Breaking Away

The USA Pro Challenge, a slickly produced road race that's lured the world's top two-wheeled talent and thousands of cycling fans high into the Rockies, spins into its third edition this August. Is this America's Tour de France?

Photography by Stephen Lloyd Wood June 1, 2013 Published in the Summer/Fall 2013 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

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Image: Bob Winsett

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from cycling—as a kid sprinting my buddies on neighborhood streets, as a young American representing my country on foreign roads, as a veteran racer-turned-journalist covering the Tour de France—it’s that great races are won, and wrought, by great people.

And it was greatness I sensed one stormy day last August in Aspen, where a lanky German named Jens Voigt buckled a helmet over his balding pate, clicked into the pedals of his aerodynamic Trek, and, under rumbling skies, headed up Main Street and out of town for the fourth stage of the 2012 USA Pro Challenge. In just its second year, the weeklong event was already being hailed by promoters and athletes alike as the most demanding bike race ever held on American soil.

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Fittingly, it attracted cycling’s pinnacle talent, including Americans Levi Leipheimer, who had won the inaugural USA Pro Challenge the year before, and Christian Vande Velde, who would go on to win this one. But during its fourth stage, an unlikely rider elevated himself to undisputed champion for a day. At 6 feet, 3 inches tall and 190 pounds, Jens Voigt is one of the biggest pros on the road, and having just celebrated his 41st birthday, the Berlin-based father of six was one of the oldest that day, too. An all-rounder and selfless team worker who grew up in the former East Germany, Voigt was on nobody’s short list of potential winners at Beaver Creek Resort, ninety-seven miles from the day’s starting line. And with three high mountain passes, including 12,095-foot-high Independence Pass, looming before the cruelly steep, two-mile ascent to the finish line, the stage win seemed likely to go to one of the large-lunged young crackerjacks.

But “The Jensie,” as he’s known by his loyal legion of fans around the world, placed himself near the front of the pack of some 100 riders that pedaled up the western flank of Independence Pass on Colorado Highway 82. As a steady drizzle began to fall, his breakaway companions retreated one by one to the peloton, and Voigt found himself off the front, alone except for some race officials, a television helicopter, a support vehicle or two, and intermittent groups of stunned cycling fans on a road eerily resembling the mother of all Tour de France climbs, the Col du Galibier.

“Independence Pass is a killer, just like the Galibier,” the German must have muttered to himself, lungs screaming in vain attempts to extract oxygen from the thin mountain air, legs burning like infernos, the entire slow-motion world silenced by the timpani heartbeat in his head. “Shut up, legs, forget the pain . . . and don’t mess up.” Wheels turning faster in his mind than on his grinding ride, Voigt was surely trying not to think about the descent to come, down Independence’s steep eastern flanks on a thin strip of asphalt resembling the tiny Alpine road over the Col du Petit Saint-Bernard. He’d fallen hard on his face there during the 2009 Tour de France, suffering a concussion and a fractured cheekbone. “Rain hurts everybody,” he will have chanted to himself. “Keep going, keep struggling. . . . Sticky and nasty is good.”

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Drizzle turned to downpour as Voigt plummeted down the Lake Creek Valley and past Twin Lakes, powered a huge gear northward on US Highway 24 through Leadville, and with spray from the wet highway soaking him to the bone, extended his lead up and over Tennessee and Battle Mountain passes. The skies cleared, finally, somewhere south of Minturn, where, like a turbocharged diesel Audi, the lumbering German blurred through town with a lead of more than six minutes. When he reached Avon and the bottom of the final, staircase-steep climb up Village Road to Beaver Creek Resort—to the cheers of thousands of spectators chanting “Jens! Jens! Jens!”—Voigt knew he would win the stage, his first victory in more than a year.

“I just soaked up the emotions from the crowd,” he later said. “It was a hard day, but a very happy day.” On the winners’ podium, following a rousing introduction and obligatory kisses from sponsors’ lovely podium girls, the great Lindsey Vonn—America’s preeminent alpine skiing champion and an international heartthrob—presented Voigt with a lifetime pass to the seven US ski areas owned and operated by Vail Resorts, her sponsor.

When asked to compare the USA Pro Challenge to other, similar events he’d won—three stages of the Tour de France; the Tour of the Mediterranean; and the Criterium International, which he’s won a record five times—Voigt said Colorado’s race was right up there with the greatest.

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Image: Bob Winsett

And I’d agree. Hostile weather, epic climbs, breakneck descents, celebrity kisses—this was the same mix of guts and glory I’d witnessed in the great contests I’d entered as a young man. For a few minutes, I felt transported back to Paris-Roubaix, Milan-San Remo, and the other “grand tours” of France, Italy, and Spain. Except this was Colorado—which could, just maybe, mount a bike race capable of rivaling them all.

When I was a kid racing bikes in the mid- to late 1970s, the only American bike race to come close to emulating the great cycling contests in Europe was the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic, known later as the Coors International Bicycle Classic. Based in Boulder, that event, on an initial budget of about $100,000, ventured into the heart of the High Country every year, visiting Aspen, Vail, and Breckenridge on many occasions. Overall winners included some of the greatest American cyclists of the era—John Howard, Dale Stetina, Greg LeMond, and Davis Phinney. In its glory years during the 1980s, promoters of the Coors Classic grew the race considerably, boasting at its zenith that the event was “the second-largest bike race in the world.”

But before the decade was over, the Coors Classic had fizzled. After Davis Phinney won it in 1988, the title sponsor bowed out. Subsequent stateside races met similar ends: The Tour de Trump, an East Coast stage race bankrolled in 1989 and ’90 by The Donald before DuPont funded it, endured eight years, and the 2000s saw similar, shorter crash-and-burn stories with multiday tours of Georgia and Missouri. It wasn’t until 2006, when Medalist Sports, the bike-race-logistics wing of Los Angeles–based sports and entertainment marketing giant AEG, began the only other serious stage race in America, the Amgen Tour of California, that US professional bike racing rode back onto the map, inspiring young American cyclists like Taylor Phinney, Davis’s son, to join the professional ranks.

“Taylor’s getting the vibe now that we all got when we raced the Coors Classic,” says Davis Phinney, who happens to be a former rival and teammate. “It’s great to have big-time bike racing back in the US.”

While America’s flirtations with cycling waxed and waned, Europe’s cycling spectacles have only gained momentum. For generations, the big three-week tours have drawn millions of spectators and thousands of international journalists every summer. Fans from around the world crowd onto wide city boulevards, cobbled farm roads, and lonely high passes hoping to watch their sports heroes throw down performances like Voigt’s.

To this day, the most celebrated climb in modern Tour de France history is the ancient, steep, narrow road famous for its twenty-one named switchbacks to L’Alpe d’Huez, a tiny French village and ski resort high in the Central Alps near Grenoble. As a journalist and a cyclist, I’ve been up and down that hallowed route at least a dozen times, either as part of the Tour de France media entourage or as a guest on one of a multitude of privately run bicycle tours. The high Alpine village is an annual pilgrimage for cycling fans from around the world, and every summer hundreds of thousands of them line its 8.5 miles to watch their heroes battle for the privilege of wearing the Tour’s yellow jersey to Paris.

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Holy Toledo!'s Heather Schultz

Image: Bob Winsett

Improbably steep and twisty mountain roads like that one are a key element of every great stage race, and Colorado has them in spades. The state’s lofty passes can challenge the sport’s most elite athletes, and its spectacular mountain vistas dazzle spectators. Ski resorts, meanwhile, are natural partners for big-time bike-race promoters, and in Colorado these resorts typically have the capacity to host huge stage-race entourages, which can number in the thousands. That’s welcome business in summer, an economic slow season when many mountain hotels, lodges, and condominiums sit nearly empty, and events that draw visitors in the thousands—who need gas, food, and other services as well—are sorely lacking.

Europe’s cycling extravaganzas dump enormous sums of cash into the local and national economies. And Colorado’s potential for profit caught the attention of AEG, which has a knack for spinning gold from a long list of sporting events, including the X Games, as well as live concert tours by the likes of Bon Jovi, Taylor Swift, and Leonard Cohen and festivals like Denver’s Mile High Music Festival and the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in California. AEG’s Medalist Sports arm tapped Shawn Hunter, a former executive vice president of the Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets who’d also overseen the Tour of California, to create a blockbuster bike race through the Colorado Rockies.

“I came in at a great time,” Hunter told me in a phone conversation after the 2012 race. “Companies, from big ones like Nissan, United Healthcare, New Belgium Brewery, and Waste Management to smaller ones like Smashburger, were investing. When we saw that, we realized there was an opportunity to create the biggest, best bike race in America, perhaps the second biggest in the world.”

Hunter noticed that European races were managed for long-term returns, using a diverse family of sponsors instead of just one “title” sponsor, like the ill-fated Coors Classic. So he imported the model to Colorado, and he hatched a new element  as well: The USA Pro Challenge’s festival area attracts racers and spectators to a collection of tents featuring sponsor brands and products. At Beaver Creek, the festival area isn’t even a hundred yards from the stage finish line, and while VIPs, sponsors, riders’ families, and groupies mingle and party in a tightly controlled Founders Box, the masses gawk at the latest cycling technology, nibble food prepared in the clear mountain air by resort chefs, and drink local craft brews.

Hunter also drew support from Colorado’s mountain communities, which threw their marketing dollars behind the stage-race concept. Breckenridge put up $150,000 in 2011, when it hosted the finish of a road stage from Steamboat Springs, and again in 2012 as the start of a stage to Colorado Springs. Vail budgeted roughly $200,000 toward hosting the individual time-trial stage in 2011, according to town manager Stan Zemler; that figure rose to $400,000 when combined with the start of the next day’s road stage in Avon. “We were a logical player and a very willing partner,” Zemler says, describing Vail’s aggressive strategy to bring the inaugural USA Pro Challenge to town nearly three decades after hosting multiple stages of the Coors Classic. “We wanted to put together something with links to the past.”

Local promoters, such as the Vail Valley Foundation, also joined Hunter’s effort. The nonprofit is the largest and best-connected institution of its kind in the region, with decades of experience organizing and promoting not only top-shelf skiing and cultural events, but also bike-centric sporting extravaganzas such as the 2001 World Mountain Bike Championships and the annual Mountain Games.

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The USA Pro Challenge peloton nears the Stage Four finish line in Beaver Creek Village.

If it weren’t for the Vail Valley Foundation, frankly, the USA Pro Challenge might not ever have visited the Vail Valley, and this year’s USA Pro Challenge probably would not feature its fourth stage from Steamboat Springs to Beaver Creek Village, including a new, steep, and exciting setup for the finale through Bachelor Gulch. Nor would this promoter seriously have considered bringing back, yet again, the infamous individual time trial from Vail Village to near the top of Vail Pass, a holy ground of sorts harking back to true heroes of American cycling—LeMond and Andy Hampsten, the overall winner of the Giro d’Italia in 1988 and, as LeMond’s teammate four years later at the Tour de France, the first to summit L’Alpe d’Huez that year.

Hunter’s inaugural USA Pro Challenge, meanwhile, commanded a budget in the millions of dollars and generated an estimated $83.5 million in economic impact in Colorado. Plus, the tourism-dependent state received a coveted close-up, since the race broadcast Colorado’s mountain beauty to 161 countries worldwide. The next year was even bigger: In 2012, the race contributed nearly $100 million to Colorado’s economy, received thirty-one hours of television coverage on NBC and NBC Sports Network, and reached an international audience in 175 countries.

“The attention we’re getting is phenomenal,” says Breckenridge Mayor John Warner, a cyclist and skier. “They’ve nailed it two years in a row. I’m happy to see great crowds, and great press, enhancing our image and Colorado’s image as a cycling mecca.”

Another avid cyclist, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, got so excited about all of the positive economic benefits in 2011 that he proclaimed the week of the race every year The Colorado Cycling Holiday, an invitation, basically, to every cycling fan in the state to get out and cheer the racers on.

Declared the governor, “Any expectations we had for success were surpassed tenfold.”

The peloton snakes around Independence Pass, the high point of Stage Four's grueling uphill and downhill then uphill race from Aspen to Beaver Creek. Photo by Daniel Bayer

For most Americans success means money, and the USA Pro Challenge has so far proven to be an economic boon. But some Americans, namely Coloradans, embrace cycling purely for the sheer glee of slipping through the High Country’s thin air on two wheels. And that participatory passion may be just the element this race needs to take root and—where prior attempts have wilted—finally blossom into one of the world’s great cycling contests.

“This is a special part of the country, and the people here understand what the riders are going through. Heck, many of them have ridden Independence Pass themselves,” Frankie Andreu, a retired veteran of nine Tours de France and now a television commentator and columnist forBicycling magazine, told me in the Beaver Creek press room at last summer’s race. “And when I talk with the riders—from Durango and Telluride, Aspen, and now here in Beaver Creek—they all tell me, ‘Man, I gotta come back here for vacation.’”

Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin, the voices of televised bike racing on NBC Sports, were quick to agree. “This state is made for bike racing,” said Liggett, nearly out of breath after walking uphill to NBC’s satellite truck. “The people here are all fit . . . and they have bike racing in their bones.”

“Like at the Tour de France, we talk a lot about the history,” Sherwin added. “We love the history here, too, like Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid,” he gasped, also struggling to breathe in the high-elevation air. “The riders tell us they love Colorado, the accommodations, the food, how the fans treat them so well.”

Fans also see the USA Pro Challenge as an excuse to party, to get rowdy around one of the lung-powered sports that mountain towns already hold dear. Breckenridge, responding to Hunter’s call for local communities to create works of art commemorating the race, produced the “Bikeffel Tower,” a 30-foot sculpture resembling the Eiffel Tower in Paris—except this one comprised pieces of scrap metal and parts from 150 used bikes. “I thought it was a great idea to link this event with the Tour de France,” explained local welder Tim Mitchell at last summer’s fifth stage. A growing, curious crowd gawked at the statue before the racers left Breckenridge bound for Colorado Springs, and he basked in their appreciation. “It means a lot to me,” he said. “The best part is watching all this.”

The day before in Minturn, a thousand or so people had turned out to cheer Voigt as he crossed an intermediate sprint line in front of Kirby Cosmo’s BBQ Bar on the way to his stage victory at Beaver Creek.

“I’m a bike groupie, one of the biggest fanatics you’ll ever know,” said Heather Schultz, co-owner of Holy Toledo! consignment clothing, as she waved some of the several dozen custom bike jerseys she had made with the shop’s logo just for the race. “These guys are megastars.”

I felt like a megastar myself, as I lined up in Minturn under steel-dark rain clouds on that same wet morning of the USA Pro Challenge’s fourth stage last August, just a couple of hours before Voigt would fly through town on his way to glory at Beaver Creek. In another brilliant marketing effort, Hunter and company—along with local businesses and the Vail Valley Foundation—had organized what they called the Scout the Stage Citizens Rides, in which anyone, for a small fee, could ride bikes along a stretch of the closed course ahead of the race, all the way to the finish line, taking in some of the same experience the pros would later in the day. Along with about two dozen others, I’d chosen to participate in the eleven-mile ride from Minturn to Beaver Creek; about 100 or so fellow citizen riders chose a longer option from Leadville.

As we pedaled along US Highway 6 & 24, mostly downhill, through Dowd Junction, lined with clusters of cycling fans waiting for the race to come through, I wondered whether the USA Pro Challenge was being wrought by great people, whether it was great enough to withstand the test of time, like the Tour de France, first organized in 1903.

“I, for one, feel the fever,” Edwards cyclist Sara Manwiller told me as we made our way through Eagle-Vail. A few minutes later, upon our approach to Avon, John Ward of Dallas, who owns a home in Arrowhead, said he loves cycling, and Colorado, and “would love to see this thing really take off.”

It wasn’t until Village Road’s final, steep pitch, with just a few hundred yards to go, that the answer came to me. Much as Voigt was muttering to himself on Independence Pass—lungs screaming, legs burning, the sound of my own heart drowning out the hoots and hollers from hundreds, if not thousands, of Colorado cycling fans already lining the route—I was laboring to muster the reserves to finish the climb. But even in the midst of the pain, I realized at that moment more than ever how the USA Pro Challenge had set a new bar for the sponsors, the media, and especially the fans. Sure, I’m a cycling enthusiast, and as a former competitive racer I’ve got a particular passion for the sport. But an overwhelming majority of the fans I met, from die-hard weekend warriors to recreational riders to noncyclists just enjoying the spectacle, told me they’d return this year and probably even the next. Many of the racers said the same.

As I finally crossed the stage’s finish line—which Voigt and the peloton soon would pass over, too—I pondered that the USA Pro Challenge’s greatest challenge was to maintain and nurture strong links to the past. The heritage of great people in cycling history, including “The Jensie” and Colorado’s own Phinney family, runs as deep and rich as the veins of silver, copper, and other precious metals that initially helped establish many of today’s Rocky Mountain towns. Pair that history with the reasons most of us are drawn to the region today—stunning natural beauty, a pervasive ethos of adventure, and a world-class outdoor playground—and the potential seems as limitless as the Colorado sky.

In two short years, the USA Pro Challenge has charged hard uphill. With a third version revisiting our communities this August, it appears to have broken away from the pack of failed American stage races. But in the wake of those races, and in the face of other obstacles like cycling’s recurrent doping scandals, it certainly won’t be an easy coast downhill. Like a racer executing the harrowing descent from Independence Pass, organizers, fans, and supporters would do well to keep reminding themselves, “Don’t mess up.” 

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