Colo-freakin’-rado

Generally speaking, we try not to violate the fourth wall and directly acknowledge our work by shining a light on the fact that what we do here is write about, analyze about, obsess about cycling. That’s as obvious as sunlight. But this is one of those days. The cycling world has gone pure red state/blue state in its outrage/relief/shock/dissatisfaction with the announcement that Lance Armstrong has decided to concede game, set and match to USADA and Travis Tygart. No matter what you think of Armstrong, it’s unlikely that the outcome has left you feeling better about the sport of cycling. And that’s the real tragedy of the situation. It’s as if someone took the blue out of the sky.

Which is why the current racing in Colorado is so great. Forgetting for a moment that the event has the misfortune to have been given the generically anonymous USA Pro Cycling Challenge (they really couldn’t do better than that?), it is the perfect antidote to what ails cycling.

For starters, the event is showcasing the new generation of American riders, a crop of talent that seems united in their repudiation of a previous generation’s doping. Sure, they could be lying, but for now, there’s something in the attitude of guys like Tejay Van Garderen and Joe Dombrowski that makes the idea that they are clean easy to swallow. That Van Garderen is leading the race is perhaps the best thing to happen in American cycling this year, other than his near-podium finish at the Tour de France.

It wasn’t so many years ago that guys like Bobby Julich were racing for the U.S. National Team and telling stories of how they got into cycling as a result of seeing the Coors’ Classic pass through their town. Each generation has drawn inspiration from its homegrown riders as if passing a fledgling passion from one kid to another was as easy as handing off a torch. But inspiration has no baggage, so maybe it is.

That Van Garderen is leading the race (if only by a fraction of a second) confirms what we saw at the Tour. This kid is the real deal and we can expect to be cheering for him, getting autographs from him and thumbtacking posters of him for years to come. And honestly, one of my favorite story lines about him is how cycling was passed down to him by his father; cycling is a family sport.

Day after day we’ve seen stages result in the kinds of victories that satisfy our sense of what winning ought to be. In 1996, Chris Horner was riding for a tiny pro team that barely got invited to the Tour DuPont. Horner managed to get into a two-man breakaway with the comparative veteran Nate Reiss, riding for the U.S. Postal Service Team. In what was then seen as a total upset, Horner bested Reiss, and in doing so gave us a new champion to cheer for. Van Garderen’s win over Christian Vande Velde on stage two may not have had the surprise that Horner’s win did, but carried the same storyline of the new generation overtaking the old guard.

But if ever there was a time or a place for a wily old dog to enjoy a day in the sun, Jens Voigt’s solo breakaway on stage 4 into Beaver Creek. How it is that this German rider has become so beloved by American fans is at once obvious as the love of your mother and yet mysterious as a question from the Sphinx. To have him execute the longest solo breakaway of the race, indeed one of the longest successful breakaways of the whole season seems scripted by Hollywood. Even so, we’re as satisfied as when Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star. Whew.

The talent of the riders aside, and our belief that we’re viewing a remarkably clean peloton aside, the real star of this race is the state of Colorado. California boasts more bike companies, more bike races, factors more of cyclists and roads than Colorado. But the Rocky Mountain State is to bike racing in North America what the Louvre is to art—its spiritual home. It would be easy to attribute this in its entirety to the Coors’ Classic, but there’s more to it than that. Colorado is full of big spaces. Roads can run for miles with little direction change. The Rocky Mountains are photogenic in the instinctive way teenage girls are—every new view is untrained, yet memorable. And to see those roads in person … one needn’t be a cyclist to want to ride them.

But there’s more to a great race than a bunch of skinny guys turning the cranks with the speed of an electric motor. Once you’ve got the right racers and the right course, then you need fans. Colorado has turned out its populace (and borrowed from elsewhere) in a way that has impressed even the racers. No less a booster of California than Levi Leipheimer praised the fans on the Boulder stage for turning out in a manner even greater than what he’s seen at the Tour of California. I’ve noted on several occasions that huge crowds have been present, crowds easily as big as some that I’ve seen at the Tour of California, but in places that had a fraction of the warm bodies. There’s the feeling that this race is drawing out a bigger chunk of people present.

Finally, there’s a certain chemistry that seems to make the entire business heady, like a beguiling perfume radiating off your date. Watching the riders ride backward on the course and high-five the fans gave me chills. It was a kind of gratitude witnessed too rarely in sports, as much a payback as a benediction for all those fans whose cheers gave the riders a bump in wattage in those final kilometers. Even for the fans at home, ads like the campaign from New Belgium Brewing showing the guy riding the old cruiser and touting the line, “Enjoy the ride,” eschew transaction for bliss, an anti-consumption pitch, a reminder that we should get out there while the sun is still up.

 

Images: Doug Pensinger and Garrett Ellwood, Getty Images

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20 comments

  1. Harold Woodley

    Fantastic post. Couldn’t agree more. Two days in a row of writing the best I have read about what’s going on in cycling.

  2. Wsquared

    Road my bike over to the grade on 36 where it climbs South out of Lyons to watch the race. About 80 degrees, with a clear blue sky and a pleasant breeze pushing me along. There was a good crowd of locals lining the highway going up the hill. A mixture a famillies in cars and bikers. A little blonde girl in a sun dress chalked “SHUT UP LEGS!” in bright colors across the highway just before the break arrived. Of course, Jens was in it.

    After the boys went by, I skedaadled home, listening to Phil & Paul on the way down through rolling pastures on my ‘phone. Hooked up with a guy I didn’t know on the way & we chatted about the race. l got back just in time to watch the finale up Flagstaff on TV. Another reminder of why I love bike racing and living in Colorado.

  3. bigwagon

    Jens Voigt’s stage win two days ago was truly epic, but then he goes out and puts in another one today.

    BTW, today there is only one Armstrong worth talking about.

  4. Kublai

    Rode to Ward this morning and came back across P2P Hwy and there were many families and groups of friends setting up tents and making a day of it on the big climb near Sugarloaf turn. Then rode down into Boulder Canyon where folks were gathered near the falls for the 8% grades. Then was able to join the nearly endless parade of folks making their way up Flagstaff, all with a sense that something remarkable was about to happen. Heard from others that downtown was every bit as electric. Way to go Colorado, and especially my town of Boulder.

  5. Mike

    Nice article, Padraig. I really hope US cycling will continue to grow, would be fantastic to see the Tour of Georgia come back!

  6. LD

    one of the posts’ pictures stands out. I have never seen the finish of a race whereby riders acknowledged the crowds (and I mean CROWDS!) by hi and low 5’s. The beauty of road racing is its proximity to its fans and when riders do this it actually brings the fans in to a participating level. It was cool to see. now where can I get a cold Fat Tire.

  7. Alan

    This USAPCC has been one of the best races I’ve ever watched. By far.

    Wish the schluges would go away. Marcel van Garderen (driving a MAVIC neutral support motorcycle) tells me a TV motorcycle ran one over today. But otherwise a great race.

  8. jason

    What a spectacle … watching the start in Golden, and then the sprint in Lyons. And at such a perfect time – To renew my, and seemingly everyone’s in the state of CO, belief in the beauty and pain and necessary suffering of bike racing. Awesome is insufficient. As is sublime. Somehow, this race was both.

  9. scaredskinnydog

    I took my vacation this week to follow the race. It was one of the funnest things I’ve done in awhile. I’m still trying to process all I saw and did but some of the highlights were…. camping out on cottonwood pass at 12,000 feet and watching the riders absolutely fly up the dirt road, watching the intermediate sprint in leadville(there was a band playing on the courtyard lawn and after the race passed through they had a fund raiser where you could throw water balloons at elected officials riding their bikes up and down harrison ave.) and OF COURSE watching Jens be Jens and crush it like only he can. All in all it was a great time and I met a ton of really cool people and made some new friends. The only negative thing would be the dumbass runners who feel compelled to run in front of the riders. Its not about you, its about the riders and if you can’t respect them and what they’re trying to do then STAY HOME!

  10. peter lin

    I love Jens, he is freaking awesome! The man suffers and suffers, but he does it so well. Even at 41, he rides his own ride. Truly an inspiration for all ages.

  11. Nick

    I wasn’t really upset when the Tour ended, but now that USPRO is over I’m pretty bummed. That says a lot about the quality of racing.

  12. Jesus from Cancun

    That hi-5 picture impressed me. These are the little things that can improve the image of cycling and bring more fans into the sport.

    Who is the Radio Shack guy in the picture?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      That’s Ben King, former nat’l champ. He wasn’t the only one to do it. Tejay and others did it, usually riding backward on the course on their way to doping control. I did catch at least one other clip of slower riders doing that on their way into mountain-top finishes.

  13. Full Monte

    My wife and I will be vacationing in Colorado next year just to watch this race.

    I’m not sure if the best way to go about it is to book through one of the vacation packages available on the Pro Challenge website, or maybe book one of the manufacturer’s fan vacation packages (Trek, Cannondale). Or do it on our own, pack up the bikes and drive to Colorado.

    Haven’t been to Colorado since I rode the Ride Across the Rockies some 18 years ago (awesome!), and my wife’s never been. We’re really looking forward to it.

    If anyone has thoughts or experience on the best way to vacation and watch this race, please let me know!

  14. Saronni

    this is in response to kublai’s post. I am pretty sure you are the great kublai monger. I used to go by the name saronni. I would love to meet up with you. You can get a hold of me through Peter t.

  15. LB

    nicely put Padraig, an amazing race that will only get better as the good buzz like this spreads, and seriously folks, can we rename it?

  16. tiny tim

    Jensie. What a straight up baller. He made everyone look like they were riding compacts that day. Oh, and yeah he could also be the father of half the riders.

  17. TBar

    After the Boulder stage Jens showed up at the local TREK shop to meet and greet shoppers. Some friends were there looking for a bike for their daughter and talked with him for some time. What a sweet dude.

    All the local pros seem to have stayed home for a little vacation too.

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