ASPEN - Aspen will be a hotspot for the USA Pro Cycling Challenge later this month. But for those in the know, Independence Pass is where the action will be.
More than 20,000 spectators are expected to fill the area on Aug. 24, the day that will mark the 130-mile Silver Queen Stage, the second phase of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, a seven-day, 600-mile journey for some of the world's top cyclists. Aspen is going all out for the event, with Jumbotrons set up around town to accommodate viewers. At Wagner Park, there will be a live-music stage, a beer garden and even a lifestyle/business exposition.
Street closures will start at 6 a.m., even though the cyclists aren't expected to hit the city until sometime between 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. A VIP tent will be set up near Main and Mill streets, offering a select number of viewers a superb vantage point for watching the sprint to the finish.
While rooftops and sidewalks will be packed with cycling fans and other types of revelers, those seeking a less-urban setting have a fantastic option. It may be the worst-kept secret in town, but Independence Pass (Highway 82 east of Aspen) is arguably a better place to enjoy the race.
The Aspen Times gave intrepid reporter Andre Salvail part of a recent afternoon to scout out some prime locations between Aspen and Twin Lakes for watching, tailgating and camping on race day. In his quest for the best spot to view the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, he left no stone unturned, and here is his report:
• Mile-marker 45: The Difficult Campground area is the closest spot outside of town to find a place to park and watch the speedy descent into Aspen, provided that you get there early enough. But if you're planning to get a campsite, you're taking a big risk: Most of the reservable sites were booked back in mid-June, and there will be a mad scramble for the first-come, first-served sites several days before the race. The riders will be zooming past the area at high speeds, making for a rather short-lived viewing experience. The pre-party might be good, but serious race viewers would be wise to continue upward. Just steer clear of Kevin Costner's property below the winter gate - don't give the actor an excuse to unleash the hounds.
• Mile-maker 49: Weller Campground, a pleasant 10-spot area about eight miles east of the city, is available on a first-come, first-served basis at $17 per day. As is the case with most area campgrounds, restrooms are of the non-flushable variety and the only way to obtain water is through the use of a hand pump. It's surrounded by thick forest and along the highway, the race visibility will be narrow and quick. This is not the best place to watch the race, unless you are a cryptid and you want to be shielded by a wall of trees. But Weller makes for nice and easy camping, with picnic tables and fire-pits at each site. "I have no idea when people are going to start showing up before the race," said Linda, the affable campground host for Thousand Trails Management. Truer words were never spoken.
• Mile-marker 50-52: Hairpin curves along a road that narrows to one lane in a few spots could make this area a winner for race viewers. Small parking areas on the right shoulder (if heading up the pass) appear to be prime locations for tailgating. Also within this stretch of highway are turnoffs to the Grottos Day Area (with ample parking) and Lincoln Gulch Campground (non-reservable). A short distance past mile-marker 52, on the left, lies a large parking area with benches. Cyclists will be moving very fast, perhaps 45-50 mph, but opportunities to see some slick maneuvering abound.
• Mile-marker 53-54: A few medium-sized parking areas can be found here, especially next to the Braille/Discovery Day Use Trails. But this is a flat, somewhat dull stretch of road surrounded by pine trees and moist greenery. Continue upward.
• Mile-marker 55: This is the site of the Lost Man Campground (10 spots, unreservable, water pump, $16 a day) and the trail bearing the same name. There's a large parking lot on the left that's adjacent to a jolting downhill curve. Not a bad area, especially if you don't care that much about the race and you want to hike and camp. However, the campground also is a short hike to some prime-time viewing spots.
• Mile-marker 57: By now you are at an elevation of 10,830 feet, next to the historic Independence mining town. This is a great day area with a large parking lot (12-14 spots) and a place where families can take short hikes and peer inside wooden cabins and other structures. The surrounding scenery is well above par, but for better race viewing, keep climbing.
• Mile-marker 58-59: A beautiful spot this is, with wildflowers and a high cliff face. But the parking shoulders on the right are fairly small. A larger parking area is on the left at the entrance to Linkin Lakes Trail near a small waterfall. From there, you have a clear line of sight of cyclists dropping from the top of the pass (milemarker 60-61) and then the view is shrouded by trees until they hit the switchback and pass in front of you. On the Aspen side of the pass, this might be the best viewing area. But the mosquitoes are plentiful on a wind-less day.
• Mile-marker 61: You are at the top of Independence Pass, 12,095 feet above sea level and well above the tree line. It's chilly and the scenery is spectacular. Tourists speaking many different languages are walking to and from the scenic overlook and milling around on the paved trails and across the tundra. Oh, by the way, a 130-man bicycle race will be passing through at some point in the early afternoon. They will have been climbing uphill for some 15 miles, and chances are they will look fairly tired and possibly sweaty. Better get your camera ready.
• Mile-marker 63-65: This would be the best area to watch the race along the entire Queen Stage - if only there were ample parking. The cyclists will be grinding up a steep grade and maneuvering through several switchbacks. "This could be the decisive point of stage 2," said Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland, an avid pro-cycling fan and seasoned cyclist in his own right. "This could be where they battle for a break to get the best position." From the small parking areas on the right side of the road at mile-marker 65, viewers can get a stupendous view of the race unfolding below. But there's no guard rail and the parking area is next to a dangerous drop. The safety-conscious may want to tailgate at the larger area a half-mile farther ahead, near the switchback, which looks directly down on an uphill S-curve next to a mountain bog.
• Mile-marker 67-68: The road is not as steep, but you'll find ample parking along three large shoulders. Trout fishermen love the small pools of water along Lake Creek to the right. A pine forest frames this dense and green area with high mountains rising to the clouds. This may not be the best race-viewing area, but it sure is pretty.
• Mile-marker 75-78: The winding road is narrow in spots, slightly steep and bordered by large boulders. The Twin Peaks and Parry Peak campgrounds (first-come, first-served) are within this stretch and offer incredible surroundings less than one-eighth of a mile from the highway. The town of Twin Lakes lies just a couple of miles ahead of the campgrounds and offers myriad bed-and-breakfast/cabin-style lodging opportunities and a flat stretch in which to watch the race. There's a general store with snacks, beer and novelties. Just don't expect much in the hot-food department; a sign notes that the longtime cafe next to the store is closed for good.