Richmonders don’t enjoy sports only from the sidelines, they get out and do — as seen by the number of road racers, trail riders, benefit rides and commuters whizzing by on two wheels any given day.
With the UCI Road World Championships hitting town, the city’s love of bikes comes full circle by taking on a spectator role, with fans, casual observers and the oblivious cheering on local favorites and cyclists from around the world.
It was a Central Virginia-wide focus on cycling that helped groom Ben King, a local favorite to compete in the race, into an elite cyclist. It also helped keep the sport at the forefront for the King family.
King, born in Henrico County and raised in Charlottesville — the location of Team USA’s pre-event training camp — races internationally for the Cannondale-Garmin UCI Pro team. His father, Mark, who also lives in the Charlottesville area, is a category two racer who frequently trains alongside Ben’s uncle, Dan. He, in turn, is a category one racer, and Ben’s brother, Jake, has raced internationally as well.
Dan King can frequently be found training at the Bryan Park Training Races, an event held by the Altius Cycling Team — one of about 20 official cycling clubs in Richmond proper — which average about 30 riders.
Joe Notarnicola, a cyclist and promoter of the events, says that most local clubs hold races every weekend to maintain their official status. Cyclists have been gathering for the Bryan Park events since the 1970s, he says, which shows the legacy of the city’s competitive cycling culture.
But you can’t consider only elite pro and amateur cyclists in an assessment of Richmond’s bike-town status, says Max Hepp-Buchanan, director of Bike Walk RVA for Sports Backers. That would be “too simplistic.” There’s still mountain biking, recreational biking and transit biking communities to include.
Bike Walk RVA advocates for bike infrastructure that makes commutes and other travel safe and comfortable. Twice a year, the group takes manual biking and pedestrian counts to track biking and walking rates before and after street improvements are installed. In the last two years, these counts have shown a 12-percent increase in the number of people who bike citywide.
Transit biking in Richmond has become more commonplace since the city started installation of bike sharrow signs and lanes in 2010, Hepp-Buchanan says.
In the past few months, bike lanes have been installed on the Manchester and Lee bridges, and construction on the Floyd Avenue bike boulevard is scheduled to begin this fall. But the Floyd Avenue project has hit more than a few snags. City officials originally promised that the bike-friendly corridor would be completed by the race. Construction was supposed to begin in the spring.
One thing that seems well timed with the race is the Oct. 2 grand opening of the long-awaited Virginia Capital Trail, which runs from Richmond to Williamsburg.
In May 2014, Richmond completed its first bike master plan, which recommends several dozen bike infrastructure improvements, and is meant to be a guiding light for the city’s bike policies. The improvements are prioritized by predicted needs and uses, and are recommended to take place in increments of two to four years and four to seven years, and as far out as 10 years.
Within the next two to four years, the plan suggests that the city install four dedicated bike-walk areas, seven bike lanes buffered from vehicular traffic and six standard bike lanes. The improvements stretch 20.2 miles throughout the city, with an estimated cost of $1.43 million. Potential state, local, nonprofit and federal funding sources are identified in the plan.
Such improvements are key to ensuring the safety of riders and potential first-timers who may be timid in riding alongside traffic, Hepp-Buchanan says. Bike sharrows, which are indicators painted onto the road that tell bicyclists where to ride in a lane shared by drivers, often aren’t enough.
Progress also isn’t moving quickly enough, says Morgan Hafer, who makes a living speeding through the city as the owner of Carbon-Free Courier.
“I would say that the infrastructure is not there,” he says, “and basically for me, I carve out my own space in the road where I feel safe, between car doors and the traffic behind me.”
Hafer blames much of the problem on what he sees as limited educational outreach from the city on how to properly use the infrastructure that’s in place. Because of that, he says, bike sharrows may as well be undecipherable runes to new riders, instead of helpful guidelines.
For anyone not in the know, bike sharrows are indicators painted onto the road that tell bicyclists where to ride in a lane shared by drivers.
Hepp-Buchanan agrees with Hafer that more bike infrastructure improvements are necessary to ensuring safety. But things are progressing.
“These are the first big steps toward building a network of bike lanes,” he says. “Some of them are starting to connect. But we still have a lot of work to do until the network is seamless.”
And there are plenty of stark reminders, some tragic, that drivers and cyclists aren’t yet co-existing in a perfect world. Earthier this month, a 26-year-old cyclist, Caroline “Carrie” Dawn Wortham, died after being struck by a vehicle in Hanover County.
Craig Dodson, who heads the Richmond Cycling Corps, a nonprofit that brings cycling to disadvantaged youth, says that while cycling enthusiasts may see things moving at a glacial pace, a lot has happened in the past few years.
Since the organization’s founding about five years ago, he notes, riding with the teens in his program through the city has become less risky.
“It was like playing frogger,” Dodson says of the early days.
He also says that more drivers are aware of bicyclists in areas such as Fulton Hill, where the group practices, and that there’s a growing awareness of safety and space.
“People are more used to seeing bikes on the road,” he says. “Maybe it’s just the mental infrastructure that is there.”