Scott Mercier: Colorado Classic provides unique opportunity for female cyclists
Special to The Aspen Times
Professional cycling for women has been in the doldrums for quite some time. One could argue that it has been nearly nonexistent. Racing opportunities, sponsorship, prize lists, salaries and media coverage have been few and far between for women.
We may finally be on the cusp of a change for the better. The Colorado Classic, in its third year, is at the vanguard of this movement. The organizers of the Colorado Classic decided to become a women’s-only race for 2019. It’s billed as the lone women’s-only professional cycling event in the Western Hemisphere. They’ve devoted all their resources to making this a top-notch event for women, with a quadrupled prize list, stipends, daily live streaming, longer races and travel allowances.
The race was granted a Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) 2.1 designation, which is one of the highest rankings for a race. The UCI designation is important because the points accrued at this level of race count toward the rankings for slots in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. The more points riders from a country have, the more athletes they get to send to the Games.
This year’s Colorado Classic is truly a global event, with nearly 100 women racing on 20 teams from 16 countries. Last year’s winner, Katie Hall, is returning to mentor Team USA, which is comprised of elite collegiate athletes. Katie got her start racing for U.C. Berkeley when she was a graduate student. Madeline Bemis, from Milligan College; Anna Christian, from CU Boulder; Emma Edwards, from M.I.T.; Cara O’Neill, from the University of Arizona; and Samantha Runnels, from Lindenwood University, will all be mentored by Katie during the race.
The Classic starts Thursday in Steamboat Springs. Stage 1 is a 54-mile road race with 4,255 feet of climbing. The stage includes 6 miles of gravel near the end of the race. In fact, the final climb and part of the descent are on gravel. The women will have just 7 miles of pavement at the end of the gravel road to the finish line in downtown Steamboat. The profile and the gravel make this stage wide open. The climbers will have to be great descenders to hold off the peloton on the descent to the finish.
Avon hosts Stage 2, a 50-mile circuit race with 3,400 feet of climbing. The race starts with seven relatively flat circuits through town and then veers off for one bigger circuit that has a monster climb with ramps as steep as 14% up Daybreak Ridge. The Queen of the Mountain at the top of the climb is about 10 miles from the finish, so just like Stage 1, the women who are great climbers will also need to be great descenders to stay away to the finish. A great descender who gets dropped on this climb could potentially bridge a gap of 30-40 seconds by the finish.
Stage 3, in Golden, is the longest at 64 miles, and arguably the hardest. It’s a circuit race of seven laps. It doesn’t have a huge climb, but the profile literally looks like a saw blade. It’s up and down all day and technical with lots of corners on the city street. By the finish, the women will have climbed nearly a vertical mile. The format should provide for great racing and great opportunities to watch the race.
Stage 4, in Denver, should be a sprint finish. Typically, this flat circuit race of 53 miles over eight laps would be a coronation of the leader from Stage 3, but with no mountain-top finish or time trial, the top women could realistically be within a few seconds of each other. The 16 bonus seconds on offer during the stage could affect the final outcome of the race. The start/finish near Coors Field in LoDo will have an expo and lots of entertainment.
I love the design of this year’s Colorado Classic. The overall winner will be an aggressive racer who can climb, descend and sprint. It should provide exciting, and unpredictable racing and the small team sizes mean it will be difficult to control the race.
The organizers have taken a significant risk by opting to host a women’s-only professional race. The race will only be deemed a success if people come out and watch or stream the race. If you support women’s cycling and have time on your calendar, I’d encourage you to make a trip to one of the stages. Professional women cyclists typically have to work and scramble to scratch out a living. They are passionate about the sport and love to compete. They’re also some of the best athletes in the world. They deserve to have great crowds cheering them on in Colorado, the cradle of cycling in the U.S.
Who knows? If the Classic succeeds, maybe we’ll see one of our own She-Redders lining up at the start in a few years.
Scott Mercier represented Team USA at the 1992 Olympic Games and had a five-year professional career with Saturn Cycling and The U.S. Postal Services teams. He currently works as a private wealth adviser in Aspen and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mikaela Shiffrin did a lot of soul searching after she didn’t win a medal and didn’t finish three of her five individual races at last year’s Beijing Olympics after entering the games amid enormous expectations.