Left: Richmond 2015 volunteers lead the way; top right: Edgar Gamba and his wife Sandra lend their support to Rigoberto Uran and the Colombian team; bottom right: young cyclists welcome the Worlds to Richmond at Friday evening's opening ceremony. (Photos by Tina Griego)
On the eve of the bike race that we still can’t quite believe Richmond is hosting -- a reality to which I count four categories of reaction: delight, skepticism, disinterest and grumbling -- the race organizers threw a party Friday night on Brown’s Island.
Since this was a party to kick off the nine-day UCI Road World Championships, it was heavily attended by the enthusiastic. The skeptics showed up, too, and in the spirit of the-city-will-never-pull-this-off, could be heard complaining of public officials who sullied the evening by injecting crass economics into it. It is true that Gov. Terry McAuliffe might have toned down the naked homage to discretionary spending by not urging the “foreigners” in the crowd to spend their every penny. But you could argue he was caught up in the fever of the night. It was not hard to do.
From the stage, downtown rising to his right, the James River flowing to his left, 12,000 people of good cheer stretched out before him – the governor would have beheld a panorama of the city’s promise. It helped that Mother Nature got into the act, offering one of those Richmond September evenings that make you forget how miserable August was.
It’s hard to know how many in the crowd were from elsewhere, but random inquiries revealed a proud local contingent out in force.
“Finally, other people are seeing what I see in Richmond,” says born-and-raised-and-chose-to-stay Richmonder, Carmen Hamlin. She tells me she’s a “peddler and a paddler,” and can hit a trail or the water within two miles of her front door, and what’s not to love about that?
Hamlin has positioned herself near the center path, the best position to catch the grand entry, a procession that includes regional youth carrying flags representing the participating countries, Armstrong High School’s Cycling Corps, on bikes and leading Team USA, which walks through a wall of cheers amid the glint of thousand smart phone screens.
Youth from the region carrying the flags of each country during the 2015 UCI Road World Championships opening ceremony. (Photo by Tina Griego)
It is the spectacle that draws people, the hometown moment on the international stage. The phrase “once-in-a-lifetime,” comes up. Repeatedly. It’s been 29 years since the Worlds were held in the U.S. and everyone seems to know that even if the only other things they can come up with about the sport are “Lance Armstrong” and “Tour de France.” No matter. Knowledge is not a prerequisite of team spirit.
“I came here straight from work,” says Pamela McMullin, 60, of Henrico County. “I don’t know a lot about racing. I just wanted to be here with everybody for this because this event is a once-in-a-lifetime and hopefully there will be a mixture of people from different countries and I will get to meet them.”
The Gamba family of Chesterfield County arrives en masse. Mom, dad, grandma, two kids, best friends, more kids. They wear the yellow jerseys of Colombian fans, which is where they originally are from. Grandma, 81 and named Virginia, is visiting from Bogota. There was no question where they would be Friday night, just as there is no question where they will try to be for the next seven days of the races.
Meet the Gamba family: "We have three generations here," says Edgar Gamba, pictured with his wife Sandra. "My mother, Virginia Gamba is here from Bogota. She is 81. My youngest child is 11. We are Colombian. I have lived here for about 14 years, but we are here to support [Rigoberto] Uran and the Colombian team. (Photo by Tina Griego)
“This is one opportunity in a million,” the family patriarch, Edgar Gamba, says. “We have three generations here tonight. We are here to support [Rigoberto] Uran and the Colombian team. Uran is one of the best in the world, one of the greats. For us, this is one of our country’s sports, along with soccer, so for us, we are glad to see our country represented in the Worlds. We are very excited to see people from all over the world in this beautiful city.”
The crowd shifts to accommodate the Gambas and out come Chuck and Gina Paige of Richmond. They wear T-shirts declaring they are volunteers. An event like this does not happen without volunteers and spots for the race were snapped up as soon as they opened.
“We like to volunteer for everything,” Chuck says. “This was such a huge shot in the arm for Virginia’s growth, we thought, ‘We need to be a part of this.’”
"We’ll be course marshals on Sunday, which is basically keeping spectators in line, making sure no one gets on the course, keeping people safe,” Gina says.
“We’ve been riding ourselves for about 10 years,” Chuck says.
“Eight,” Gina says. “We follow the Tour de France all of July and so to see these guys coming here, it’s just super-exciting for us.”
And then they, too, disappear back into the crowd.
The setting sun bathes everyone in amber. The moon rises. The evening swells with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, performed by the Richmond Symphony and its chorus.
At the end of the night, an elderly and exhausted woman who says I should just call her Martha, proclaims the entire evening, “just too beautiful for words.”
It is a fine night in Richmond.
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