Small crowd but good party at Independence Pass |

Small crowd but good party at Independence Pass

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
The bears were out for the USA Pro Challenge Wednesday at the summit of Independence Pass.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times |

A smaller than usual crowd braved strong winds at the summit of Independence Pass on Wednesday to watch the USA Pro Challenge bicycle racers snake their way up the east side.

But those who made the trip by bicycle or vehicle didn’t let the wind chill dampen their spirits. A couple dressed as a devil and angel were cheering on recreational cyclists as well as the pros. Two friends from Carbondale were dressed as bears and letting out roars as riders whizzed past. Chicken man ran alongside cyclists. Others in the crowd exuberantly imbibed and danced to tunes cranked by a mobile DJ.

It was impossible to gauge the size of the crowd because they were strung out on the Twin Lakes sides of the pass and at the summit. It felt far short of an estimated 5,000 fans that swarmed the summit in the inaugural event in 2011.

Veteran Pro Challenge spectator Zack Frisch, an Aspen native who now lives in Denver, arrived at the Independence Pass summit about two hours before the event and asked, “Where is everyone?”

Crowd members speculated that the lack of established professionals reduced interest and that the cold, windy conditions at the summit changed minds about attending. Some race fans have insisted that the U.S. Forest Service’s ban of camping at the summit and its approaches ruined a good thing from the first year of the event, when the ban wasn’t in place.

Martha Moran, recreational staff manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, said the decision was the right one for the sake of the high-altitude ecosystem.

“If we had allowed that (camping), it would have been trampled,” Moran said. “It wasn’t sustainable.”

The Forest Service has promoted its campgrounds with race fans and made special allowances for roadside camping at places such as the Lower Lost Man Loop Trailhead. The Difficult, Weller and Lost Man campgrounds filled Tuesday evening, she said.

Camping restrictions weren’t a bother for Dwayne Dilley of Texas. He and a friend plan to follow the stage race all week and camp at strategic spots along the way. They camped near Twin Lakes on Tuesday night to be close to Wednesday’s action. They rode their bikes from Twin Lakes, the town, to the summit.

Dilley said he and his buddy are big race fans and wanted to follow a pro race. Their vacation had an added benefit. “We get out of the Texas heat for a while,” he said.

Brian Hoffmeyer and Jayson VanShura, friends from Denver, were camping and following the tour for the fourth time in its five years.

“We call it man-cation,” Hoffmeyer said. They party with some of the same people each year, though they don’t get together with them other than at the race. It’s good bonding time, Hoffmeyer said, and a good chance to drink some beer.

VanShura said he reserves the week of the Pro Challenge as quickly as possible on his company’s vacation calendar. He hopes the race continues well into the future. He sees it as a good way to learn about the up-and-coming professionals in pro cycling and to show them support.

Hoffmeyer and VanShura parked at the summit of Independence Pass, then rode 5 miles down the Twin Lakes side and back up to get a feel for the course.

“It lets you drink more beer,” Hoffmeyer said of the exercise.

Steady streams of riders came up both the Aspen and Twins Lakes sides of the pass to watch the race.

Dave Serke of Lafayette, Colorado, and his friends arrived at the summit at 9 a.m., found a spot a near the mobile DJ blasting tunes and started the party. Their dancing shifted into higher gears as the time for racers to arrive approached. By 1:30 p.m., they had attracted a fun-loving crowd just east of the Independence Pass summit.

The fun-loving crowd created a narrow passage way about an hour before the racers arrived. They danced, drank, joked with state troopers and rang cowbells as scores of recreational riders reached the top.