RICHMOND, Va. -- The cobbled hills near downtown Richmond will play host to the world's top riders in September 2015 and the pavé could provide the perfect launchpad for a rainbow-jersey showdown between cycling's top classics riders.
Under the watchful eyes of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, UCI President Brian Cookson and others, the Richmond organizing committee released the routes for the 2015 UCI Elite Road World Championships on Tuesday afternoon. It will be the first road worlds to be held in the United States since Colorado Springs hosted the 1986 races.
Compared to those races nearly 30 years ago, the Richmond championships will have a little something extra riding on them, in more ways than one.
"So as well as being one of the most important and significant cycling events of the year, the riders and the UCI world championships are also a magnificent showcase for the sport, which, I'm happy to say, despite the reputational damages of recent years, is a sport which is growing immensely in popularity and is taking I believe successful and positive steps to improve its image."
The image Richmond presents to the world will be a largely urban one. The showcase road race course for elite men and women will loop 16.5 kilometers through downtown and along the banks of the James River before finishing on a wide-open, 680-meter straight. Elite men will ride 16 laps, for a total distance of 264 kilometers. The total distance of the elite women's race, which omits one of the course's climbs, was not specified at press time.
The elite men's time-trial course will start north of Richmond at the King's Dominion amusement park and wind its way 53.1 kilometers due south back to downtown on largely flat, straight rural roads. Open to the wind and with few technical details until it enters downtown, it is a traditional time-trialist course, ripe for men like German Tony Martin and Swiss Fabian Cancellara.
The elite women will tackle a separate time-trial course starting and finishing in Richmond, which is the lone route to travel west of the James River. More technical and varied than the men's race, it should open itself to a wide range of contenders, including the United States' Evelyn Stevens. Juniors and under-23 riders will share the 15.5 kilometer circuit with the women.
The team time trial, contested by trade teams, will follow a third course, starting on the outskirts of the city on the banks of the river and finishing downtown. Teams will roll through farmland and Richmond National Battlefield Park, then consider how to keep the required four men together for the finish as they ascend the Governor's Street climb in the final kilometer. The men's loop will run 35.3 kilometers; the women's loop cuts off the southern portion of the course to total 24 kilometers.
Road Race: Cobbles and a sting in the tail
Though not one of the nation's traditional cycling hotbeds, Richmond is no stranger to top-flight racing.
The city featured in the Tour of America and numerous editions of the Tour de Trump and Tour du Pont in the 1980s and early 1990s. Most recently, the city hosted the finish of the one-and-done U.S. Open of Cycling in 2007, a rare point-to-point classics-style race that started in Williamsburg and finished in downtown. Those race experiences have informed the 2015 worlds course, created by Medalist Sports.
From the start, riders will face a mild northwesterly first half of the circuit, terminating in the paving stones of Richmond's Monument Avenue before turning southeast and dropping to the city's riverfront. After a U-turn at the southern tip of the course, riders will encounter the course's main challenges in rapid-fire succession.
The first blow will come from the short, winding Libbey Hill, last used in the U.S. Open in 2007. While the stone pavers of Monument Avenue will be sloggy but relatively kind to riders, the jagged blocks of Libby Hill would easily be at home in the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). Closed to auto traffic, the weed-strewn and potholed climb will be tidied up for the race, but the fight for position will be at its peak coming into the sharp right-hander onto the climb. Dropping a chain, or being stuck behind someone who does, could end a rider's race here on any lap.
After topping Libbey Hill, any escapees will want to push their advantage to stay out of sight through a series of quick turns and into the grunt up 23rd Street. Though only 110 meters long, the arrow-straight hill tops out at a brutal 20-percent grade. Anyone with a choice will hug the asphalt-paved left side; straying onto the cobbled right side could mean a dismount and awkward run to the top.
With a short drop, the peloton will then descend back into the quaint Shockoe Bottom neighborhood and then begin the 350-meter climb of Governor's Street. Over the crest, they'll face a wide-open false flat up Broad Street, where an aspiring rainbow jersey group would have to fight for an agonizing 680 meters to the line. If a small group is clear here, expect some curb-to-curb cat-and-mouse in the final meters.
Richmond's topography will rule out a world title for the pure climbers. The elite road course features only 280 meters of elevation change -- far less than recent championships in the Netherlands and Italy, and this year's edition in Ponferrada, Spain. At the same time, the turns and sharp climbs of the final kilometers may frustrate the pure sprinters, as well as their teams' efforts to provide a coordinated leadout.
So who will be happy? The northern classics contenders.
While the cobbled sections are brief and might not require the skills of a specialist, the positional battles before cobbles, climbs and key turns will favor those who jockey for every corner from February to April. Men who grew up managing the wind along riverfronts and the repeated jumps of the kermesse circuit will feel right at home.
With nearly two full road seasons left before the peloton flies into Virginia, charting who the favorites might be for Richmond is a long way off. But assuming a peloton similar to today's, who might be able to carry it off?
It would be foolish to rule out Peter Sagan, whose impulsive, punchy style could serve him well in a hectic final hour, and who has shown he can shoulder the kilometers of the longer races. Italy national team boss Davide Cassani pegged the Slovakian the favorite for Ponferrada, and Richmond could see his rainbow-jersey defense.
Behind Sagan, a lineup of spring regulars -- Belgians Tom Boonen, Jurgen Roelandts and Greg van Avermaet, Italians Daniel Oss and Luca Paolini, Australian Heinrich Haussler and others -- will be licking their chops. The tough, rising finish straight could even play to the strengths of Cancellara, whose last-kilometer blasts have landed Tour de France stages and a Milan-Sanremo title in the past.
On the women's side it would be unwise to elevate any rider above Dutch phenom Marianne Vos, regardless of the course. The multiple-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist would likely face a challenge from American sprinter Shelley Olds along with Stevens, who might enjoy a chance to seize the rainbow stripes at home, but the Richmond course may not have enough topography to spring the latter.
Other perennial women's favorites, including former world champion Giorgia Bronzini (Italy), Emma Johansson (Sweden), Lizzie Armitstead (Great Britain) and Vos' compatriot Ellen Van Dijk could also play a role.
One thing riders are unlikely to face is spring classics weather. In late September, Richmond enjoys an average high of 77 degrees and a low of 56 degrees, with some of the lowest average precipitation of the year. But for U.S. collegiate racers, who will test the road and time-trial courses to be used by the elite women and U23s at their nationals in just three months, Richmond, and Libby Hill in particular, will provide a little taste of the northern classics.