After nearly 3 decades, world championships return to US

Long before he rolled off the start line in the Tour de France, or founded his own successful cycling team, Jonathan Vaughters was a 13-year-old trying to catch a glimpse of the action.

The year was 1986. The day was overcast, misty. And the crowds that showed up in Colorado Springs to watch the first world championships on American soil had made it so difficult for Vaughters to see that the curious boy decided to scurry up a tree.

''I was able to see over the crowd that way,'' he recalled, ''and I remember Ron Kiefel getting in the breakaway, Greg LeMond following all the key moves. I remember it so vividly.

''It's one of the races,'' Vaughters said, ''that inspired me to become a cyclist.''

Now, nearly three decades later, the championships are returning to the U.S.

Hundreds of riders from more than 75 nations will converge on Richmond, Virginia, next week for nine days of racing. Together, they will form the best collection of talent on this side of the Atlantic since Vaughters watched Italian rider Moreno Argentin sprint to victory.

From men's and women's time trials and road races to junior races and team time trials, it offers a rare opportunity for America to stand in the spotlight of a largely Eurocentric sport.

''The pageantry of having so many different nations competing in a sport that is so much more popular here than it used to be,'' said Vaughters, now the chief executive of the Cannondale-Garmin team, ''I'm sure the crowds in Richmond will be a lot bigger than they were in 1986.''

Local organizers expect more than 450,000 fans during the championships. Many will come from other countries, but the vast majority should give the U.S. team a homefield advantage.

''Having the worlds back in the U.S., the road worlds anyway, it's massive,'' said Jim Miller, the vice president of USA Cycling and the man in charge of guiding its national team.

''Anytime you can be world champion, it's special,'' Miller said, ''but really, when you go to the Olympics, and who can realistically podium and have a shot at those medals, you're looking at the history of world championship performances.''

Indeed, there is more at stake than just gold medals this year.

As the final worlds before next year's Summer Olympics, those reaching the top step of the podium in Richmond will earn the right to wear the coveted rainbow jersey in Rio de Janeiro.

Much has changed since the last world championships came to America.

Lance Armstrong won seven Tours de France, then lost them all when he admitted to doping. Major races are now on domestic television, exposing the sport to an entirely new generation of fans. Recreational riding is booming as the public becomes more health-conscious. And the U.S. team in Richmond will have aspirations of actually contending for world titles.

Back in '86, the young U.S. team was just learning about racing on a world stage. Jock Boyer had become the first American to compete in the Tour de France just five years earlier, and LeMond was still a year away from winning the first of his three Tours.

''I don't think the national team was as well-prepared in 1986 as they are now,'' said Todd Gogulski, the captain of the American team back then, ''because the sport has taken a lot more root in this country. It's become a bigger sport. Back then, we were just learning how to do it.''

Now, many Americans are excelling.

Two-time Olympic time trial gold medalist Kristin Armstrong is in the midst of a comeback from retirement. She'll be among the favorites in the race against the clock, and help to anchor a powerhouse women's team that should be favored in the road race as well.

''Most of the time, the Americans are flying across the pond to do worlds,'' team member Coryn Rivera said. ''Finally, everyone is coming to this side of the pond, and getting a taste of jet lag and the food and everything that we have to overcome.''

The men's team is still a decided underdog, but Taylor Phinney offers some hope in the time trial, where he finished fourth at the London Olympics. Other young riders, such as Alex Howes and Brent Bookwalter, have promised to be instigators in a wide open road race.

Meanwhile, U.S.-based BMC Racing will try to defend its team time trial title from last year in Ponferrada, Spain, in the only event that features trade teams rather than national teams.

''We've been thinking about this since Spain,'' BMC Racing co-owner Jim Ochowicz said. ''We're the defending champions. We're committed. By all accounts, we're committed.''

Just as committed as the U.S. is to putting on a memorable championships.

Numerous concerts, expos and ancillary events are planned throughout the week. More than 3,000 volunteers have been enlisted to help with everything from crowd control to merchandising, and the races themselves will be televised to more than 300 million viewers worldwide.

Then there are those fans who may need a little boost to catch the action.

''Of course you want to see hundreds of thousands of people show up,'' Vaughters said, ''but I'm also interested in that one kid who climbs up the tree to see the race better.''

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