This week, Richmond is bursting at the seams with excitement (and people!) as the city plays host to 1,000 of the world’s top cyclists and thousands of eager spectators. Since the UCI Road World Championships started in 1921, the race has only been held in the U.S. twice—in 1986 in Colorado Springs, and this year, on our very own doorstep. (We mean that literally; our downtown office is located smack-dab in the middle of all the action.)
To celebrate the event’s official kick-off, we turned to our in-house cycling experts to give us a peek into the world of competitive bike racing.
Enter community studio project designer Matt Robins, a veteran of the sport who qualified for the Olympic Trials in 1996, and mechanical and plumbing designer Ben Rickey, a member of local cycling team PTS Racing. The dynamic duo let us in on the best spots in the city to watch the bikes go by.
Give us a little back story. How did you two get into bike racing?
Matt: I’ve been riding bikes forever, ever since I was a little kid. The moment I realized that I could get to 7-Eleven on my own, without asking my mom for a ride, was an epiphany. When I was in school at Virginia Tech, I spent all my weekends just riding around in the mountains. I met a guy at a bike shop who introduced me to racing, and today, I have over 20 seasons of racing experience under my belt.
Ben: My dad used to race, and he was the one who got me into it. I took up the sport when I was 14, but I didn’t get serious about it until after I graduated from college. I’ve been doing it for about seven years now.
What is your training regimen like?
Ben: I do anywhere from 10-15 hours a week on the bike, which is about 200-300 miles. During the season, which runs from March through September, I’ll race three weekends every month.
Matt: The “big mileage” weeks come right before the season starts. I didn’t compete this year, but last season, I was averaging 400 miles per week in late February and early March (if you include commuting mileage). During the season, I don’t ride that many miles; it’s about building up to it. I don’t race quite as often as Ben does, because it takes me a little longer to recover. For Ben, the longer races can be 80-100 miles; older riders like me rarely race more than 50 miles.
For people who know next to nothing about international cycling, what are the basics?
Matt: Worldwide competitive cycling is governed by Union Cycliste International (UCI). Each participating nation has its own federation under the UCI. The heart and soul of the racing that Ben and I do revolves around cycling clubs, which are registered with the national federation. These clubs promote and organize the races; typically, it is a very low budget operation. At the World Pro level, there is a lot more money involved. The racers are paid a salary, sometimes many millions of dollars for a top tier rider. These are the athletes who will be competing here in Richmond.
Ben: Riders are categorized by gender, age, and ability, which is evaluated based on experience and performance and designated by five categories, with Category 1 being the highest. Above that, you have the pros. Right now, Matt and I are both Category 2.
During the UCI race, there are time trial circuits and road circuits. What’s the difference?
Matt: Well, the UCI event in Richmond is what’s referred to as “road cycling,” as opposed to track cycling or mountain biking. The two different disciplines within road cycling are the road race, which you start as a group, and whoever crosses the finish line first wins. In a time trial race, each competitor starts individually, and the fastest overall time wins. Some people, like Ben, race well against other people, so he excels at road racing. I am better at time trialing.
Ben: There’s a lot more strategy involved in bike racing than in running, especially in the road race. The strongest person doesn’t always win. If you’re riding right behind someone at 20 mph, you’re using two-thirds of the energy the rider in front of you is using. You have pick a time during the race when the effect of the draft isn’t as important—say, on a hill—to make a move.
What makes this race different from any other race that happens during the season?
Matt: The important distinction to make is that during this race, riders are competing for their nation—not their trade teams. It’s similar to soccer: many players are on the same professional teams during the season, but in the World Cup, they’re playing against each other for their respective countries. The only exception to this is in the team time trial where riders compete for their trade team
Tactically, the World Championships are very interesting; for 99% of the year, professional riders are being paid by a sponsor as a part of a trade team. That can cause friction during the Championships if a rider’s sponsor wants to ensure certain results. Your sponsor might say, “I think it would be really great if your teammate from Belgium won,” and that puts you in the position of either riding for your country or secretly riding to support members of your trade team. Of course, that’s not supposed to happen—but when I’m watching the UCI race, I pay attention to nationalities as well as trade team representation.
What race are you most excited for this week—and where is the best place to watch?
Ben: The Men’s Elite Road Race, which is the biggest and the last event of the week, is the one I’m looking forward to. Hills are often the place where the leader breaks away from the pack. I live two blocks from Libby Hill, so that’s the spot where I’d be.
Matt: For me, it’s a toss-up between the Men’s Elite Time Trial and the Men’s Elite Road Race. My advice to someone who wants to watch the race? Think slow. If you want to really see the riders, from their gear to the expressions on their faces, the best place to watch is typically on a hill. On Monument Avenue, they’ll go by in a flash. And of course, the start and the finish are also great places to catch all the action.