RICHMOND, Va. — For Johnny Phan, cycling was not originally a hobby, it was a necessity.
Instead of fighting for parking spaces in Richmond's Fan District or the parking decks as a student at VCU, Phan bought a bike to ride to and from class. But his chosen transportation soon lent itself to challenges outside of campus.
"A couple of friends and I would just do night rides for fun," Pham said. "Then I just decided I wanted to go faster."
Phan soon found the amateur, but still competitive, cycling series at Bryan Park in Richmond. He's never been a professional. He races on what he terms an elite amateur level.
"It's local bike races like the ones that are held on Tuesday nights in Bryan Park and traveling up and down the East Coast to find bike races," Phan said.
Phan's team has won the Virginia Road Racing Championship in the past. That got him thinking about competing outside the United States.
Phan is of Cambodian descent. While cycling is a relatively new sport in Cambodia, the country is fielding a team in the upcoming Southeast Asia games in Vietnam.
Because of his heritage, Phan is eligible to race for the Cambodian national team there.
Because of his ability, the coach signed him up.
"I talked to the coach about performance stats and numbers," Phan said. "I guess they kind of took a chance on me and said all right, you're on."
Phan is headed to the Games to compete in two different events.
The criterium, which consists of short circuit loops, and the road race which is more in the style of the Tour De France.
Putting on the jersey makes Phan emotional.
"To be able to go and represent my parents' native country and wear this jersey, it's such an honor, it's an amazing honor," he said.
Phan's parents fled Cambodia during their civil war in the 1970s when the Khmer Rouge took power. They had to wait in a refugee camp before being allowed to come to the United States where they were sponsored by a church in Richmond.
It's a familial history about which Phan admittedly does not know a great deal because his parents rarely talk about what they went through.
"I think it's such a hard, hard season in their life," he said. "It's hard to talk about because they did lose family members and it was pretty painful."
Joey Schihl, Pham's VCU classmate, is helping to produce a documentary about Phan's cycling journey to his ancestral homeland. The working title is "Chasing Cambodia" and it chronicles Phan's return to ride for a country that almost took his life before it ever began.
"I think there are a lot of folks like Johnny in their mid-30s, second generation of immigrants, who have parents with similar stories," Schihl said. " I think if we put them all in a room, they would all say, my parents don't talk about this either."
Schihl said the project picked up steam this year when Phan was asked to join the Cambodian National Cycling Team. They thought it was a great time to share the story and follow Phan's journey.
"He grew up in the West End of Richmond, in Henrico county. A lot of his friends look like me. My family is from Buffalo, New York. I don't have the same kind of history that he does," Schihl said.
Phan is riding for himself, his new team, his homeland, and to hopefully grow the sport he loves in a place he's learned to love.
He is documenting it out of pride for his journey and as a history lesson of sorts for the next generation.
"Learning to tell the story better for Johnny's own kids down the road one day," Schihl said. "Capturing that now while there's this great vessel of a bike and a cool event to follow."
"There's a little part of this where it's celebrating this culture that I didn't grow up with or know much about," Phan said. "But there's also a sense of honoring my family who have such hard memories of this place to kind of give them a little joy when thinking about the country that they left."
Phan is already headed to Southeast Asia for the games with a stop in Cambodia before the competition in Vietnam later this month. Be on the lookout for "Chasing Cambodia" premiering in the near future.
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