For the best cycling in the world, come to Richmond.
That's not what you'd necessarily expect to hear about a city best known as the Civil War capital of the Confederacy, but it will be true Sept. 19-27, 2015, when the UCI Road World Championships come to America for the first time since 1986.
The city tested the course and its game plan May 2-4 when the CapTech USA Cycling Collegiate Road National Championships attracted more than 400 competitors from 115 schools in 46 states. The world championships are expected to bring more than 1,000 participants and as many as 450,000 spectators.
But you don't need to be a collegiate or world-class cyclist to enjoy biking in the Richmond area, home to several trail systems gentle enough for novices yet challenging for hard-core riders.
I joined a group of local riders for lunch on the Fourth of July weekend at Cul's Courthouse Grille in Charles City, between Richmond and Williamsburg. They'd ridden 20 miles to get there, including on the bicycle/pedestrian bridge lane over the Chickahominy River and a just-opened short section of the Virginia Capital Trail.
The paved multiuse trail begins at Jamestown, Virginia's original capital in 1607, and heads toward Williamsburg, which became the capital in 1699. When completed in 2015, it will extend 54 miles to Richmond, established as the state capital in 1780.
The path generally parallels State Route 5, a scenic byway with too much traffic for all but the most intrepid cyclists. For the holiday ride, the cyclists had veered onto rural roads for about 15 miles. When the Charles City segment is complete in September, the route will be about seven miles shorter.
Traffic is not an issue for mountain bikers, who can find about 25 miles of narrow, twisting wooded trails paralleling both sides of the river in the James River Park System. Access begins in downtown Richmond, where a footbridge beneath the Lee Bridge (U.S. 1) leads to a skills course and trails on Belle Isle, a city park and former site of a Civil War prison. Local mountain bikers built and maintain the trails, most of which are intermediate to advanced.
"Because it's such a narrow corridor of land, with somewhat steep terrain, we were limited on where we could build trail," said Greg Rollins, president of the Richmond chapter of the International Mountain Biking Assn. "It's very rocky, somewhat bluffy or cliff-like in areas. You can't go very far off the trail or you'll end up falling down a steep embankment. There are lots of rocks, tight trees, steep ups and downs."
And plenty of poison ivy, I might add, itchily, after walking my dog on some of the trails.
Rollins and his volunteers also have built 20 miles of mountain bike trails in Pocahontas State Park in neighboring Chesterfield County. They're raising money to add 20 more miles with features that will make the Richmond region qualify as an IMBA Ride Center. (The designation requires access to instruction, rentals, bike shops, restaurants and hotels, "good breweries, coffee shops and a good vibe," Rollins said.) The gateway trail may be ready to ride this fall.