USA Pro Challenge CEO: Aspen critical to bike race

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
USA Pro Challenge CEO Shawn Hunter
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times |

Aspen will continue to play a critical role in the USA Pro Challenge bike race’s plan to grow into a pre-eminent, national sporting event.

Shawn Hunter, CEO of the organization that owns and organizes the race, said Aspen is a virtual lock to be included among host towns every year.

“I find it difficult to plan a route that doesn’t include Aspen,” Hunter said Wednesday in a presentation at the weekly Aspen Business Luncheon.

Aspen and Denver are the only Colorado towns or cities to be included in each annual event, which is entering its fourth year. Aspen is the only place that’s been selected twice as the starting point for the race.

Last year the event started in a circuit race in Aspen and Snowmass Village. Stage 2 featured a launch from Aspen and a climb over Independence Pass. Both days went so well, Hunter said, that he decided by Day Two that it would come back to Aspen in 2014. He said the work by Nancy Leslie, Aspen’s director of special events and marketing, is a big reason why the town has been a good host.

Earning return engagements is no simple accomplishment. He said he and his staff dream up 30 possible routes for each year. About 30 Colorado towns and cities bid on the opportunities to be one of the 10 host cities this year.

The 2014 event starts Monday with a circuit race on a course identical to last year. The course departs Aspen, goes to Snowmass Village via Owl Creek Road, hooks into Brush Creek Road, climbs into Brush Creek Village before attacking W/J Hill and returns to Aspen via McLain Flats Road and Cemetery Lane.

Stage 2 departs from Aspen on Highway 82, whizzes through Basalt, makes a dogleg through Carbondale before heading up the Crystal Valley and over McClure Pass, then winds up Kebler Pass into Crested Butte and climaxes with the grunt up to Mount Crested Butte.

Hunter labeled part-time Aspenite Tejay van Garderen as the “odds-on favorite” to win the USA Pro Challenge. Van Garderen, who turned 26 on Tuesday, placed fifth at this year’s Tour de France.

Another favorite is American Tom Danielson, who sat out the Tour de France to position himself for a win at the Pro Challenge, according to Hunter.

Big bucks required

Hunter was blunt about the finances needed to stage the race and the strategy for growth. It requires about $1.5 million to produce one stage of the seven-stage race. That doesn’t include the substantial aid that municipal, county and state governments provide through law enforcement and infrastructure. Organizers want to break even on the race before they think about adding additional stages, he said.

About 90 percent of the money comes from sponsors. The USA Pro Challenge is bolstered by eight to 10 “foundation sponsors” every year, according to Hunter. The Coors Classic, a legendary bike race rooted in Colorado in the 1970s and ’80s, didn’t survive because it relied almost exclusively on the title sponsor, Hunter said. The USA Pro Challenge relies on a wider base. Lexus is a major sponsor this year. The winner of the race will receive one of the brand’s luxury cars.

A decade from now, Hunter and the other organizers want the race to have the stature of the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA championship and major golf and tennis events, Hunter declared. He acknowledged that will take a lot of hard work. Even some prospective sponsors aren’t fully aware of the event until Hunter’s staff explains it attracts many of the same teams and same racers as the Tour de France, road cycling’s premier event. It follows the big event by 20 days.

Strategic scheduling

The USA Pro Challenge is scheduled at the same time as the Tour of Spain, one of three grand tours in cycling. Hunter said the overlapping schedule doesn’t create a problem for the USA Pro Challenge. It has attracted a stronger field than the Tour of Spain in two out of the three years the Pro Challenge has taken place, he said.

The scheduling of the Pro Challenge was a strategic decision to place it between the Tour de France and the World Championships. Many racers, especially those who participated in the Tour de France, don’t want to jump into the equally grueling Tour of Spain. Colorado is an attractive alternative to them, Hunter said, and many racers yearn to come because the race is at such higher elevations than the European events.

The timing of the race is good for Colorado tourism because it provides a final boost before most schools resume. About 300,000 race fans are expected to watch the final stage of the race, which winds from Boulder to Golden before ending at the state Capitol in Denver. The races will attract more than 1 million total spectators. It will be broadcast in about 175 countries and attracts 14.2 million unique viewers on a European network.

NBC Sports will provide 23 hours of coverage in the U.S. There will be 42 hours of international coverage, according to Hunter.

The event attracts about as many viewers in the U.S. as the National Hockey League’s game of the week, so it has a long way to go before it’s on equal footing with the other major sporting events. Be patient, Hunter told the Aspen audience, because his staff’s goal is to build the Pro Challenge into America’s race.

And America’s race will include Aspen.

“We will be back if you’ll have us,” Hunter said.