ASPEN - With the summit of Independence Pass off-limits to camping for this year's USA Pro Cycling Challenge, spectators began staking out prime roadside spots below the no-camping zone on Tuesday.
The 10 sites at Lost Man Campground, the uppermost Forest Service campground on the Aspen side of the pass, were all taken by Tuesday morning, though the bike tour itself laid claim to one of the camp spots there.
J.J. Fulsom, of Denver, drove up Saturday to secure a spot at Lost Man, pitched a tent, paid $85 to hold the spot through Thursday and left, returning Monday evening. Someone stole his tent, he said Tuesday.
"They didn't take the site - they just took my tent," he said.
He's been joined at the site by Steve Bachtel, of Boulder, aka DJ Good Steve, and the duo is prepared to party on Independence Pass Wednesday as the crowd awaits the pro riders who will tackle the Pro Cycling Challenge's grueling Queen Stage. The 131-mile route from Gunnison to Aspen, the longest stage of the tour, takes riders over two 12,000-plus-foot passes - Cottonwood and Independence.
Bachtel has stuffed a massive sound system into a van and brought along a gas-powered generator to pump 5,000 watts into the amplification. Liquid carbon dioxide will fuel 20-foot plumes of white, he said.
"We're being really eco-friendly," Fulsom cracked.
The costumed duo staked out a spot on Swan Mountain between Dillon and Breckenridge during last year's inaugural bike race, but they figure they'll get to see twice the racing on the pass, as Thursday's stage takes riders back up Independence Pass from the Aspen side en route to Beaver Creek.
Neighboring Lost Man camper Rob Quinn, of the Denver area, decided early on that he'd catch the bike race from the pass, driving over from Salida after participating in a running event there last weekend.
"I've heard Independence Pass is the best. I've been planning it for awhile," he said.
David Jimenez, of Denver, came over the pass Monday and scored one of the few remaining campsites at Lost Man, planning to share it with friends.
He caught parts of three stages in last year's event but not the Queen Stage.
"This is where the action is," he reasoned. "It's the most intense of all the stages. It's what, 130 miles? It's pretty impressive. I get tired just driving up the pass."
Above the campground, in the forbidden zone, an SUV on Tuesday disgorged a load of backpackers who were apparently intent on staking out a discreet spot somewhere in the woods.
Just below the campground, Scott Chism established "base camp" for a group of friends and children in a wide pull-off next to the highway. Bicycles will be the main mode of transit to and from camp.
Like others who were setting up camp Tuesday, he'd taken time off work to enjoy the race and take in the zany atmosphere at the summit.
"There's just a really fun vibe up on the pass," he said.
Larry O'Heren, of Meredith, who once worked as a campground host at Lost Man (the campground no longer has a dedicated host), was circling the loop in search of a spot Tuesday morning but discovered that he was too late. He was eyeing a spot at the lower Lost Man Trailhead parking area across the highway where he and friends might do some makeshift camping.
O'Heren camped atop the pass last year but said he understands the decision to protect the tundra by banning the practice for a 10-mile stretch encompassing the summit.
"I thought most people were very careful last year. I thought it was wonderful," he said.
Forest Service personnel were busy Tuesday morning posting numerous signs at the summit to inform spectators of the sensitive nature of the environment. Though camping is out, the agency anticipates that spectators will set up sun/rain shelters to hang out in while they wait, said Jon Thompson, Forest Service natural resource specialist.
"We want to encourage people to stay on the road right of way," he said.