When the USA Pro Challenge found a home in Summit County
Special to the Daily
There is a special energy when people gather to celebrate the amazing accomplishments of exceptional athletes. The USA Pro Challenge attracts individuals who are pressing the boundaries of their sport, along with fans who want to celebrate this major accomplishment of nearly 620 miles in seven days.
Locals and visitors in Summit County share a certain type of camaraderie. They have the attitude that we should not take life too seriously, and this is especially true as you mingle with your bike friends, ski friends and business friends all in one place. The respect we have for rider’s dedication and drive is celebrated with wild parties, outlandish costumes, music and fun events, built around a unique mountain culture that takes this bike race to a whole new level.
The art of Phinney
I began my fan journey at the start of Stage 3, located at Copper Mountain. Center Village was filled with sponsor tents, and the announcers never missed a sponsor title. Even though a part of this race revolves around those major brands funding it, the attitude is far from being pretentious. Instead, it is about connection. I felt so close to the riders as they entered the staging area, making sure to give me and other fans high-fives as they passed.
Boulder’s Taylor Phinney, the sprint leader going into Stage 3, got on the podium and shared a few words about his personal experience with the race, then went on to tell a story about the first time he and his dad skied at Copper, ending the day with a few beers at Endo’s.
The story made this super-human athlete seem more like a laid-back local talking about a day on the hill, and, as the day went on, I discovered more about this athlete. I learned that he is the son of two pro road bikers — his dad is Colorado cycling legend Davis Phinney; his mom is Olympic cyclist and speed skater Connie Carpenter-Phinney — and recently suffered a terrible crash that shattered his leg. In the recovery downtime, he developed a passion for painting. It was a touching story, and you can learn more about the healing power of art by searching for a video, “The Art of Never Giving Up.” Taylor’s speech and story brought new depth to the race — I felt like I knew this person as more than just an insanely talented athlete.
Right before the start, I was surprised to notice the group at the line looked completely relaxed, as if going out for a Sunday practice ride. The crowd listened to an exceptionally well-sung national anthem from Miss Denver (It nearly brought a tear to my eye), and, a few seconds later, breaking the peacefulness of the moment, the race announcers hyped the last 10-second countdown.
And then, they were gone. I wandered around the event for another hour, watching as children delighted in playing on stilts under a large, bubble-making tower, while a few break-dancers rocked the music stage near the base of American Flyer. A very tall man dressed like Uncle Sam tried to clean my ears with a massive Q-tip. And, no, I am not making this stuff up.
Men behind the machines
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet one-on-one with a pro rider the morning before the Aspen-to-Breckenridge stage. We sometimes forget that it takes a team behind each rider. Sponsorship is a huge part of the equation. Not just a single man wins — the team wins. There are riders who have specific jobs, and the outcome might be pre-determined by the time they begin the race.
However, this is the real question I was curious to ask: “What happens when you have to go pee?”
During the interview, the rider explained that you just stand up, pull down and let it out. I tried to keep from laughing, but all I saw was the image of the peloton getting a strange-smelling shower if the wind blew in the wrong direction. I have also heard that the riders have an unspoken “gentleman’s rule,” saying that no one will attack when the group determines it is time to “take care of business” off the bike. I guess the TV news coverage must miss this stop and put on a commercial break.
I think the best way to truly understand the thrill and excitement of the tour is to actually ride one of the routes. The same year that I learned about bathroom breaks, I also had the opportunity to ride up Independence Pass early one morning before the start of the stage. The 20-mile stretch of road has incredible scenery and wildlife, and, as I climbed toward the top, the fans were so excited to see any biker that they began cheering me on, running on the of side of my bike, ringing their bells, blowing their horns, touching my butt, pushing me up the hill. One guy even ran next to me, placing a beer in the back of my jersey.
For just a moment, I felt like a professional road rider, like all these people traveled hundreds of miles to cheer me on. I also kept thinking that I must keep steady and stay focused, that I shouldn’t get distracted by colorful costumes as the fans kept crowding around me after drinking who knows how much.
Upon reaching the top of the pass, I watched as the helicopters following the pack began to get closer. Soon, the peloton made it to the summit and started down the other side. You must be careful not to blink because you just might miss them.
The Moonstone party
The most entertaining location and my personal favorite spot to watch the action was on Moonstone Road in Breckenridge for Stage 4. The climb up Moonstone is a true test of stamina, as the riders roll into town after a grueling, 120-mile ride up and over two mountain passes. This last stretch of road is on a steep grade, packed full of partygoers crowding the streets. I can only image the exhaustion these riders must have feel and wondered how they kept it together, pumping their legs for one last hill climb in front of hundreds of people.
The reactions on the rider’s faces were mixed. Some riders stayed so focused on the goal that they never even cracked a smile, while others entertained the crowd by pulling wheelies the entire way up. Seriously, how does this guy pull a wheelie on a road bike when I was completely out of breath after climbing this section and I only biked from town?
However, what made this the perfect spot was the party. Boo Bicycles, a bamboo bike manufacturer based in Fort Collins, brought its bus and pleased the crowd with the best mountaintop dance party of the year. Music made the difference, as the crowd shook their booties in the streets until they had to move out of the way to let the riders pass.
Then, there were costumes. The devil stopped people in their tracks, a team of chickens began a massive conga line and a man wearing only his underwear was seen running next to the riders. The men with skintight, multi-colored, alien-looking morph suits were a little creepy, especially when you could see all their parts clearly. A few superheroes attended the party, including Wonder Woman and Batman entertaining the crowd with their super powers. A few ladies wearing traditional Oktoberfest dirndls entertained the crowd with impressive dancing.
This three-ring cycling circus was executed perfectly. Volunteers reminded the crowd to part as riders approached, and, in the chaos, a few seconds before the riders passed, the crowd split open with yells and cheers. Moonstone’s steep grades gave fans the chance to connect with the riders since many were going slow enough to see them in action.
Of course, at the end of the day, there needs to be a winner, a man who wears the yellow jersey, gets kissed by the beautiful women and is recognized for being the best. However, these riders know that when they win, it is not only for them, but also for the people who support and believe in them. They push the limits because fans like you and me cheer them on, celebrating their sacrifice, determination and passion. All of these riders are winners in my eyes — they are out there following their dreams and living their passion.
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