HOLMBERG: Fan neighbors open their home and hearts to Latvian cyclists

Posted at 12:56 AM, Sep 25, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-25 00:56:01-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Latvian UCI cycling team rented a nice home on stately Hanover Avenue near the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for the races here. They figured once they settled in, they would just go about their race business as they do in Europe.

Then there was knocking at their door Wednesday evening.

Neighbors were on the stoop, recalled top-ranked rider Gatis Smukulis.

"'Hey come on Latvians! Come to dinner tomorrow! We have a party for you!"

And so they came to the home of Wendy Martin and her husband at the corner of Grove and Mulberry Thursday evening and found 60 or so neighbors of all ages waiting for them.

There was their national flag, a big welcome sign, a sweet band, a giant, home-cooked pot luck dinner from numerous sources and even a flutist who had learned their national anthem.

Latvian UCI

"It's really great," said team member Toms Skujins after signing autographs for some of the many children enjoying the party. "A lot of food and everyone is so generous."

He said they aren't treated like that in their own home country.

Nor in other parts of Europe, said Smukulis. "How friendly they are," he said, looking around the room, "that's just amazing."

It was relaxed fun, honest caring and sharing, with the cycling team holding down the seats of honor around the community table in the front yard.

The table has been there for the past year, Wendy Martin explained.

"A year and a half ago, (Dr.) Danny Avula gave a speech at TEDx(RVA) about 'Dependency is Not A Dirty Word,''' she said. "He said we need to get out from behind our privacy fences. We need to go back to the stoop. And that's what we did. We put a table out in front of our privacy fence and we wanted to meet our neighbors and wanted to bring people together. And somebody (Melissa Oliver) proposed inviting the Latvian team and we did and within an hour we had a party planned."

The food was superb. And I was surprised that there was little of the stiffness you find when people of different cultures and languages first get together.

The cyclists genuinely seemed to have a good time, as did their neighbors.

Martin said, yes, they'll be rooting for the Latvian team and Gatis said he'll be pedaling his heart out for his new friends during the big race on Sunday.

Friends, that's just the kind of spirit that makes RVA a home.

It's also exactly the kind of spirit that can change the world.