On Sunday afternoon, a 25-year-old Slovakian named Peter Sagan earned the title "world's best road bike racer" on the cobblestone streets of Richmond, Virginia. In the cycling world, Sagan's valiantly earned victory couldn't have been better scripted. The sport's most charismatic star, Sagan raised his arms and stepped off his bike after crossing the line, tossed his helmet and sunglasses into the raucous crowd, and popped a wheelie on his way to the medal ceremony.
But those who'd bet on the long odds of this event, in this country, in this city, won on Sunday along with Sagan. Richmond, even with the dark scars of its Confederate history displayed along the demanding 10-mile course, endeared itself to those of us who really only knew the city for its Civil War heritage.
We took in the entirety of the race from the stadium-like atmosphere on Libby Hill, a serpentine street paved with centuries-old cobbles that jarred the jaws of the racers who sprinted up its steep embankment. The hill had become a small village for the event, with a beer garden and bike valet, a mega-screen TV broadcasting the race live, and an announcer who somehow managed to maintain an edge-of-his-seat enthusiasm for the six hours it took for Sagan to win the 163-mile race.
In route to Libby Hill, we walked past Richmond's Slave Trail, a series of plaques describing its roll in the center of the U.S. slave trade, and along the James River Canal, where slaves newly arrived on boats from Africa were once unloaded in chains and shackles. On the opposing side of the course, the world's best cyclists flew down Monument Ave., circling around grandiose statues of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. The juxtaposition was fascinating — this international and multi-cultural celebration of sport occurring amidst a legacy of racial oppression and hate.
But not everyone took such an anthropological view. In the days leading up to the race, a group called the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project protested the route along Monument Ave. They noted that most locals do not consider the statues sacred, and worried it would give an international television audience the wrong impression. In response to the protest, the Virginia Flaggers, a pro-Confederate flag group, flew an airplane above the assembled crowd with a banner that read "Confederate Heros Matter" — and yes, they misspelled heroes.
However, if anyone can understand the long shadow of past transgressions, and look toward brighter futures, it's bike-racing fans. And on Sunday a new and exciting post-Lance generation of American cyclists put on a show on the streets of Richmond. A native Virginian, Ben King, made his way into the breakaway on the race's opening lap. As he led the small group of leaders up Libby Hill lap after lap, cowbells clanged at deafening volumes and flasks of Bowman Brothers Virginia bourbon were gleefully passed around.
After King came back to the field with 80-miles or so to go, his teammate Taylor Phinney charged off the front in a select group of three. It seemed, if Phinney got enough time, he could-maybe-just-might-possibly-please-God make it to the finish. Shirts were removed, chests were pounded, but alas, Phinney was reabsorbed by the pack, with the Germans, Italians, and Belgians leading the ferocious chase.
Big name after big name — Boonen, Kwiatkowski, Dumoulin — attempted to escape the field, and each came back. At one lap to go, about 50 racers, only a third of the original starters, remained in the field, and from the scrum, American Tyler Farrar attacked. Farrar grimaced painfully as he sped down Dock Street toward the final ascent of Libby Hill. As he passed the historic site where an infamous Civil War jail once housed Union soldiers, the crowd broke into a chant: USA! USA! USA!
Farrar gave one last desperate effort before the pack consumed him at the base of Libby Hill, and the racers strung out into a single scintillating line, two miles from the finish. It was on the next ascent, on the wall-like gradient of 23rd Street, that Sagan went and didn't return. He won alone, just seconds ahead of the field.
The race was over, and as the crowd on Libby Hill caught its collective breath — their voices hoarse and their blood-alcohol levels elevated — a symbolic figure appeared on the course. It was Captain America, clad in blue, complete with a shield at his side. He trotted up Libby Hill, and we all mustered one last loud cheer, as if to say that today, truly, America won.