Protecting the pass a Pro Cycling challenge |

Protecting the pass a Pro Cycling challenge

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Crowds begin to gather early in the day on Independence Pass near Aspen at the 2012 USA Pro Cycling Challenge. This year, cyclists summit the 12,096-foot pass not once, but twice, for Stage 3 from Copper to Aspen and Stage 4 from Aspen to Breckenridge.
Special to the Daily |

ASPEN – Will double the racing on Independence Pass near Aspen with this year’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge mean double the impacts on the fragile landscape at 12,095 feet?

The professional bicycling race that made an enormously successful debut last summer doesn’t return to Colorado until August, but a multitude of agencies have been working for months already on virtually every detail associated with the multistage race, including how to manage what could be a much larger crowd on Independence Pass with the event’s second running.

This year’s Pro Cycling Challenge tour takes place Aug. 20 to 26. Aspen will be the only stop to host both a stage finish and a start.

Stage 3, a repeat of last year’s Queen Stage, brings riders from Gunnison to Aspen via Cottonwood and Independence passes on Aug. 22. Stage 4, on Aug. 23, takes riders from Aspen to Beaver Creek via Leadville. They’ll again climb Independence Pass as they depart.

Last year, an estimated 3,000 people gathered on the pass summit and spilled down the east side to watch racers make the climb. The cheering throngs and costumed spectators pleased both racers and the race’s organizers.

“It took everyone by pleasant surprise,” said Nancy Lesley, director of special events for the city of Aspen.

Last year’s planning effort, though, was thrown a few curves, and not just because no one was sure what sort of a crowd to expect. The Colorado Department of Transportation decided a week before the race that it would allow car camping on Highway 82 over the pass within 24 hours of the race. When other spectators invariably set up tents atop the pass, Forest Service officials urged them to stay close to the highway instead of chasing them off the sensitive tundra, where diminutive, high-altitude plants require years to take root in the harsh environment.

With the USA Pro Cycling Challenge committed to staging the Colorado event for at least five years, Scott Snelson, Aspen-Sopris ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, is bracing for the possibility that the race route will make use of the pass in each of those years. He’s worried about the cumulative impacts of the crowd that gathers there.

So is Mark Fuller, executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation, which has spent years revegetating damaged areas on the pass and cleaning up tons of metal snowfencing that once snaked across the tundra.

A Forest Service permit is one of many required of the event, and organizers have been in discussions with the agency, as well as with jurisdictions around the state, locally including Aspen and Pitkin County.

Snelson said Friday that he anticipates that some areas on the pass will be off limits to camping during the race this summer, but nothing has been finalized. A lot of people trampling the tundra, this time over a two-day period, is a concern, he said.

“We’ve essentially doubled the time for people to be on that tundra,” he said.

“It’s a question of putting systems in place now that make this a sustainable long-term event,” agreed Fuller, who has also been involved in discussions about managing the event on the pass this time around.

“It’s the cars and the tents that are major concerns,” said Fuller, who’d prefer that overnight parking not be permitted, though he said he doesn’t believe that last year’s race caused great damage.

Fuller wants everyone involved to get a handle on management of the pass this year, rather than letting crowd impacts escalate and then trying to ratchet the use back later. So does Snelson.

“You have an event the first time, then people get innovative in how they enjoy it,” Snelson said.

And, scenes of the fun taking place on the pass last year might entice even bigger crowds when the race returns this year, particularly with two days of racing up there.

“I think the pass is the place to be,” conceded Stephen Ellsperman, Aspen parks and open space director and one of the local officials involved in the planning.

“I think there are going to be two or three times as many people up there this year as there were last year,” Fuller predicted.

That said, Fuller lauded the bike race.

“I think it’s a great showcase for Independence Pass,” he said. “It may be a great showplace for the work the foundation does.”

Last year, Forest Service rangers were a visible presence on the pass on race day, but they didn’t wield a heavy regulatory hand, and spectators appeared generally receptive to ranger instruction on how to limit damage to the tundra.

Fuller said he believes the crowds will be respectful of the area so long as they understand its sensitivity.

“These are plants that, if they get trampled, smothered, uprooted, they are gone for basically the rest of our lifetime,” he said. “I think the spectators agree this event can’t be done at the expense of the environment.”

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