Pitkin County to take up Quiznos bike plan

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – Pitkin County is being urged to make an exception to its policy against helicopter use for special events when the Quiznos Pro Challenge bike race comes to Aspen in August.

County commissioners will be asked to weigh in Wednesday on the helicopter issue, as well as the planned closure of Highway 82 over Independence Pass during the race and the use of sheriff’s deputies along the race route.

The county recently received a special events permit application from the Quiznos race organizers, according to Mike Kraemer, planner with the county’s Community Development Department. Kraemer said he’ll be looking for commissioner input before a Special Events Committee takes up the nuts and bolts of the application, sometime within the next 30 days.

Race organizers have asked to use a helicopter to help film the racers from 1 to 4 p.m. on Aug. 24, when the race takes riders from Gunnison to Aspen via Cottonwood and Independence passes.

In the past, the county has not allowed the use of helicopters to film special events, citing the potential danger, disruption to residents and potential impacts on wildlife, according to Kraemer.

Professional cycling is traditionally broadcast with a mix of shots taken from camera operators on the backs of motorcycles and from the air. On twisting mountain descents, staying ahead of the racers on a motorcycle is dangerous and helicopter use is necessary, according to the event application.

“With two hours of live broadcast each day and the rolling nature of the race itself, the Quiznos Pro Challenge is in a unique position to present a rolling postcard of Colorado, its beauties and attractions to the world,” says the application. “But without the shots we need from a helicopter this will not be possible.”

Mark Joseph, technical director for the local committee working with race organizers, said denying helicopter use puts the stage into Aspen at risk. He wrote a letter to commissioners outlining reasons to make an exemption for the event, including the need to effectively cover the race for a television audience and the promotion that the event means for Aspen.

“Opening the flood gates to helicopter use is a concern, but we maintain that turning away a major international event that has the vast support of the community and will bring worldwide attention to our community in the picturesque summer is a big mistake,” he wrote.

In response to the helicopter proposal, the county sheriff’s office is urging a $10,000 bond be posted for a possible search-and-rescue mission in the event of a chopper crash. The event should be responsible for any costs that exceed that amount, the sheriff’s office recommended.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife has forwarded questions to the county regarding the helicopter’s route, its hovering activity, height limitations and landing spots other than the airport. There are areas on the pass used by mule deer, elk, mountain goats and bighorn sheep, and there are black bears on the hillsides bordering the race route closer to town, according to the DOW. Use of a chopper could drive bears into populated areas, the agency said.

“As a reference, when [a] helicopter began slinging logs from Smuggler Mountain 2 years ago, every radio-collared bear on Smuggler was in town the next day,” the DOW wrote. “Maybe coincidence as it was a bad natural food year, but it may not be either.”

The Quiznos application indicates organizers have already received a conditional approval for filming from the U.S. Forest Service, but a Forest Service spokesperson said Thursday that the agency doesn’t grant conditional approvals.

The Forest Service has formed a team to review the permit proposal it has received for the bike race, as the multi-stage event may have impacts in multiple national forests, including the White River National Forest that surrounds Aspen.

The Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison unit is taking the lead in the review, according to Lee Ann Loupe, external communications staff officer with the Forest Service. The agency doesn’t foresee any obstacles in the proposal that can’t be mitigated, she said.

Among the impacts to the forest in the Aspen area is the effect of closing Highway 82 over Independence Pass during the race. There are multiple Forest Service campgrounds to either side of the pass, including four on the Aspen side.

The plan to close the highway was made with input from the Colorado State Patrol and Colorado Department of Transportation, according to the Quiznos application.

Westbound Highway 82, headed toward Aspen, would be closed when riders reach Buena Vista, between 12:05 and 1:05 p.m., with the road reopening behind the race as competitors move through. The highway would be closed at its intersection with Highway 24. Highway 82 eastbound, heading out of Aspen, would be closed when racers reach the top of Cottonwood Pass, between 11:30 a.m. and 12:10 p.m., the application indicates. The closure will take place at the winter closure gate outside of Aspen.

Organizers anticipate about 2,000 spectators will view the event along Highway 82, according to Kraemer.

Race organizers propose posting four county deputies along the route for roughly three hours during the race; the event will pay for their time, according to the application.

The sheriff’s office, however, said it anticipates staging a team of deputies, firefighters and rescue personnel on the pass just in case of a problem.

The Quiznos Bike Challenge will be held Aug. 22-28. Competitors will ride from Gunnison to Aspen in the second stage of the race.

County commissioners will meet at noon Wednesday in the Plaza One meeting room. The Quiznos discussion is expected to occur at about 1 p.m.


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