Conquer the Cobbles

Conquer the Cobbles

Friday Night Entertainment in Richmond

Since the Richmond World Championship road course is locked down for the duration of the event, someone had the bright idea of holding a ride on it.

As it was a Friday night in Richmond, I just arrived after seven hours on Amtrak, and didn’t know anyone in town, it seemed like a good thing. If I could make it in time. It would also be a “nice” preview of the course—better for spectating later.

The event initially struck me as a money grab. The “Conquer The Cobbles” ride took people willing to shell out up to $115-$135 for the privilege of riding the course. That already was locked down. Not early. Not between races. Not immediately after the races ended. But way after. Starting at 7pm, when sunset in Richmond is 7:04pm. And not starting at the start line, or in town, but out of town, at the Sports Backers Stadium. People would have 90 minutes to get in as many laps as they wanted or could manage.

I got my number with twelve minutes to spare. The organizers asked riders to classify themselves based on speed. I’ve been to running races where this method was employed; I found the hard way that runners inflate their speeds. The riders would be sent out in waves, with a police lead car for the first lap of the course. The police would control the pace for the first lap, then riders could ride as fast as they wanted until they were directed off the course at 8:30.

Over 1,400 riders signed up for this. (~ $189,000)


I learned on the line everyone was supposed to have both a working head and rear light. Didn’t see it anywhere in the description (found out after the info was on a tab), but as I had brought a rear blinky to use when the ride was over, I pulled it out and turned it on. Then put my vest on over it because the drizzle was starting to turn to rain. No front light. Most didn’t seem to have one, and most who did seemed to have a weak blinky-light front.

Night-time, occasional street lighting, unfamiliar roads, lots of turns, railroad tracks, cobblestones, 1440 plus riders, with rain. What could go wrong?

Rollout for the 20mph+ group was race pace. Full road closure on a wide road was pretty nice. We hit the course at the far end of Monument Ave. The cobbles began. The course does a u-turn on stones and starts heading back. As we made the turn, the rain became more consistent.

Adding to the fun was the presence of George Hincapie. He might be retired, he wasn’t the only ex-pro in the ride, yet much of the first pack wanted his wheel. Hincapie did the solid thing and stayed at the front. We flew down the first hill of the course; it was full-on nighttime, the road was poorly-lit, and we barrelled through the turn at the bottom.

As the group headed toward the other far end of the course, more train tracks, an underpass, a crash, and at the second u-turn, another crash. And we had yet to hit either cobbled hill.


Onto Libby Hill, the cobbled switchbacks brought the group past the Brompton racers. The Brompton US Championship supposedly began at the start line at 6:15pm. The stones were slick and my wheels were sliding.

And Libby Hill brought out another element. Fans. People came out to watch and cheer and yell encouragement.

I passed a bunch of riders on the hill, but at the top realized that racing a non-race on unknown roads in the dark and rain is not one of the more intelligent choices I could make. I decided to back off and find a smaller, more sober group.

Coming off the hill, I watched a guy fishtail twice while setting up for a fast downhill turn. Might have had something to do with riding the yellow lines in the middle of the road. He wisely slowed waaaaay down, and took the corner wide. But he overcame his fear before the next downhill turn. And then another. And the 23rd street wall appeared. The 15% max grade is real, and the stones, slick from the precip, meant everyone was seated for the climb. With a big crowd watching. And when a Brompton rider skittered in front of me, I had to stop (want to blame it on over inflated 23mm tires, a 25t low gear, but the legs were probably the real problem). And run.

I didn’t have to run, but I didn’t want to lose the group I was in.   Bad habits die hard.

The wall is three kilometers from the finish. Sagan distance. And is followed by a descent. But the course tilts up on a real hill to the final straight, which is flat for the final 500 meters or so.

My group, if I could call it that, formed and was more controlled. Riding straight and consistent and taking the corners slower. Lots of road paint, manhole covers, and cobbles possibly lurking around each turn, we could have gone faster, but…

A return to Monument Ave. meant a return to the stones. Not big, but consistent. I could hear a spoke nipple rattling loose. There are traffic circles to negotiate on them. Which you pass both on the way to the u-turn and on the way back.

The rain eventually covered the entire course, but in the dark, it was hard to tell how much. The fans stayed out in several sections, and as the course went through downtown Richmond, people were out for meals and drinks and cheering. The police were out, too. Had to imagine every officer in the force. Lines got easier to figure out as the memory of them was fresh, but it wasn’t easy maintaining speed.

On my third lap, a friend zoomed past, sucking a big guys wheel like nobody’s business. He was so tunneled in the draft, he couldn’t hear me yelling his name. It took riding in front of him looking back and then starting a conversation for him to acknowledge me. We rode together, and, despite the high-tempo chat, he jumped with five meters to go to pip me at the line.

After three laps, time was up, and the police were on Monument to direct us back to Sports Backers Stadium. Where we had the entire left side of the road we went out on. My feeling had changed over the ride. The cost, while high, seemed justified for the ten miles of fencing, the police presence, the safety.

At the Stadium, people who made the distance got finisher medals, t-shirts, drinks, and food. Sports Backers is a non profit that started as a way to have sports work at economic development, and has shifted to motivating Richmond residents to be healthier and more physically active. And it turns out, they put on the event pro-bono, with the profits going to help pay down the operating deficit that Richmond2015 had.   Seems like a smart way to get the spectators to help pay for the event, though the timing was terrible. A legit daytime ride makes lots of sense as a way to get fans involved.

Rain was coming down for real now. Many had driven there, so they could hop in their cars and head back to where they came. I had to ride. Less than two miles, but in the dark, on roads I didn’t know. Luckily, it was pretty easy and traffic nearly non-existent.

The circuit felt like the longest crit course I’ve ever ridden. It’s hard to imagine the concentration needed to race it for eight or sixteen laps in the rain. Good thing the final days were fairly dry. The junior men, not so lucky.

The price of an expensive meal, though the eats were Powerade, bananas, pretzels, and granola bars. And my feet were swimming in my shoes.  A fun way to spend a Friday night.



  1. Frank

    I generally don’t like to pay to ride on roads I can ride on my own, but under these circumstances (maybe minus the rain), I would’ve ridden this. I was able to ride some of the course. Living just down the road in Williamsburg, I drove my car to the outskirts of town on Sunday morning, parked at a Food Lion and rode the rest of the way to town. Arriving around 7:45am, I found the course and made my way to Libby. Course officials hadn’t arrived yet, so I was able to ride up the cobbles (dry and fresh legs) rather easily, to cheers and cowbells. Pretty cool and very motivating. After the race and the crowds had cleared, I was able to ride down Broad, Governor (opposite direction) to Main and Dock St as I headed back to the Food Lion. Like you, I can’t imagine the concentration required to manage that course.

  2. Hackintheback

    It appeared to us that a good number of participants had “wildcatted” the event; at least 25% of those we saw out on course didn’t have a number. We also saw a bad crash at the bottom of Main St. following the long descent (required an ambulance). Still, participants looked like they were having a great time and we regretted not bringing our bikes on the trip (due to the forecast) as we longed to be out there ripping around, too, rain or no.

  3. Author
    JP Partland

    first, I had writers remorse, and felt the need to edit. Done and updated.

    second, Hackintheback, thanks for the on-the-street observation. it was hard to tell, as many pinned their numbers to jerseys and then put on jackets or vests. Some wrapped their number plates around their top tubes. As they were made of paper, mine was disintegrating by the time I made it back to my room. I wouldn’t be surprised if people who tried stretching theirs with the included twist ties saw the holes rip open.

    Third, I did hear there was an ambulance on the course as a result of the crash. Heard it was pretty bad. We can blame nighttime, but boneheaded riding happens during the day, on dry roads.

  4. Anna

    Sounds like a good way to get a better idea of what the peloton was going through during the Championship. I would have loved to watch Sagan race to the finish on a road I had already completed myself (albeit at a much slower pace). Although the thought of riding in the rain with so many self-classified riders (as far as speed goes) is a little discerning in my mind….

  5. Steve

    I rode the event as well. I agree with Scott, everyone I saw had front and rear lights. I wish the weather was nicer, I would have liked to give it a proper go up 23rd street.

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