North Side resident Feucht, “This event is a milestone and the entire city should be proud.” S