September 28, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) It had been nearly three decades since the U.S. last hosted cycling's road world championships. The hope now is the legacy of this year's event lasts at least that long.

Attendance for the weeklong competition has been estimated at 650,000, far exceeding the most ambitious projections. Fans lined the course 10-deep in places for Sunday's elite men's road race, which culminated with Peter Sagan of Slovakia winning in a dramatic finish.

Thousands more watched on television and just maybe caught the cycling itch, just as many did after the world championships in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1986.

''It's such a beautiful sport and you really can't do it justice,'' said American rider Ben King, a Richmond native who still has a home near Charlottesville.

King typically races in Europe with the Cannondale-Garmin team, so many of his buddies had never seen him race in an elite event. But on Sunday, the Virginia Tech alum spent time in an early break, ensuring that he'd be easy to pick out by friends and family lining the course.

''A lot of my friends who came to watch have never seen a bike race at all,'' he said. ''You just have to be out there, experience it and smell and hear, and feel the wind as the riders go past. I remember as a junior watching races, and hopefully we won a few converts to the sport.''

The world championships land at a poor time in the U.S. to catch the attention of casual sports fans. Baseball is closing in on the playoffs, college football is in full swing and two of cycling's marquee events - the team time trials and the men's road race - land on Sunday, which means the races go against full slates of NFL games.

Yet USA Cycling believes attendance in Richmond shows that the sport is growing, whether it be recreational riders or those hoping to race.

''Greater visibility is always helpful,'' said Derek Bouchard-Hall, the national governing body's new chief executive. ''To host an event in America, that helps us be in the game. The axis of cycling will always be Europe, but being able to pull it away a bit in North America, and by having athletes perform well, is great for the credibility of American cycling.''

The U.S. performed more than well. It may have been the team's best performance.

The U.S.-based BMC Racing squad, led by American standout Taylor Phinney, got things off to a roaring start by capturing gold in the men's team time trial, while Evelyn Stevens was part of the silver medal-winning Boels-Dolmans team in the women's event.

Chloe Dygert and Emma White went 1-2 in the women's junior time trial and road race, and Adrien Costa and Brandon McNulty landed on the podium in the men's junior time trial.

On Saturday, Megan Guarnier rode to bronze in the women's road race. It was the first medal of any kind for the U.S. in an elite road race at a world championships since 1994, and ensured her of an automatic nomination for the team that will head to the Rio Olympics next year.

''I haven't really thought about that too much because this race was a big challenge,'' Guarnier said, ''but yeah, it's very exciting to have that automatic to Rio. That'll be the next focus.''

Even when the U.S. failed to land on the podium, the often-overlooked team made a statement.

Phinney, coming back from a devastating injury more than a year ago, rode to a 12th-place finish in the individual time trial to help with Rio qualifications. Kristin Armstrong finished fifth and Stevens was sixth in the women's version of the event.

In the road race Sunday, the U.S. was constantly at the front. Alex Howes and Brent Bookwalter wound up in the top 20, which also helps with Rio qualifications.

''I think this is going to give cycling in the U.S. a real boost,'' said Brian Cookson, president of cycling's world governing body. ''It shows there's a little life in cycling despite the problems of the past, which we're all familiar with. It shows there is a bright future.''

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