HOLMBERG: Big bicycle races nothing new to Richmond, a city transformed by two-wheelers

Posted at 12:48 AM, Mar 28, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-28 00:48:40-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- As we ponder the international honor of hosting the UCI Road World Cycling Championships, perhaps we can properly set the stage a little by pedaling the concept of Richmond being a city rich in cycling history and racing.

In fact, avid cyclist and history buff Tom Houff believes cycling began transforming Richmond more than 130 years ago.

“It was a huge deal,” he told me while we talked about his book, “On Richmond’s Wheel,” which is taking off as the September huge bike race nears.

After the Civil War, he explained, much of Richmond was devastated. Developers looked to areas outside of the city to expand and build anew, but the roads were muddy miles of misery, Tom told me.

Bicycling, the new mode of personal transportation, opened the way for commuting, but they needed roads. Bicycling enthusiasts and savvy developers got those mud roads crowned and graveled and biking bloomed during those decades between horses and cars. There were even roads like the Missing Link Track that were just for two-wheelers -- no horses, please.

Bicycle clubs like the high-brow Lakeside Wheel Club (where the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is now) shared the roads with the Richmond Independents and the Owl Club, which famously stayed open 24-7 and likely pedaled some ribaldry, Tom believes.

Women riders had their “Morning Glory Club” -- they hit the streets first thing -- and there was at least one riding outfit for blacks, the “Eagle Club,” Tom said.

You want to talk racing? It was a regular thing in city, including big, national racing.

“There were like 15,000 people who showed up in 1892, where they Fairgrounds are now, on the horse-racing track” for a big bike race. “There was a velodrome in 1905 out at Idlewood Park . . . It was a huge event.

“A lot of people don’t know that,” he added. “They want to build the first velodrome in Richmond. I’m like, you’re too late.”

Tom likes to call himself a letter carrier who accidentally got caught up writing a book while researching the history of Bryan Park. Friends and fellow cyclists heard what he was finding out and urged him to put it together for a wider audience.

He said he had “a lot of help,” including social media crowdfunding, to get the first edition of his book published. But now, it’s blowing up.

“It really built on itself,” Tom said. “And with the world championships coming, it just went nuts.”

An expanded, full-color hardcover edition with new information is being launched in June at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, which is where the current edition can be found. Lewis Ginter is one of the starting points for the upcoming races. The Valentine History Center museum also has copies.

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