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USA Pro Cycling Challenge
This is the first in a series of six features to be released in the build up to the big race beginning 22 August, 2011.
Here we go again is the phrase that ran through my mind as we drove south through Oregon and into the state of Idaho. After riding some of the toughest stages of the Tour of California earlier in the year, another stage race reconnaissance was in the offing. Darkness covered our way as we entered Wyoming. Here we go again. Bouncing along the straights of Highway 80, a road that seems to run the 1,200 miles directly from Portland to Denver International Airport, we finally took a quick right-hand turn in Cheyenne. Stopping first at The Egg and I, the illustrious diner, we entered the great state of Colorado.
What is the great state of Colorado known for? Mountains. When it comes to the cycling world, you might think the great European ranges like the Alps and Pyrenees make the Rockies seem a bit insignificant. Not so. This 38th and oddly rectangular, entry to our Union has its own place in the history of cycling. The Red Zinger/Coors Classic that ran from the late 70s and well into the 80s, would draw even the Badger himself to compete against his teammate, Greg Lemond. Add to this history the fact that Colorado is also home to the U.S. Olympic Training Center, and you begin to understand why it is also home to an abnormally healthy number of road bicycle athletes.
The Rapha Continental set out to ride the route that the USA Pro Cycling Challenge (as the revived Coors Classic is now called) would take between August 22nd and 28th. Being the first crew with the actual stage maps, we took it upon ourselves (as only we can) to be the de facto lead for this race. Riding the course and telling everyone we encountered along the way about it would mean, for a few of us, a whole series of other firsts. And it would be these firsts, as every rider knows, that would make it an adventure. First time riding in Colorado. First time dealing with the effects of altitude as well as the effects of riding great distances. First time hearing someone tell me that the West Coast was going to fall into the Pacific Ocean (later this year, apparently). First time riding in an ambulance. The most fun was the fact this was the first time riding with this particular group of riders.
Our merry band was peppered with enough Colorado experience to help us wrangle with the particular challenges of riding here. "Drink less water and more booze, rarely eat and be one with the altitude." These were the vague warnings of Greg Johnson as we made our drive from Portland to Denver. Greg had gone to college at Colorado State and, as we discovered, would routinely offer such suggestions throughout the week. These statements were, as Greg put it, designed as "ways to keep everyone in check", and were necessary, we presumed, in case he had to make up for a lack of fitness. He did not. Neither did James Selman. His years of participating in the Leadville 100 mountain bike race had not only left him with a good knowledge of the area but also what seems to be a continued enjoyment of the suffering that comes with riding at these great heights.
Sam Richardson (aka Hott Sam) has been here a few times as well. However, any insights he and Ryan Thomson brought with them about Colorado were rendered immediately dubious due to their respective uninvited guests: a very large beard; and a Euro-style mullet. Taking seriously men with such powerful personal hair expressions is a tough call.
Our one true local, and special guest on this journey, came in the somewhat battered shape of Nick Legan, tech editor for Velonews, one of the longest running and most highly esteemed cycling publications in the business. "Somewhat battered” might be a bit of an understatement. Just a few hours previously, Nick had jumped on a plane to meet us after racing the Dirty Kanza 200-mile mountain bike event and which had almost crumpled him completely. He had managed to bounce back, however, and would be the one to provide the most insight on the forthcoming pro race.
The one thing we can all readily attest to, in terms of how the USA Pro Cycling Challenge will play itself out, is the difficulty of the terrain and altitude. Even though we have nothing like the talent or fitness of the pros, we know how the tug on the lungs can wear you down mile after mile. And if those miles happen to keep ascending, then the strain on both body and mind will continue to rise along with them. Our challenge was to conquer these things for ourselves and come away with a better appreciation of what will undoubtedly be one of the hardest professional road races this country has ever seen.