RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Richmond is about to throw a huge party with the eyes of the world watching.
The city is hosting the road world championships, one of cycling’s major races. The nine-day event starts Saturday, and local organizers who have been preparing for five years expect 1,000 athletes from more than 70 countries, and 450,000 spectators. The former Confederate capital is the first American city to host the races since Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1986.
For Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones, it’s a chance to showcase the city to an international audience, in person and on television. Organizers estimate 300 million viewers will watch worldwide.
Jones and organizing committee members have traveled to the world championships several times since winning the bid, and Jones thinks the city will stand out for hosting a world-class event in a festival atmosphere.
The races will finish outside the city’s downtown Convention Center all nine days. Jones says having a permanent finishing point is unusual for the championships.
“In the worlds that I’ve been to, there’s not been a really nice focal point for the races,” said Jones, who took office in 2009. “We’re going to have a great focal point for the races and all the business for the worlds can be in the convention center. I think that we’re uniquely set up for this.”
Richmond also has been a popular host city for bicycle races in the past.
Enthusiasts recall fondly seeing crowded sidewalks and downtown parking decks that filled with spectators to watch Americans like Greg LeMond, Davis Phinney and even a young Lance Armstrong race against an international field in the Tour du Trump and Tour DuPont in the early- to mid-1990s.
The crowds and sense of a big celebration were evident again last August when Richmond hosted the U.S. collegiate cycling championships hoping to work out any kinks that arose before tackling the worlds.
Organizers have acknowledged a fear in the city among some that the race routes that go through downtown will create bottlenecks that make getting around difficult during the morning and evening rush hour, and some business owners have complained that the promised business boost when the college championship were held never materialized.
The races have been scheduled with the goal that only the morning or evening rush hour will be impacted, said Tim Miller, chief operating officer for Richmond 2015, the organizing committee.
Jones, meanwhile, expects the impact on Richmond and central Virginia to continue far beyond when the men’s elite road circuit wraps up the championships on Sept. 27. Jones believes the economic value, estimated at $158 million, can be just the beginning for the city, and give it a much-needed economic boost.
“We have about 26 percent poverty that we can’t tax our way out of. We have to find ways to grow our way out of it. This is a way, kind of a fun way, to attract people,” Jones said.
Courses will bring the riders down Richmond’s crown jewel, Monument Ave., over the cobblestone roads of historic Shockhoe Bottom and finish near Virginia Commonwealth University. The course for the marquee event, the men’s elite road race, also was changed to incorporate the University of Richmond’s bucolic campus as the starting point.
International cycling leaders say bringing their marquee event to the United States is an opportunity to give Americans a closer look at the sport, which is wildly popular in Europe.
“It’s a sport that’s good for your health, it’s good for the environment, it’s got traffic and transport benefits, it’s got economic benefits, tourism benefits,” UCI President Brian Cookson said during a preliminary visit to Richmond.
“So I think what we’ve got here in Richmond coming up is an absolutely wonderful opportunity for a showcase of what cycling can bring to a region, to a city and to a country.”
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