Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Monday, September 12, 2011

2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge

by Kat Hunter

Summer in Colorado is a cyclist’s dream: bike lanes everywhere, a wide selection of multi-sport and cycling events, incredible climbs and trails and routes to any place you want to go. “Share the Road” signs were in spots that Texas would be more likely to announce “Will Shoot on Sight,” not to mention “hot” is at least 15 degrees cooler.

But more than that, it’s the bike-minded people that set the area apart. And there was no better time to see that culture in action than the week of the first USA Pro Cycling Challenge, Aug 22-28.

Classic Race Reborn

Many consider the Pro Cycling Challenge a revival of the Coors Classic of the 1980s, a hugely popular stage race that hosted greats like Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond, and Davis Phinney, just to name a few. The Coors Classic got its fair share of media attention in its heyday, inspiring a fanatic following and even a full-length movie with a mustached Kevin Costner (American Flyers).

For the 7-day 2011 Pro Cycling Challenge, roughly 130 of the world’s best riders showed up, including Cadel Evans, Frank and Andy Schleck, Levi Leipheimer, Christian VandeVelde, and Tom Danielson. And along with them came more than 1 million fans. Shawn Hunter, co-chairman and CEO of the Pro Cycling Challenge, called it a “518-mile rolling festival.” The sixth and final stage – a 73.79-mile course that began in Golden, wound up Lookout Mountain, and ended with five loops in downtown Denver – attracted an estimated 250,000 people, the largest crowd of any cycling event held in the United States.

There were literally thousands of cycling fans lining Lookout Mountain’s slopes, the best part being that nearly all had arrived by bike since the road had been closed to traffic for the race. There were road bikes, mountain bikes, tandems, roadies, triathletes, commuters, women, men, kids, babies, pasty guys in speedos, a handful of Sponge Bobs, a runner who managed almost perfect form despite the huge pair of antlers strapped to his head. I’d honestly never seen anything like it, and it went on for hours before the team buses even arrived at the start.

Our group had stopped just below the giant “M” to stake out our spot around 7:30 that morning. Typically, I hate watching sports of any kind. But on Lookout Mountain, even though there was no guacamole, pizza, or interesting commercials and we were drinking warm Coors from a can, I was enjoying every minute. We had the city of Golden stretched out below us and an endless parade of personalities riding by. (The guy on the unicycle won my respect. I had a hard enough time on that route with two wheels.) Our friend JT had bought a bulk supply of chalk and was handing it out to anyone hauling a kid up the mountain, often running alongside like a relay runner with a baton. We chalked our own curve in the road with everything from the ATC Dillo to “Bacon!” and “Tibbs.”

When the time finally came for the race to start, we took our places in the crowd peering down at the swarm of riders and spectators massing in the city center. Around 10:45, we watched the riders wind through Golden and disappear around the back of Table Mesa, then reappear again on the other side. They were preceded by dozens of cars and motorcycles, and the flashing lights and hubbub only seemed to heighten the suspense. “Here they come, here they come!” was interspersed with more insightful commentary from spectators who’d had the foresight to bring binoculars. The atmosphere was charged with the type of boundless excitement you’d get if you told a room full of first-graders that Santa, Justin Bieber, and Pocahontas were going to make a personal visit during recess.

Before the riders reached the first section of switchbacks, the spectators lining our section of road sprinted to the turn that overlooked them, cheering and holding their iPhones and cameras overhead. A break had formed at the start of the ascent and was still holding strong, with a group of 8 or 10 riders moving at an impossible speed up the slope.

I soon realized that our detailed chalk-work was for naught. Who has time to appreciate an artful armadillo or a perfectly rendered Cervélo “é” when sprinting up a category 2 climb? I had only an instant to see the riders up close as they passed through the screaming crowd, their faces twisted into expressions that made it clear how much effort they were putting out (and perhaps expressing a little concern about the proximity of the crowd, as well). I didn’t envy them this part of the journey.

And then, the stars of the show were gone as quickly as they’d arrived. I imagine that watching a pro cycling race in person is something like watching the ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve – you wait and wait for it to happen, and no matter how much you prepare yourself or try to savor the moment you’ve been anticipating, you blink once and it’s all over. Most people had to consult their cameras to see what had just happened. And yet, the consensus of the crowd seemed to be that it was a fully satisfying experience – Hincapie might have been a blur, but it was still Hincapie, in the flesh!

Many of the fans around us were running to their bikes the second the last rider had passed, hoping to catch the peloton again on another part of the course. Our entourage took its time, gathering empty cans and water bottles and comparing observations. We rode back into town and sat on the grass in Parfet Park to watch the finish on the jumbotron. There, the crowd was a little more tame (no gorilla suits or speedos) but every time a favorite came on screen a shout went up. The race ended in a bunch sprint, with Daniel Oss of Liquigas-Cannondale taking the stage win. Oss was supposed to be the leadout man for teammate Elia Viviani, who had won two previous stages, but Viviani let his teammate have the (well-deserved) prize when it was clear that no one could come around him.

In the overall standings, American riders swept the top 5 places. Levi Leipheimer of Team Radioshack won, closely followed by Christian VandeVelde of Garmin-Cervelo, Tejay Van Garderen of HTC-Highroad, Tom Danielson of Garmin-Cervelo, and George Hincapie of BMC Racing.

While some theorized that many of the other riders, including Cadel Evans and the Schleck brothers, were recovering from July’s three-week Tour de France, no doubt the altitude also took a heavy toll. The highest climbs in Europe are around 9,000 feet, and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge featured three mountaintops at 12,000 feet. Stage 3’s 10-mile time trial started at 9,000 feet and finished at 11,000 feet. Many of the top Americans in the race trained at altitude – team Garmin-Cervelo, for example, is based in Boulder. Colombian riders from the teams Gobernacion De Antioquia-Indeportes Antioquia and EPM – UNE, many of whom regularly train at 6,600 feet, also had a particularly strong showing in the climbs.

Leipheimer was quoted in the Denver Post as saying: “It took some of the best form of my life to beat Christian and Garmin-Cervelo and Tejay. I took the jersey and lost the jersey, and I had to produce one of the best time trials of my life to take it back. Then the team rose to the occasion to defend that jersey against a super-motivated home squad of Garmin-Cervelo. It took every ounce of energy and motivation to pull it off.”

Many of the riders remarked on the challenge of the terrain and altitude, but overwhelmingly, their quotes to the media expressed appreciation for the warm reception they had received from the fans and community. Levi said he hadn’t expected so many people to come out for the race. Cadel Evans said, “I don’t know if I’ve raced anywhere in my career where people were so appreciative of my being here. That’s not something that a race organizer can control, it’s just the ambiance of the race.”

Some might have doubted the success of the Colorado-based tour before this year’s inaugural run, but given the response from the public, those fears have officially and definitively been swept under the rug. Bidding between cities has already begun for 2012 – it’s expected that all of the 11 towns that participated this year, plus 8-10 new locations, will vie to host stages. Many are rallying to bring the race to Boulder, and the final stage in downtown Denver will likely remain the same. I’m, of course, rooting for Lookout Mountain again...

Special thanks to James Taylor & family for their incredible hospitality.

For another very interesting and funny read from our corner of the course, check out our friend Dave's report.

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