For months, Richmond has been paving, planting and pruning to prepare itself as host for the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Road World Championship bicycle races that start Saturday and proceed until Sept. 27.
It’s an ambitious undertaking for a town that isn’t often in the national, let alone global, spotlight. Some 1,000 racers and 450,000 spectators are expected for the event that is expected to be televised to 300 million people around the world.
Such events may be small beer in the District or even Baltimore, but Richmond is a special case. Richmond has been steadily evolving from a sleepy, genteel Southern town into a vibrant, if not hip, place that welcomes diversity, food, the arts and sports.
How the bike races go down will do more than any other event to define the former Capital of the Confederacy. Anxious Richmond is like a self-conscious belle primping for a coming-out party.
A lot is at stake locally. Mayor Dwight C. Jones (D) pushed the city into buying into the UCI championships with $7 million. Critics say he was neglecting the poor, who make up 26 percent of the city’s population.
Jones responded that the races will actually help lower-income people by giving the city an immediate shot of meals and lodging tax money followed by (hopefully) a fresh reputation that can draw other big events. The race is expected to bring in $3.8 million in local taxes and provide a regional economic boost of about $129 million.
Race boosters have had to backtrack from statements about how many people will actually come to the races. The expectation is 450,000 “spectators,” but promoters later had to qualify that, saying they included locals who might show up several times during race week.
It isn’t known how many overseas fans will show up, but when a similar UCI race was held in 2003 in Hamilton, Ontario, only about 2,000 came from outside the United States and Canada.
Local residents don’t know quite what to expect. Key parts of downtown streets will be closed, Virginia Commonwealth University is postponing classes, and restaurant owners are setting up impromptu co-ops to help each other get food supplies if trucks can’t get through. Downtown hotels are booked, but suburban innkeepers complain that all the buzz has kept business away. The Kings Dominion theme park in Doswell, about 20 miles north of town, will open for free with some rides on Sept. 23 when one bike race starts there.
There have been some slip-ups. When city workers put up flags of nations at a downtown spot, they hung them upside down. Civil rights activists plan on holding a protest near a statue of Jefferson Davis because some race routes include the city’s grand Monument Avenue with memorials to Confederate heroes.
Yet the city is alive with activity. Potholes are being filled, sidewalks are being resurfaced, parks aee getting perked up, and artists are painting huge murals along city and suburban race routes.
One of them is of Marshall “Major” Taylor, an African American who was a world-champion racer. Known as the “Black Cyclone,” Taylor raced from 1894 to 1910, winning 40 competitions in Europe.
Richmond artist James L. Thornhill has painted a 40 feet by 40 feet mural of Taylor in the city’s historic Jackson Ward district within site of the main bike race route.
Taylor would not have been allowed to race in Richmond during his day, but things have certainly changed.
Peter Galuszka is a regular contributor to All Opinions Are Local.