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Bryan Park cyclists race through summer competitions

A group of cyclists race through Bryan Park in Richmond.
A group of bikers race through Bryan Park in Richmond during the Cycling Training Race Series — also known as criterium races or “crit” for short. (Photos: Scott Elmquist/VPM News)

It’s a summer tradition that’s been going on for nearly half a century. They're all here to take part in the Bryan Park Cycling Training Race Series, known as criterium races, or “crit” for short. 

Like many early evenings in Richmond, Tuesday is hot and heavy with humidity. The sun is still weaving rays through the trees at Bryan Park on the city's northside.  

But the 90-degree-plus temperature hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm of about 80 bike racers, half of whom hover over their frames, feet firmly on the ground at the makeshift starting line waiting for the start whistle. A second group waits nearby for their start time.  

The mix of riders varies in ability, background, age, sex and gender — from teenagers to riders who are older than 60-year-olds. Many competitors have moved up the ranks and competed nationally and internationally. But before the whistle blows and they clip into their pedals and shoot off, Race Director John Messersmith has a few words. 

“As we get near the end of the race, with two laps to go, if you cannot see the main group in front of you, pull off,” Messersmith said. “That’s just to be safe, because at the last lap, they’re going to be sprinting. And they’re going 30 and you’re going 20; it usually doesn’t end well.” 

The weekly summertime event is divided into two races, depending on a rider's experience and ability. The first race is for beginning and intermediate competitors and usually lasts about half an hour. The second is for more seasoned racers and clocks in at about 45 minutes. And because it’s a training series — meaning they’re using these Tuesday nights as training for other bigger races on the calendar — riders aren’t expected to go full throttle.  

On Tuesday, a group of several female riders will start the race, while the others follow 100 meters behind. 

“They get the first lap to race among themselves,” Messersmith said. “After the first lap, we can mix it all up.” 

Caddie Alford — who dons a Carytown Bike kit comprising a lycra bike jerseys and shorts — calls herself a “full-fledge beginner.” It’s only her fourth race and her second time competing at Bryan Park. So far, she said she likes many aspects of the event. 

“I like the intensity of it. I also really like being close to other bodies on bikes,” Alford said. “I love training … . I don’t know if I like racing yet ... . I mostly love training. I like seeing progression kind of develop over every week.” 

Alford also said she likes the camaraderie that races like the Bryan Park series brings. 

“I like a lot of different types of people coming together and sharing a passion for something that is kind of niche, you know, and kind of highly specialized — but is starting to become more and more inclusive,” she said. “I also kind of like that it’s a ‘If you know, you know’ kind of thing about Richmond. It's one of those kind of weird Richmond things.” 

Racing for points, bragging rights

Once all the racers combine, the pack will compete around a recently paved course spanning a roughly .6-mile circular course for 16 laps.  

Besides trying to win a spot in the Top 10 each week, riders also are competing for “series points.” At the end of the season, the racer with the most points gets a trophy and major bragging rights. 

Other prizes come during the middle of races: At the end of a lap, in the middle of a race, a bell rings telling riders to sprint to the line on the next lap. The process is called a “prime” — pronounced “preem” — and winners get prizes that vary from money to gift cards. 

Sean Yeager, of Altius Cycling Team, has been part of the Bryan Park race series since 1996. He said the events are a great way to get people into bike racing. 

“We get people from out of town; we get people that love to hang out with the group that we have. It's a really good educational group,” Yeager said. “This is a great way to get started with no real pressure. We provide a service for people who are new to it, we provide a service for people who want to get better, and we provide a service for people who want to excel in bike racing.” 

Yeager also said the cost to join a race is not too expensive — about $20, depending on if the racer is a member of USA Cycling, the national governing body that oversees races around the country. Newbies to the race must pay an entry fee and get a one-day USA Cycling pass to ride. 

Andre Campbell is now in his second year of racing and has competed in places like Newport News and Marietta, California, and said he’s attracted to the competitive aspect of racing.  

“I've played football in college, and this has reignited that passion — to compete and just see what you can do. Not only against other people but yourself,” he said. “Crit racing is fun for me because it's short. It's very, I won't say surgy, but it's very punchy. So, it's very exciting.” 

Campbell, who is sponsored by Molly’s Bike Shop in Chesterfield County, also likes seeing other riders of color. 

“You know, predominately, cycling has always been mostly white people racing,” he said, adding that since gyms were closed during the pandemic, it brought a huge influx of African Americans and other minorities into cycling.  

“I think it's great to see that, you know, we also can perform here and it's encouraging it builds a community, and I just love to see what's going on,” Campbell said.  

Tuesday was Matt Milnichuk’s first time racing in the series. All his biking friends race at Bryan Park, and he wanted to give it a try.  

Milnichuk ended up placing fourth in the first race. 

“It was super fun and a lot less scary than I thought it was gonna be,” Milnichuk said, though he added that he almost crashed going around a 180-degree turn because someone scraped their pedal across the pavement. 

“There were sparks flying behind us,” he said. “That could have been really bad.”  

Besides the racers, large groups of spectators, including bike mechanics from Carytown Bikes, show up to support riders. Many hang out on a curve of the race known as the “party corner,” because spectators sit on lawn chairs, eating snacks, while music and cowbells greet riders as they whiz past on a very tight curve. Others, like Braden Govoni, the owner of Outpost Richmond, hop on the course between races.  

Campbell — besides his love of competition and camaraderie — said there are a few reasons he regularly comes out to the park. 

“We come out here because it's fun. This is therapeutic for us,” he said. “It keeps us out of trouble. And you know, what better way to ride around with people and just have a good time?” 

Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.