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(From left) Armstrong High School cyclists Antonio Goode, Diamond Womack and LaVone Lewis visit Pocahontas State Park for tour of the park’s trails, where Richmond Cycling Corps members will work on trail-building projects. (photo courtesy Richmond Cycling Corps)
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Diamond Womack is interviewed by professional cyclist Ben King after winning a girls state title last fall in the Virginia High School Cycling League championships, sanctioned by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. (Nick Davis photo, courtesy Richmond Cycling Corps)
On the labyrinthine mountain biking trails through the heavily forested Pocahontas State Park, sharp detours and earthen obstacles can seem to pop up out of nowhere.
The fast-changing terrain is a fitting metaphor for 16-year-old Diamond Womack’s transformation in the last three years from an aspiring junior high basketball player to a girls state mountain biking champion.
“In eighth grade, I used to play basketball, but I wasn't good at it, so I just stopped,” she says.
But her younger sister, Ciara Mallory, had become involved in a youth outreach program that introduces inner-city kids to cycling. Womack followed her lead and joined the Richmond Cycling Corps (RCC). The nonprofit program based in Scott's Addition gives young city residents — particularly those in public housing — a chance to broaden their horizons beyond their neighborhoods and even well beyond city limits by riding bikes recreationally and competitively.
Despite some adjustments to her newly adopted sport, Womack says she found a camaraderie with other RCC members, many from her neighborhood in Fairfield Court. “I like that most of my teammates are people I live around and talk to every day and go to school with," she says.
RCC has expanded significantly in the last two years and launched a mountain biking team in February 2014 at Armstrong while also establishing a 1.5-mile trail circuit at the school —the Armstrong Bike Park.
In its first season of racing, the nine-member Armstrong High team finished third out of 15 teams in the National Interscholastic Cycling Association’s state mountain bike racing series. Womack took first place in her division.
The Armstrong team trains occasionally on the Pocahontas State Park trails, courtesy of a partnership between the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, RCC and the Dominion Foundation (a charity arm of Dominion Resources).
The riders’ connections to the trails dig a bit deeper than their tire treads, though. Last summer, through its Richmond Trail Corps, RCC members helped clean up and “armor” — that is, set stone, lumber or log pathways — three miles of the trail network, a project partly funded by the Dominion Foundation.
This morning, Womack and other Armstrong teammates joined state Secretary of Natural Resource Molly Ward for a tour of the park’s trails, where 12 RCC members will again go to work in the coming months; the trail-building projects will contribute to a region-wide effort that’s under way to put the Richmond area on the map of the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA). The holy grail — it’s an ongoing process of application and qualification — will be earning the region the designation of “IMBA Ride Center” sometime this year, (a topic we covered in our February issue).
The corps’ service component is something of a holistic experience for the athletes, giving them the chance to quite literally build their own pathways to new achievement.
Looking back on her success in last fall’s race, Womack reflected on the fact that the hours of practice and hard work with teammates and RCC coaches carried her to something she didn’t quite expect.
“When we first started racing,” she says, “I never thought I would be champion. … Every time I'm feeling like I can't do something, my coaches — mostly Craig [Dodson, RCC’s director] — tell me just to believe.”
The training courses and other race trails, she notes, were probably only 3 to 4 miles long, but the course she rode to victory was about 12 miles.
The corps’ motto, of course, is “Can’t Stop. Won’t Stop.” And one can imagine a young rider like Womack turning the crank, pedal over pedal, marking the cadence with those words as the mantra.
“I don't really think about how far the [trails] are and all,” Womack says, “I just keep racing.”