It’s hard to soak up an atmosphere, however powerful, when the thrill of competition is stealing the attention of thousands of people.
Around 3:05 p.m. on the last day of the UCI Road World Championships, I was absolutely captured by the excitement of the Men’s Elite Road Race as the cyclists were beginning their final lap. Never would I have believed that cycling could captivate me—I’m a typical football-and-beer-in-my-living-room American. But for those 10 minutes as I and thousands of other cycling fans from around the world awaited something special, I was a cycling fan.
And so went my time spent on a cloudy Sunday afternoon in downtown Richmond.
As I stood atop a platform overlooking the finish line, I was amazed. Never had I seen such a diverse mix of people, and never had I seen a similarly diverse group of people with such high excitement and energy. Four laps remained in the race, which would take more than an hour to complete, but the fans weren’t going to wait for anything. Up and down Broad Street, spectators from Australia to Denmark to Costa Rica to the Ukraine lined the side of the road with cowbells in hand and their scream-boxes readied to let out the loudest cheers they could.
Throughout the day I heard probably 25 different languages being spoken, even though I couldn’t have identified most of them. The diversity was compelling. The passion was consistent throughout the fan base, which was the most inspiring part of the day. Young, old, dark, light, men, women, children. Thousands upon thousands from all over the world came to Richmond, Virginia, to watch about 100 men ride bicycles. How cool is that?
Cooler than you think, I promise.
I’ve struggled to find a word to describe the atmosphere on Broad Street during the final lap. I was going to use electric, but when used in sports that word is typically reserved for a rowdy college football stadium or a basketball arena during March Madness. I considered dramatic, but that’s not strong enough. Galvanizing also came to mind, except I wasn’t inspired to take action, I preferred to sit back and watch. After much thought, I decided that the right word is lovely. Allow me to explain.
The congregation of cultures, ethnicities, genders and ages was absolutely inspiring. The aura felt of nothing but excitement and happiness. Every single person wanted to be there and could not wait to see what was going to happen. It was an atmosphere full of diversity and joy and absent of conflict. Sounds lovely, right?
The funny thing about it all was that for the 10 minutes leading up to the finish, nothing about the atmosphere seemed to matter to me at all. I did not care that a Danish journalist was standing next to me, or that African fans were cheering across the street. All I could hear was the announcer, who sounded straight out of the WWE (how American of us, right?), and the background noise of one massive, fused, eternal cheer. I watched as an American took the lead and ignited the crowd during the first half of the final lap. Then, when he fell back and could not give any more, I watched about 10 foreign cyclists jockey for a lead. I was fully consumed. When Peter Sagan of Slovakia took the lead, my huge international gang and I locked in to see if his fate would be the same as the American’s just minutes earlier.
Thinking back, the cheers and the announcer’s dramatic voice were probably the root of my engagement with the race. After all, they were responsible for building the atmosphere. But at the time, it wasn’t them. It was my eagerness to see who would win.
Sagan won the race. I stared through my camera lens for what felt like an hour (it was about 30 seconds) and waited for him to cross the finish line. He threw his arms in the air and I snapped a shot.
Sometimes unforgettable moments don’t hit us for a few minutes, hours, days or months. But this one hit me immediately. I felt a thrill having been so close and so involved in one of cycling’s most popular championships. I knew immediately that it was the neatest moment of my journalistic career so far.
I’ll be honest, I contemplated for a few hours after all of this and asked myself, “Did I really care about cycling?” My instinct was to say no, but I knew I would be lying to myself. That was one of the coolest things I’ve ever witnessed.
It may not have even been about cycling. It probably had more to do with the joy that I felt watching so many others feel joy. For eight days, cycling brought more than 100 countries and 645,000 spectators together with no noteworthy conflict.
Lovely? Yes. But also surreal.