Aspen Cycling Club off to the races

Scott Condon
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Jim Paussa photo/

ASPEN ” Aspen’s boys and girls of summer are ready to crank it up ” and we’re not talkin’ baseball here.

The Aspen Cycling Club is entering its 21st season. For most of those years, the club has brought together dedicated riders who use the races to gauge their fitness progress, as well as hard-core racers who use the local races to train for regional competitions on the weekends.

Each Wednesday evening from May 6 to Sept. 9, the club will hold a race. One week it will be a grueling road contest to the Maroon Bells and back, then up Castle Creek. The next week racers will test their mettle on mountain bikes in the dirt, roots and rocks of Government Trail.

Between 60 and 100 riders typically show up for the races. Club president Mike Pritchard is concentrating this summer on “bringing in new blood.” Since its formation in 1988, the club has tried to convince riders they don’t have to be the second coming of Alexi Grewal, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist from Aspen, to participate in the town race series.

“That’s something we continue to struggle with because not everyone has a competitive streak in them,” said Pritchard.

The hard-core racers are separated from the mere mortals, so there is no reason for any interested cyclist to be intimidated. The “A” class is for the more serious racers while the “citizens” class is for the more casual racers. The citizens class was renamed “sport” class for this season. Sport class racers who win consistently are moved into the “A” class.

“There’s always going to be someone to dice with regardless of whether you’re at the front of the pack, the middle of the pack or the back of the pack,” said Len Zanni, a racer and member of the club’s board of directors.

Zanni, a partner in the outdoor gear maker Big Agnes, is a marketer in his day job, but he has attaineded legendary status in the cycling club. He lost a mountain bike race to Lance Armstrong last year by only 14 seconds when the 7-time Tour de France champion made a surprise visit to a cycling club race up Smuggler Mountain, down into Hunter Creek Valley, up to Four Corners and back to the Hunter Creek Valley floor.

Zanni, 38, spends as much time on a bike as possible but mountain biking is his passion. The Wednesday night races add an element that he said he just can’t get riding alone or in small groups of friends.

“While I love riding any type of bicycle at basically any time, there’s nothing like suffering and testing yourself,” Zanni said. “If there’s dirt thrown in, all the better.”

Zanni estimated there are 25 to 30 competitors in the Aspen Cycling Club series who also compete at the state or regional level. Max Taam, 26, is a Category II road bike racer, one of the highest levels, and a pro mountain bike racer. The Aspenite got involved in the town race series five years ago when he moved to town. Winning the Wednesday night races aren’t his primary focus, although he said he goes all out every week.

“I guess I use them as training races,” he said.

Competitive racers like Taam will often mix it up on Wednesdays, then scale back and recover on Thursdays and Fridays before heading off somewhere in Colorado, Utah or New Mexico for a big race.

Training aside, Taam said the Wednesday night races are fun and convenient. There are a great variety of events, from mountain bike races on wooded singletrack trails to road bike races on one of the local two-lanes. Sometimes the races begin with a mass start, with riders jockeying for position right off the start line. Other races are individual time trials where racers on road bikes go single file in a quest to turn in the best time.

One of the most unique opportunities is a criterium at the Woody Creek race track, where road bikers make high-speed laps on the unique course.

Aspen racers can ride to most of the weekly courses from their back door. A handful of races are held downvalley, including the season opening road bike time trial at Catherine Store on Wednesday, May 6.

“All of the courses are really cool,” Taam said. “It’s a fun group of people getting together every week.”

The fun factor is the common denominator for the participants, whatever their skill level. Erik Skarvan, 47, was among the founders of the Aspen Cycling Club and racing remains as interesting to him now as it was in 1988. There are “five or six guys” in his Veteran Men’s A category that can win any given week and take the season title, he said.

“It’s friendly competition but once we get on the course it’s dog eat dog,” Skarvan said. “Before and after we’re best friends.”

He has won the overall point title for his age category several times over 20 years, but last year he lost by three points ” and it’s grated on him since September. Skarvan said he lost several sprints to the finish last year. He is determined not to let that happen again, so he has been working on sprints already this spring.

That’s one of the advantages of participating in the races ” it focuses your training and, ultimately, improves your fitness.

“It’s a rush,” Skarvan said.

Jim Paussa, 53, loves the nuances of bicycle racing. He likes making alliances on the fly with other riders. One week’s foe is the next week’s ally.

A small group of riders might fall in together on the ride between Basalt and Norrie, for example. They will take turns “pulling” or leading their small group, with other riders drafting behind and coming to the front when it is their turn.

Those kinds of groups often break away from the main pack, or peloton. Sometimes they keep their advantage; often the main group reels them back in.

Toward the end of the race, however, all alliances are off. It’s every man or woman for themselves in a sprint to the finish.

Paussa has participated in the town race series intermittently over the last several years. He might participate for a year or two, then take a break for a year or two, depending on what is going on in his life. Like the organizers, he agrees the club “is really for everybody” ” the serious racers who use Wednesday nights for training, the local racers who are focused on winning each Wednesday, and the dedicated recreational cyclist who wants to try racing.

“It’s like life: everybody has a different goal, but there you are every Wednesday night,” Paussa said.

Regardless of a person’s goals, participation in the race series requires dedication. Show up out of shape and you’ll pay a price.

“It’s not so much embarrassment as you’re off the back,” Paussa said. “People just leave you in the dust.”

And while training puts a racer in position to be successful, it still requires a break or two during the course of a race to end up on top. “You have to work hard but be lucky,” Paussa said, noting that’s another way that racing provides “a little slice of life.”

Paussa’s personal favorite race is the downtown Aspen criterium, which starts at the Wheeler Opera House and twists and turns through Aspen’s streets. That race will be held Sunday, May 17, this year. Even watching the race provides an adrenaline buzz. “It’s like going crazy fast into corners with lots of guys around you,” Paussa said.

Racing has been and remains the focal point of the club. Low-key group rides were organized on weekends in the past but turnout was always spotty, Zanni said. The club throws a few parties over the course of the racing season to stoke the social aspect. It also commits to a handful of maintenance days on mountain bike trails in the White River National Forest. Participants in those work days accrue points that figure into the season standings, providing incentive to show up.

Racers are encouraged to become members of the Aspen Cycling Club, which charges a $55 annual fee for adults. Members pay an additional $5 fee for each race. Sponsor contributions ranging from $250 to $2,500 really keep the club afloat and enable the club to charge such a small racing fee. Alpine Bank is the title sponsor, but there are at least 17 other businesses that kick in funding too.

“It’s for locals by locals,” said Pritchard. “It’s a cheap way to race.”

More information on the Aspen Cycling Club, including its 2009 race schedule, is available at