Fans jam Independence Pass
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
ASPEN – The party was on the pass.
Spectators jammed Independence Pass on Wednesday to take part in a spectacle that impressed the riders in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge and left bike race fans hoping the inaugural event won’t be the last for Colorado.
For the crowd, which local authorities guessed numbered 3,000-plus, Wednesday’s grueling “Queen Stage” was the one to see, and Independence Pass, southeast of Aspen, was the place to see it.
“This is the quintessential stage. This is the absolute pinnacle of the race,” declared Zak Bristol of Boulder.
“It’s a chance to see the best cyclists in the world go as slowly as I do,” said Rob Dollars of Frisco.
Spectators began camping out near the pass summit Tuesday and the throngs swelled steadily Wednesday morning, stretching from the summit mainly down the east side, where fans crammed the road to cheer on riders as they climbed their second pass of the day en route from Gunnison to Aspen. Spectators on bicycles climbing up from both the Aspen and Twin Lakes sides appeared to outnumber the motorists who jockeyed for a place to park along the pavement.
For many, the race was the Tour de France on home turf.
“It’s so cool. It’s here in the U.S. It’s just so exciting,” gushed David Stamsta of Madison, Wis., who staked out a spot near the summit with his son, Noah.
Emily Deitz and Robbie Johnson of Pagosa Springs camped Tuesday night at the summit, having taken the week off in order to catch several stages of the race.
“We get the Tour de France in our backyard with all the pros from Europe. We have to take advantage of it,” Johnson said.
Julie Morales of Golden was recording the television coverage of Wednesday’s stage for later viewing, but wanted to see the action in person.
“There’s something about being part of the crazy cycling culture,” she said.
The crowd was treated to sunshine Wednesday morning, but the skies had turned stormy by nearly 3 p.m., when the first riders approached the summit. Rain at the top of the pass held off until the last of the competitors were nearing the end of their climb.
Race fans who spent hours milling about on the pass in anticipation found plenty of entertainment to help wile away the time. Spectators in zany costumes wandered back and forth at the summit, and a roving band of buskers from Salida played bluegrass tunes. Barbecue grills and camp stoves, beer and general merriment were the order of the day.
One energetic spectator climbed down from the summit to a snow field and carved “ANDY” in large letters in the snow, where rider Andy Schleck might see it. Delya Schock of Vail and Walt Hutton of Eagle-Vail erected big numbers on a hillside facing the road to remind racers of the elevation at the pass – 12,095 feet.
The racers no doubt noticed they were topping 12,000 feet for the second time that day, having already climbed over Cottonwood Pass. Some were amazed by the size of the crowd awaiting their arrival on Independence Pass.
“I was surprised to see so many people up there, because it’s so far from anything and hard to get up there. I rode it last week and thought there’s no way anybody’s going to be up here. From about a mile to the top it was just wall-to-wall people,” said stage winner George Hincapie. “I was on the limit, totally, but I saw them all and appreciated it very much.”
Overall leader Tejay Van Garderen said the numbers on the pass rivaled many stages of the Tour de France. “The crowds out there were incredible,” Van Garderen said. Later he said, “I think it would be interesting if there was a summit finish on the top of Independence. I think that would be really cool.”
Authorities reported no trouble with the laid-back crowd. Deputies and U.S. Forest Service rangers wandered back and forth, chatting with spectators, but letting things be. Campers were allowed to set up tents on the tundra within 300 feet of the road, one official said.
An Aspen Whitewater Rafting crew had hoped to stack up four rafts and set them afloat on the small pond at the summit, but refrained at a ranger’s request. Several campers, though, praised the Forest Service for its mostly hands-off approach.
Once the last racers had crested the pass, the mass of bicyclists and motorists heading back to Aspen used both sides of the highway, forcing authorities to keep the pass closed to eastbound motorists until the traffic cleared.
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