As USA Pro Challenge cyclists hurtled toward the Stage 5 finish line in Breckenridge Friday, Leslie Ramsay was sprinting there, too, but from the opposite direction.
Minutes earlier, about a dozen miles from the finish, she was planted atop Hoosier Pass.
As cyclists endured a climb steep as a pitched roof, Ramsay was one of four judges manually timing the race. At the top of the pass she recorded which riders earned points toward the King of the Mountain challenge. She then jump into a Lexus coupe marked as an official Pro Challenge vehicle and raced down winding Highway 9, maneuvering through cyclists traveling in excess of 60 miles per hour and avoiding the crotch rockets and hordes of hatchbacks that make up the vehicular entourage accompanying the race comprising 100-plus riders.
“It’s a little scary sometimes,” Ramsay said. “I’m always a little fearful I’m going to hit somebody. But I give a little toot on the horn and let them know I’m coming through.”
Ramsay, 52, of Summit Cove, is a national commissaire, which means she’s basically a referee of professional cycling events. It’s her job to track which riders score points for the races within the race, such as the King of the Mountains and sprint challenges.
It’s also up to the judges to be at the finish line to manually record riders’ finishing times. That’s why on Friday, as the rain puddled the course and costumed crowds pushed in, Ramsay had to make sure she arrived there first.
“It’s really fun to be part of the bike race,” she said. “And especially with these stage races, I really am part of the race. I’m in a car that is going right along with the bike race.”
Although automatic timers and photo-finish cameras are used to determine the official winner and time, the judges play a crucial role there as well. No matter how consistent the technology is, it requires human effort to make sure it is correct and provide a backup time in case of malfunctioning equipment.
“I’m tracking numbers and recording manual finish times with my stopwatch,” she said. “I’m also one of the backup timers and have to check the official results. A timing company does the final results, but we always check it.”
And as everyone knows, technology is not perfect.
“I was just at the Tour of Utah race last week, and for some reason the data that went into the results system from their camera did not record the right time,” Ramsay added. “So they ended up using my times at the end. So you do need a backup in this sport. Sometimes technology does fail.”
With 26 years of experience, she’s had the opportunity to judge some of the most prestigious cycling events in the nation. She’s worked at four world championships, several world cups and national championships, the inaugural mountain bike world championship in Durango, and she officiated cycling at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
She moved to Summit three years from Colorado Springs with her husband, Bill, who raced professionally for many years and ran a pr track cycling team. That’s how she wound up working as a judge.
“My husband used to run a bike team in Colorado Springs,” Ramsay said. “They needed someone to keep time at an event, and that’s how I got started. I was the chosen one for the team. And Colorado Springs was a good place to start officiating because that’s where USA Cycling is located. There is also a world-class bell drum, which is track cycling, in Colorado Springs.
“I was at the right place at the right time, because I was following my husband to these races and they were looking for officials. I was drawn to it. I got a lot of good opportunities early on because I was in Colorado Springs recording times at the bell drum. Early on in my career I was timing world records … But I’ve put in lots and lots of hours and gone through five levels of testing to get to this point.”
Ramsay is one of thousands who work behind the scenes to successfully orchestrate a professional cycling event.
“With the Pro Challenge there are seven races going on inside of that race,” Ramsay said. “There are points you earn from mountain climbs and the sprints. There’s a lot going on within the bike race that you don’t necessarily know.”
To help monitor all this there are four judges. Then four more commissaires in cars are monitoring rider conduct. They also control the convoy that goes along with the bike race. Each racing team has two vehicles to provide support for riders in case of a flat tire or other issue. Throw in one car that stays at the front of the pack and two more that always stay behind.
Then there are additional officials on motorcycles who watch rider movement and give time splits. Then there’s another official on the back of a motorcycle carrying a white board notifying riders of time gaps and of dangerous turns ahead. There is no time for the commissaires to scratch their heads and wonder about a questionable play. This whole game is moving at lightning speed.
“It takes a lot of people to put on a bike race,” Ramsay said. “There are countless volunteers and marshals at every block for a hundred miles.”
One element that simplifies the judge’s job is grouping packs of riders together at the King of the Mountain and sprint line points.
“With big packs of riders we give them all the same time at those points and lines,” Ramsay said. “It makes it safer. If they knew each individual time was going to be counted they’d be crashing into each other while jockeying for position in the pack. It makes it safer to give them all the same time.”
And of all the races she’d officiated, none comes close to the pandemonium that is the USA Pro Challenge.
“Absolutely, this race, by far,” Ramsay said. “The Pro Challenge by far has the biggest crowds I’ve seen. People are pounding on my car sometimes. It’s a little crazy. They are right in the middle of the street. And it’s a little scary.
“This is a cool race. We’re honored to have this event come through Summit County. This is the highest caliber race in the United States.”
As everything seems more automated and technology seems to have a tighter hold over sports and officiating, it’s the human touch, people like Ramsay, ensuring everyone has a fair finish.
“My husband used to run a bike team in Colorado Springs. They needed someone to keep time at an event, and that’s how I got started. I was the chosen one for the team. And Colorado Springs was a good place to start officiating because that’s where USA Cycling is located.”