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