Whether you noticed it or not, last week was a big one for the Roanoke Valley. Virginia’s Blue Ridge, the local tourism authority, took another step in a series that is seriously raising Roanoke’s profile among outdoor enthusiasts.
This is Roanoke College, the Lutheran-affiliated private school in neighboring Salem. Roanoke College, known in NCAA Division III athletics for its lacrosse, soccer, and basketball programs, is making the switch to cycling.
For the first time in its history, the 180-year-old institution will initially use men’s and women’s cycling teams as a club sport. It is planned for the program to enroll in full-fledged varsity teams competing in the Atlantic Collegiate Cycling Conference.
To lead the new program, the college has hired Shelley Olds, a 2003 graduate and exercise physiologist from Arizona. Olds, 42, was more of a star soccer player than a cyclist during her college days at Salem, and she captained the Maroons women’s team for two years.
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But after college, at age 26, she injured herself while training for a marathon. That’s when Olds took up bike racing. Since then she has competed in and won some of the biggest cycling races in the world.
Here are a few teasers from her long racing resume:
1st place, Madrid Challenge 2015 (Vuelta Espana).
1st place, 2010 Pan American Road Racing Championship.
1st place, World Cup 2012 in China.
Also in 2012, Olds won stage 4 of the mountainous Giro d’Italia, probably the second most famous (and toughest) cycling race in the world. Winning even one stage of it is a big moment in any cyclist’s career.
That same year, Olds placed 7th at the London Olympics after flattening and falling back towards the end of the women’s road race.
Now she lives near Carvins Cove, which offers 10,000 acres of prime mountain biking minutes from downtown.
The college and tourism board held a meet-and-greet with local media Thursday morning at the Hotel Roanoke.
“We are very excited to have Shelley come to Roanoke,” said Tom Rambo, the college’s Dean of Studies. “She is living proof that Roanoke College is a place for students to thrive and find purpose.”
“Whatever we build, I bring serious cycling and the biggest dreams possible,” Olds told me. “We are a team, we work together.”
Olds also serves as athletic director for Virginia’s Blue Ridge Twenty24, a women’s professional cycling team that moved its headquarters from Boise, Idaho to Roanoke earlier this year. This was another step taken by the tourist board, which emphasizes the recreational opportunities of this region.
Owned by Nicola Cranmer (who also moved here) the team has won more national, world championship and Olympic recognition and medal finishes than any other sports development team in America.
The tourism association announced the team’s move in January. And in June and July, cyclists from across America traveled here for the 2022 USA Cycling Amateur Road National Championships. Roanoke will host these championships again next year.
In 2021, the tourism board sponsored the inaugural Carilion Clinic Ironman 70.3 Virginia’s Blue Ridge, the only official Ironman triathlon event in Virginia that year. More than 1,900 athletes took part in this three-sport event, and this year there were 2,500. Almost 3,000 participants have already registered for a planned Ironman 2023.
Adding a collegiate cycle racing team to such a mix “is kind of confirmation that we’re on the right track,” said Pete Eshelman, who has worked with the Roanoke Regional Partnership to bring outdoor sports and entertainment events to Roanoke Decade.
Eshelman founded the Blue Ridge Marathon in 2010, which has earned a reputation among distance runners as one of the toughest foot races in America. It was one of the first steps in changing the city’s identity from a former railroad town to a place known for nature.
“It says that a local college recognizes the beauty of the area we live in and that access to nature is a strength not only for the community but also for the college,” Eshelman said. Basically, the college uses the outdoor opportunities in the Roanoke Valley to attract students.
The faces of these bike racing maroons change every year as some of the racers graduate and move out of the area. And as they spread across the country, they’ll talk about their college bike racing careers and the great cycling opportunities in West Virginia.
This word of mouth serves as a kind of organic marketing for the region.
Having a pro team in Roanoke raises the profile of cycling in the Roanoke Valley, but it also accomplishes more.
The really big rewards come in how it raises the profile of the Roanoke Valley in the cycling world, both domestically and internationally. There’s a lot of money there — cycling is a $56 billion-a-year sport.
These racers travel the world talking to other international cyclists about Roanoke. This signals that the Roanoke Valley is a great place to ride and train.
“It’s all part of a giant puzzle,” Eschelman said. “We are planting seeds over time that will transform the community’s DNA into an outdoor recreation destination. Ten years ago, nature wasn’t given much attention.”
This gradual shift in identity has benefited Roanoke residents in ways big and small, Eshelman noted. Just one such manifestation is the proliferation of dedicated bike lanes on Roanoke’s streets where none previously existed.
These are important because they help less experienced local cyclists feel more comfortable on city streets. (City drivers, on the other hand, feel more comfortable when cyclists also use their own lanes.)
Another reason is the incremental expansion of the Roanoke Valley greenways network, which is a vast reality today compared to the mere idea it was 25 years ago.
And yet another is the superb network of trails at Carvins Cove, which was officially opened to cycling some 20 years ago and has been gradually improved ever since.
In other words, our new identity seems to be solidifying quickly. And that’s why Shelley Olds is here.
“It’s so exciting,” she told me Thursday morning. “I haven’t felt this passion for something for a long time.”
Contact Metro columnist Dan Casey at 981-3423 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter:.
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