By Ibrahim Abdul-Matin
From September 19 to September 27 in Richmond, Virginia, one thousand of the world’s top cyclists will compete in the 2015 Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Road World Championships, affectionately known as #Richmond2015. This is the first time in 30 years the race is being held in the USA. The riders are competing on behalf of their countries (as opposed to their sponsored teams like in the Tour de France). Seventy-five countries are represented this year and the City of Richmond estimates a crowd of 450,000 people from all over the globe coming to watch and cheer.
Sporting events often claim that they will positively impact their host cities. Job creation, tourism, and media coverage are a few of the things touted by planning committees. But, most often, what’s left behind are the ghosts of great achievements, crumbling stadiums, and in some cases (especially the Olympics), displaced populations and destroyed communities. There is a hope however that #Richmond2015 will leave a beneficial lasting impression on this small southern city.
Richmond is famous for a lot of reasons. It was the capital of the Confederate South during the US’ Civil War. At about the same time, Richmond developed into a hub of the tobacco industry, leading the country’s tobacco planting, harvest, and cigarette production. Philip Morris (known today as Altria) has its headquarters in town.
In the sports world, Richmond is known as the birthplace and home of the legendary Arthur Ashe, the Black American pioneer of professional tennis. The city’s athletic center bears his name. A more contemporary Richmond connection is to Russell Wilson, the star quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks. Wilson grew up in Richmond and attended the famous Collegiate Prepatory High School. The Richmond International Raceway hosts NASCAR’s Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series races. Still, there are no professional sports teams that call Richmond home, though it is home to the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Rams – the men’s basketball team that shined under star former coach Shaka Smart who took the Rams to the Atlantic 10 and the Final Four championships.
Richmond earned the bid for this year’s UCI Road World Championships four years ago. Meanwhile, the cycling movement has flourished.
Ali Faruk, a Richmond resident, explains. “There is a dedicated biking community in Richmond. There have been a lot of people biking in the city out of economic necessity.”
Previously, these bike riders received little attention. #Richmond2015, has started conversations about biker safety that is benefiting all people, whether racers or everyday riders. “Now that other people are interested in biking, the city added a lot of bike paths,” says Faruk.
Since Richmond’s landscape was built in a pre-car era, it has the backbones of a bike-friendly city. While the expansion of VCU and the transfer of Fortune 500 companies post-2008 recession has increased the number of cars and intensified the area’s car culture, there are still plenty of people who bike including college students, hipsters, and low-income folks who cannot afford a car. Before #Richmond2015, there was a clash of car and bike cultures. Because of #Richmond2015, the city and its residents are emphatically discussing how bikers and drivers can safely coexist.
Unlike Olympic stadiums that are rarely used after the games, Richmond has the opportunity to make the new bike paths constructed for the race a central part of the city’s infrastructure. Richmond could use this opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the country’s bike friendliest cities including Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Portland and emphasize safety, sustainability, and coexistence. I’ll be honest – compared to its confederate capital and tobacco hub identities, the potential of becoming a southern “Bike Capitol” seems exciting, fitting, and a far better alternative.