The Road to Paris
What might a NASCAR driver, Nobel Peace Prize nominee and an equestrian from England have in common? In this case, their involvement with Virginia’s Blue Ridge Twenty24 – a premier team of cyclists with aspirations of competing in the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Last week, it was announced that this phenomenal team of athletes with 14 Olympic and Paralympic medals, 17 world championships and countless national championships to their name, will call Virginia’s Blue Ridge their training home for at least the next three years.
Premier Female Athletes
For more than 17 years Nicola Cranmer a horse enthusiast turned experienced mountain biker has led the premier women’s cycling team, responsible for developing and managing many of the most successful female cyclists in the Nation. The 2022 roster consists of six professional athletes racing road and gravel, five Zwift eSports athletes and 27 junior athletes. The team is led by gold and bronze medalist Jennifer Valente and includes 2-time Olympian Marlies Mejias of Cuba and Rukhsar Habibzai, former Afghan national team captain and Nobel Peace Prize nominee. The team also includes the #1 Ranked Zwift eSports female rider Kristen Kulchinsky and 3-time Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong. Junior members include Maize Wimbush, the first female junior African American National Road Champion, Lilly McLeod, 2021 Junior National Time Trial Champion, Jessica Hall, Virginia State Junior Champion, and Isabella Robusto, who also happens to competitively race in NASCAR, at age 17!
In addition to highlighting Roanoke’s Welcoming spirit and firmly staking its claim as the East Coast Mountain Biking Capital, the announcement introduces new mentoring opportunities as the athletes engage with community rides, seminars, and school visits – all supporting the empowerment of girls and women in our community and highlighting the contribution of immigrants to our vitality. The announcement will further bolster travel and tourism in the area, with one study indicating an economic impact of more than $23 million over the course of the next three years. The announcement builds upon a tradition of athletic excellence and community engagement, a legacy that includes Dick Emberger who competed in the 1964 Olympics, Shelley Olds who competed in the 2012 Olympics and Peter Tainer, Paralympic athlete – all athlete-scholars from here in the Roanoke area who continue to contribute to our region.
A Regional Effort
As with so many other major accomplishments in our area, securing Twenty24 was a regional effort, led by Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge and the Virginia Tourism Corporation involving multiple state-level elected officials along with local jurisdictions - City of Roanoke, Roanoke County, City of Salem, Botetourt County, Franklin County and a key introduction by Roanoke Times President, Sam Worthington! The announcement further illustrated the regional significance and support with attendance by local elected and appointed officials, business leaders, hoteliers and even a collection of recent Afghan immigrants who wanted to be certain Rukhsar felt welcome in her new training home.
As said at the beginning and end of the announcement – the road to Paris begins in Virginia’s Blue Ridge! Welcome to our community Twenty24 – we look forward to cheering on these phenomenal athletes!
-- Bob Cowell