My thoughts about the USA Pro Challenge race come from the perspectives of a bike racer, event organizer, cycling fan and businessman. Like many cycling fans and Colorado business folks, I'd like to see the Pro Challenge become the nation's premier cycling event in terms of quality of racing and revenue generation.
Racers, racecourses/venues and spectators determine, in large part, the quality of the racing experience and revenue-generating potential. The bike racers, sponsors and advertisers feed on the energy of the fans. Energy includes the excitement on the course itself and the spending power of the fans - both live and television viewers.
To simplify, I'll focus on improving our two primary local venues: the finish/festival in town and the Independence Pass viewing area in order to keep growing the success of our local stages and the Pro Challenge.
The finish and overall venue in Aspen this year were outstanding! I was blown away by the size and energy of the crowd during the women's Blue Ribbon Alpine Challenge criterium race and Pro Challenge finish.
From what I understand, the crowd was much bigger than last year. The new finish in front of Paepcke Park on Main Street allowed for a longer, more dramatic sprint to the finish line and facilitated the expo/festival venue at the park and nearby streets that were temporarily closed for the races.
Noticeable improvements this year included a very exciting and well-attended women's race, more cycling-related vendor booths, live music, bike demonstrations and greater food and beverage options. Whether seated in the finish bleachers or standing on the sidelines, fans I spoke with were stoked about all the improvements and electric atmosphere! I can't come up with too many improvements to the in-town venue except to improve on what we currently have, in terms of the above-mentioned attractions. Perhaps the community, organizers and Aspen Chamber Resort Association can come up with ways to adjust the course/logistics to lessen the access issues that negatively impacted local businesses. I believe we can make access to local businesses easier and more welcoming.
In terms of our other major venue up on Independence Pass, it's apparent that we have a ways to go. I was up there last year and again this year and was stunned at the diminished racing atmosphere at one of the most (if not the most) epic settings in all of North American bike racing. The crowd estimate for the one day of racing last year was 3,000 to 5,000 fans. This year it was about 1,000 fans for both days! What?! I pedaled my bike up there for Day Two this year, which was Stage 4 from Aspen to Beaver Creek, and expected to see a somewhat smaller crowd. But it was paltry, numbering in the hundreds up at the summit. Even without all the massive crowd energy, it was still fun, especially since one of my favorite guys, Jens Voigt, was off the front on a mind-boggling solo attack! But the turnout on the final cut and at the summit was nothing short of embarrassing, widely attributed to the ban on camping by the U.S. Forest Service.
After last year, many insiders thought the turnout would double this year because the word got out about how awesome the Independence Pass experience was for campers and spectators - truly memorable!
Although I keep tabs on the local news and this event specifically, I never heard of any substantial negative environmental impacts due to the fans and their activities. For reasons not clearly noted, the Forest Service decided to make the dramatic change, banning camping in most of the desirable viewing spots. Obviously they had concerns and wanted to protect the sensitive alpine tundra in particular.
I think most of us share a deep love and respect for the environment, one of the reasons we live here. To build this event, however, I'd suggest that the community, including the cycling fans and concerned residents, the City Council, the Board of County Commissioners, ACRA and the Forest Service sit down and come up with a compromise if we are to grow and benefit from this important venue, which attracts additional energy for racers (who compared Indy Pass last year to the high-mountain stages of the Tour de France) and benefits the local resort economy.
We need to find a solution, like fencing off sensitive alpine tundra (done successfully at Northstar Preserve this year) in order to protect the environment while allowing some temporary camping or strictly car (i.e., no tent) camping in appropriate and desirable locations. Going to its website, I discovered the Forest Service mission statement reads in part as follows: "The Forest Service mission is captured by the phrase Caring for the Land and Serving People (and bullet points) listening to people and responding to their diverse needs in making decisions, protecting and managing the national forests and grasslands so that they best demonstrate the sustainable multiple-use management concept and helping states and communities to use the forests wisely in order to promote rural economic development and a quality rural environment."
In addition, we could create more energy by coordinating group bike rides up the pass. Perhaps cycling-related businesses and the Aspen Cycling Club could help organize. Various shuttle services via vans and/or buses, for those who won't ride their bikes from town, could be offered and promoted.
Although many businesses saw decreased business during the races, primarily due to lack of easy access, 82 percent surveyed by ACRA (Sept. 14, The Aspen Times) support the event because of the exposure and as an integral part of our branding as a world-class destination resort with world-class events.
Let's work together to make this incredible opportunity a win-win scenario for everyone involved!