Cycle city: 2011 a big year for biking in Aspen
ASPEN – Aspen is rekindling its love affair with cycling this summer.
When the Aspen Cycling Festival kicks off next weekend, May 21-22, it won’t mark the start of any old season. This one will be special.
For the first time in 23 years, spectators will be stacked four deep along city streets in August and the roar of a crowd will be deafening when some of the greatest professional cyclists in the world sprint into town fresh off a hair-raising descent of Independence Pass.
A hole was left in Aspen’s soul after the Coors International Bicycle Classic folded in 1988. The town had hosted stages in that now-legendary race for roughly a decade. For cycling junkies in the Roaring Fork Valley, watching the Coors Classic was like attending a game in baseball’s World Series. They caught close-up glimpses of American stars Greg LeMond and Davis Phinney and top international competitors like Bernard Hinault of France.
That void will finally be filled when Aspen hosts one stage in the new USA Pro Cycling Challenge (which was briefly called the Quiznos Pro Challenge). Part-time Aspenite Lance Armstrong and former Gov. Bill Ritter helped create the new race, which is being touted as a revival of the Coors Classic.
Mark Joseph, former owner of The Hub of Aspen bicycle shop and the organizer of five Coors Classic stages in Aspen, said the town had to get involved in hosting a stage in the new bike race – just as it needs to continue hosting World Cup ski races.
“It’s who we are,” he said.
Aspen has always attracted people who strive for the best – whether it is in ski racing, music festivals, intellectual gatherings or bike racing.
“Everybody wants to be world class. People do things to a higher level here,” said Joseph, who is serving as the technical director for the Aspen stage of the new race.
You could say bike racing is in Aspen’s DNA. Aspen “boys” were top competitors in an 1899 bicycle race over dirt roads from Basalt to Glenwood Springs, according to an article by the Aspen Tribune. The newspaper reported that 1,000 spectators turned out to watch the race, which was regularly run between 1898 and 1914. The Colorado Midland Railroad offered special tickets to watch the race from the comfort of rail cars, since the tracks paralleled the race route.
Later, a race called the Aspen Alpine Cup featured a stage over then-unpaved Independence Pass in 1966, according to records compiled by the Aspen Historical Society. The race became slightly less hazardous when Highway 82 over the pass was paved the following year.
Biege Jones moved to Aspen in the late 1960s and became a bike racing fan who was enthralled with the Aspen Alpine Cup. While it mostly attracted amateur riders from Colorado and elsewhere in the western U.S., it occasionally drew big names. John Howard participated in the Aspen Alpine Cup during the time period when he was dominating U.S. cycling. He was U.S. National Road Cycling champion in 1968, 1972-73 and 1975.
“We were just in awe to even have these guys in town,” Jones recalled.
Aspenites also got bit by the racing bug. Cycling enthusiast Monte Hughes, who often traveled to Europe to watch races, formed the Monte of Italy team in the early 1970s with young Aspen men such as Michael Ernemann, Jasjit Grewal, Rick Ferrell and Eric Kinsman. In 1974 they traveled the state in a beat-up mini-bus to compete in whatever races they could find.
Ernemann said the late Hughes was such an avid fan he established two companies, one to import Italian bicycles and components and another to import cycles from Great Britain. Grewal sold imported bicycles from his shop, one of the few dedicated bike shops in town.
There was a core of Aspen cyclists who were into acquiring the very best equipment and “making believe we were in the Tour de France,” Ernemann said.
In reality, he said, they weren’t such great racers. “We were club riders, having a good time, that’s all,” he said. “Every day we’d go out and ride 30 or 40 miles then come back and drink vino, in the great European tradition.”
Jones recalled the Aspen Alpine Cup drawing relatively good crowds, considering the small population of the town.
The creation of the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic in 1975, which morphed into the Coors Classic in 1979, thrust Aspen into the big time of professional bicycle racing. While the Aspen Alpine Cup drew mostly amateurs, the Zinger and Coors brought serious racers pursing serious dollars. Aspen cyclists could watch racers like LeMond in his prime.
“It opened all of our eyes to what stage racing was all about,” Jones said.
LeMond won the Coors Classic in 1981 and again in 1985, a year before becoming the first American to win cycling’s biggest race, the Tour de France, in 1986. (LeMond went on to win the Tour de France twice more, in 1989 and 1990, solidifying his legendary status among Aspen fans who saw him before he soared to international success.)
The big-time races also inspired a younger generation of talented Aspenites, such as Alexi Grewal, Jasjit’s son. In 1984, he became the first American man to win an Olympic gold medal in cycling.
The popularity of bicycle racing in the U.S. soared in the 1980s, thanks in large part to the Coors Classic and the rising stature of U.S. racers.
“It started to get to be a spectator sport,” Joseph said. People with no interest in racing themselves were still interested in watching the races, he noted.
Although it’s been 23 years since the Coors Classic last rolled through town, Aspen’s infatuation with cycling has only grown. Cycling in Aspen has always held a certain sort of magic. It had a way of taking a kid who moved in from the Midwest and turning him or her into a dedicated participant. Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland was a runner rather than a biker when he moved to town in 1979, but so many of the people he met were into cycling that he was soon dedicated to the sport. His backing was instrumental in Aspen landing a stage of the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
Raifie Bass, a recreational rider and a dedicated follower of pro bicycle racers, said a lot of Aspenites are “predisposed” to racing. “It seems like people are always racing to do something,” he said.
Others riders, like him, just want to be out on their bike and don’t care about getting from Point A to Point B in the shortest time possible.
“I think there are more people out there riding bikes than I’ve seen before,” Bass said. “You definitely see it out on the Rio Grande Trail in the numbers and types of people you see.”
The Rio Grande Trail provides a paved route almost the entire 40 miles between Aspen and Glenwood Springs. It is packed during summer weekends with everyone from young families pulling kids in trailers to seniors out for a leisurely spin. It doesn’t require a survey to realize the trail is attracting a lot of riders who would be too intimidated to ride on roads.
That said, road riding is in a golden age. Michael Wampler, owner of Aspen Velo and a bike shop owner in Aspen for more than 25 years, said a lot of customers are Baby Boomers who can no longer handle the wear and tear of running. They are switching to cycling because it’s easier on their knees.
Cycling’s popularity is also obvious from the turnout in organized events. The unofficial start of the cycling season starts Saturday, May 21, with the annual Ride for the Pass fundraiser for the Independence Pass Foundation. The ride is popular because it is held while Highway 82 is still closed on the climb to Independence Pass. There are recreational and competitive divisions, but the real treat is riding the 10 miles and 2,500 feet of vertical gain without any automobile traffic.
Ride for the Pass is in its 17th year. It started with about 100 riders and now tops 500.
The Aspen Cycling Festival weekend also features a criterium road bike race along a course that features nine corners on city streets. “This fast-paced, energy-packed bicycle race is held in the heart of downtown Aspen and runs heats of athletes at speeds of 28 mph and higher around a .9-mile track with sharp curves on road bikes,” a promotional description says. A purse of $8,000 in prizes helps draw racers from throughout western Colorado.
For the first time this year, the Aspen Cycling Festival will also include a fundraiser on Friday night for Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong foundation. There will be cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and a silent auction at Cache Cache followed by a concert at Belly Up on Friday evening. Tickets are $250. A less expensive option provides cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at Campo di Fiore following by the concert at Belly Up for $100.
While the May weekend is billed as the Aspen Cycling Festival, the week surrounding the USA Pro Cycling Challenge is actually packed with more cycling events. Sunday, Aug. 21 is the 8th Annual Aspen/Snowmass Ride for the Cure. Participants can go on rides of 100, 50, 30 or 10 miles to raise money for the fight against breast cancer. Aug. 22 to 24 will feature a Women’s Pro Stage Race. Pro and elite level racers from across the country will compete in the three stages on rides around Aspen.
Sunday, Aug. 28 will feature The Power of Four Mountain Bike Race. The new event will require riders to conquer parts of Aspen Mountain, Snowmass Ski Area, Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands while climbing more than 10,000 feet.
More on the full slate of events is available at aspenupcc.com/.
The focal point of the August week will be what’s being billed as the “Queen Stage” of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. The men will race from Gunnison to Aspen on Wednesday, Aug. 24, crossing two passes higher than 12,000 feet over 128 miles.
Joseph believes the Gunnison to Aspen stage will go a long way to determining the race winner, even though it is only the second in a seven-stage event. Most riders won’t be used to competing above 10,000 feet in elevation, he said, so the peloton – the cluster of bikers – will likely be shattered well before it gets to Aspen. The best climbers and descenders will have a chance to gain a lot of time during the stage, and some racers will be exposed to big time losses, Joseph said.
After leaving Gunnison and heading partway to Crested Butte, the cyclists will go over Cottonwood Pass, descend to Buena Vista, make their way to Twin Lakes then hump it over Independence Pass before descending into Aspen for a finish by the Pitkin County Courthouse.
Large screens will show the final two hours of the race. One will be placed near the courthouse, and the other will be at Wagner Park, where a circus-like expo of advertisers and sponsors will be set up.
Joseph said it will be crazy in Aspen on race day. Take the typical Fourth of July crowd and double it, he said.
“There are other stages that won’t have the ‘wow’ factor” of race day in Aspen, Joseph said, speaking from his experience of helping organize Aspen’s Coors Classic stages.
Aspen will get payback through tremendous exposure. “We don’t have any world-class events in the summer,” Joseph said. This will put the beautiful mountain scenery surrounding Aspen and the charm of the town on a world-wide stage. “It’s a promotional bonanza,” he said.
European TV viewers will see the stunning Aspen scenery and get inspired to travel here, he predicted.
The event will also have an immediate impact of filling lodges at a time when summer is starting to wane. While spectators of the men’s race will follow the event out of town, the other events should attract people throughout the week, he said.
All major cycling teams have committed to participate in the Pro Cycling Challenge. Teams adjust their line-ups for individual races based on other events directly before and after a specific race, so some top racers might sit out the Pro Cycling Challenge. For example, if a team thinks one of its featured riders is better suited to a race right after the Pro Cycling Challenge, it might hold him out, Joseph said. Nevertheless, he expects at least half of the top riders to compete.
He’s guessing that the Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank, will be here, as will top U.S. rider Levi Leipheimer and several top sprinters such as Robbie Hunter, Mark Cavendish and Cadel Evans.
Alberto Contador, winner of the Tour de France in 2007, 2009 and 2010, will likely participate in a race in his native Spain at the same time as the U.S. race, Joseph suspects.
The USA Pro Cycling Challenge has got a big purse to offer racers even though it’s a new event. That’s a big advantage, along with the exposure on European and U.S. TV. “The money is here,” Joseph said. “That’s been the big drawback for a lot of races.”
Dedicated race fans are already plotting strategy for getting a good view of the race. While the big screens in town will offer the advantage of watching more of the race, people like Bass and Jones are planning to make their way up Independence Pass before the highway is closed for the event.
Jones said he loves climbing as a cyclist, so he wants to position himself about two-thirds of the way up the east side (Twin Lakes side) of Independence Pass to watch the racers climb.
Bass plans to watch the race with his wife and their two sons. He plans to take his VW van up in advance, placing it in a strategic spot with a picnic lunch, then having the family ride their bicycles up to watch the race near the summit. It will be a very European scene, he said, referring to the crowds that congregate at high passes during the big bike races in Europe.
Wherever they end up taking in the race, Bass and Jones are stoked.
“It’s almost like we’re coming back to our roots,” said Jones. He called cycling “our second heritage” behind skiing.
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Perhaps it’s because we are in the abbreviated days of winter and I instinctively know that the sun is shining down-under. But every January I go through a nostalgic period where Australian wine dominates my mind.