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The climb up Libby Hill
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Collegiate time trials, both individual and team races,wheeled up and down Monument on Friday.
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By midday Saturday, halfway through the 2014 CapTech USA Cycling Collegiate Road National Championships, Richmonders had plenty of time to voice absolute love or hatred of competitive cycling. Chasing the hashtag #collnats, Facebook and Twitter commenters waged a prolonged tug of war that likely won’t end even soon after the last college student in Lycra crosses the finish line downtown Sunday afternoon.
Among the disgruntled, downtown business owners and workers complained about losing business or time on the job. Others driving cross-town cursed the traffic and questioned the true economic impact when all is said and done. Dozens of unaware car owners had to reclaim vehicles from the towing lots after failing to obey the street closings. But overwhelming the din of unhappiness was everyone else — from Facebooking cops to ecstatic hometown hero Chris Jones who took the national title in the Men’s Individual Time Trial as a rider for Virginia Commonwealth University.
The criterium races Saturday started with non-collegiate amateur races on the downtown course that was more contained to the general business district. A “crit” is a bit like the Le Mans auto race on bikes — riders take laps around a course of many turns, usually staying bunched in a speed-inducing group until a frenzied sprint at the end. It’s not about time but finishing order. College riders were taking to the course for the later half of the day.
But Sunday, the final day of the championships, is when the course stretches out again for the road races — a 10-mile circuit runs between Monument Avenue in the Fan to just east of Great Shiplock Park along the James River. The local race organizers, Richmond 2015, point to three key vantage points — the start/finish line at the Downtown Richmond Convention Center; the turn-around point at Davis and Monument avenues; and the signature view of the race, Libby Hill.
When the local organizers unveiled the courses in February for this year’s event and next year’s larger-scale world road cycling championships, Union Cycliste International President Brian Cookson praised Richmond’s urban features as a match for some of the best-known European courses. In countries such as Belgium and France, age-old road surfaces, like Richmond’s remaining cobblestoned streets, inspire respect and sometimes fear and dread, among pro cyclists. Particularly in the Spring Classic races of Europe, notably the Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, the long, cobbled racecourse sections can humble the greatest of cyclists.
Libby Hill, Cookson noted, “would surely get a place in the Tour of Flanders if it were in Belgium.” Even if you can’t quite understand the intense, distilled masochism of competitive cyclists contrasted with the slick aesthetic of their trappings and machinery, everyone can comprehend gravity, whether physical, emotional or intellectual. Most anyone can relate to a person trying to drag herself over the crest of an impossible hill, battling to know sweet relief on the downside. In Richmond, on Sunday, that moment of rigorous self-effacement, of bitter realization or euphoria, may be nowhere more on display than along the winding, ascending cobblestones of Libby Hill.
Sunday's races begin in front of the Convention Center at 7 a.m., ladies first. Visit usacycling.org for the full schedule of events.