Bicycle races have been a hit or miss proposition in Colorado, more miss than hit. When “they” (whoever they are) stage one, it seems quite successful, but I may not be the only person in the world who doesn’t understand the financial model of bike racing. Even now, as an experienced spectator, I have no idea if teams pay to enter races, or if a promoter pays the teams to come to his or her race. Based on the amount of signage on, in, around and near a race, it must all hinge on convincing companies that this is a great marketing opportunity worth spending ad dollars on.
But bike racing just doesn’t have the same cachet in the United States as it does in Europe, and it’s hard to come up with any race that has sustained itself for great length. The Amgen (see? marketing) Tour of California has been around for awhile now, and more quietly, the Tour of Utah.
Back before I paid attention to the sport, Colorado had the Coors Classic and the Red Zinger, which perhaps were the same race. I don’t know if it ever existed, but someone trademarked the name “Tour of Colorado” and then wanted more money than recent organizers were willing to pay for what ultimately and clumsily got named the USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
In between those early races fondly remembered by those who were into their biking long before me and the 2011-2015 Pro Challenge (by which point I was a fan paying attention) were a few years of races centered in Gunnison County.
This was back when I was the sports editor at the Gunnison Country Times, so even though I didn’t know the first thing about bike racing, this fell under my purview. I didn’t write much about the races, but I took lots of pictures. There were some brothers named Grewal who seemed rather successful and somewhat famous who came, and one year, when this race was called the Munsingwear Classic (Munsingwear = clothing brand; Classic = not really, not in its third year), it fell just right on the pro schedule, so it attracted a lot of European riders. Not knowing anything about the sport, I couldn’t tell you if they were big names or little names, but they were European, which was exotic enough.
It was so big that even 9 News out of Denver sent a reporter. Now, the reporter was Dan Dennison, perhaps Gunnison High School’s most famous graduate, so maybe he came because it was a chance to come home more than it was a big news scoop. [I leave it to those of you with Facebook and/or LinkedIn to determine what became of Dan after he left 9 News, because I have no idea.]
Anyway, the media organizer stuffed another young reporter (perhaps from Paonia) and me into the 9 News Suburban the day the race went from the Blue Mesa Dam over the Black Mesa (black and blue — the bruised mesas), which was kind of exciting and glamorous, riding with the famous Dan Dennison, who was kind enough to try to maneuver the car to allow us to get some decent pictures (although I don’t recall getting much of anything useful that day) — up until we arrived in Crawford.
Crawford, much tinier than Lake City, doesn’t have a lot to brag about except that the singer (if we use the term loosely) Joe Cocker took up residence there in his retirement, dispensing ice cream from the restaurant he owned. But on this day, way back when, it served as the turn-around point for the race. Or maybe the riders looped elsewhere.
All I really remember is that Dan, his cameraman and my ride turned out not to be going back to Gunnison — they were going to continue on to Grand Junction to process film and file a report, stranding the other young reporter and me in Crawford. The race was moving on; the media coordinator was nowhere to be found (since she was the one who got us into this jam), and this had the possibility of turning into a very unpleasant and long afternoon as we tried to figure out how to get back to our cars at the dam many miles away.
Dan to the rescue: he went over to Mark Reaman, an off-again, on-again journalist from Crested Butte who is now the long-serving editor of the CB News, and Gary Sprung (if he had a job, I don’t know what it was, but he was the most active activist, mostly on environmental issues, that I’ve ever known) and pretty much mandated they give the two of us a ride back. Then Dan and the 9 News Suburban vanished, riding off to the west, and my compatriot (I don’t recall his name) and I found ourselves in the open-air back of a small pick-up being driven at breakneck speed around the curves of the Black.
It was so fast on these narrow, twisty roads that at some point I asked the guy, “What do you think our chances are if we go off the road?” and he just gave me a small, tight-lipped smile and shook his head.
I thought that cured me of chasing bike races, but it took the first year of the Pro Challenge to finally put a stop to that nonsense. I think I already mentioned spending most of the day on Cottonwood Pass for about five minutes of actual spectating, most of that watching the riders climb the pass until they whizzed by in about 10-20 seconds.
After that I settled on the far more pleasurable option of wandering among the team buses prior to starts from Gunnison, taking close-up pictures of major riders in the peloton and even getting to talk to a few of them.
The final year the race made its appearance in Gunnison, I had just left the throng around Jens Voigt, riding his final race before retiring following a long, distinguished career, and I saw, leaning against his bicycle in the middle of the closed-off intersection all by himself, a rider from Australia named Mick Rogers.
I took a few photos (which of course I can’t find this morning), and then went over to congratulate him on a really good Tour de France the previous month. (Don’t ask me now where he finished, because I have no recollection.)
What he said to me was how tired he was, and how ready he was to go home. By August the season is getting long and the road has been very hard on bodies, and he wasn’t even interested in keeping up a pretense of enthusiasm. He was tired and wanted to be done racing.
Which I think about, especially on days like this, the final rest day of the last Grand Tour of the year. I haven’t ridden the miles, but bike racing takes a toll on my days, and I’m about ready for La Vuelta to end this weekend. It’s been a good race with lots and lots (and lots) of mountains, but today it’s feeling nice to not have to decide whether to watch the finish and make myself that much later, or skip the end and be more timely.
Five more days. If the riders can do it, so can I.