Tom Danielson crashes the party on Stage 3. Photo: Jen Judge.
Much has been made about the oversize, fanatical crowds at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. To wit, over one million spectators came out to watch the inaugural race last year, and with an additional stage and an added year of momentum, the numbers are expected to be even bigger in 2012.
It certainly looked that way atop Independence Pass during the third and queen stage of the tour. Though Highway 82 closed to cars at 10:30 a.m., and though overnight camping was prohibited, and though swirling black clouds portended wicked storms for most of the day, the roadsides at this 12,096-foot pass were still parked out and the scene was a carnival of bike culture.
The Carnival came to Independence Pass. Photo: Jen Judge.
"We had to close the area to camping to protect the tundra," Jon Chapman, a White River National Forest ranger and 54-year resident of Aspen, told me. "But that doesn't seem to have kept anyone away." Steve Bagley, a young cyclist sitting nearby in a Wyoming jersey and duct tape slippers he'd fashioned for the occasion, chimed in. He'd made the four-hour trip from Laramie just to see the racers come over Independence. And Bagley had it easy compared to Dennis Scott, who drove with his wife all the way from Tallahassee, Florida. "If it weren't for this race, we wouldn't be here," Scott told me. "But I raced in the Red Zinger Classic in '74 and '75 and in the Aspen Alpine Cup before it. So I wouldn't have missed this for anything." Like many of the fans on Independence, the Scotts were traveling around the state to see a handful of stages.
Judging by the festivities on Independence, the trip was worth it. With picnic baskets on their backs and full-size umbrellas strapped to their bike frames, cyclists streamed up the mountain all day. Chapman said officials expected at least 1,000 riders to make the climb. At the high point, spreading out from the inflatable red King of the Mountain banner, a throng of tailgaters munched on fried chicken and sandwiches and sipped mimosas while costume-clad revelers shotgunned beer and cheered climbing riders. There was Jesus on a Trek ("Only Trek for the Messiah," he told me), the Devil on a fat bike, a couple of gorillas in cycling kits, the Honey Stinger Bee, and lots of amusing-if-undiscernible get-ups. The Igonminy Award went to the guy dressed as a giant bird, who I heard referred to as a condor, an eagle, and—my favorite—Super Chicken. "He's an Osprey," his partner announced a bit indignantly, "because we're here with Osprey Packs."
Super Chicken ... erm, Osprey. Photo: Jen Judge.
Since I arrived at 10 a.m. and the race wasn't scheduled to pass by until 3 p.m., I figured the day might drag and came armed with my laptop and a book. But there was no need. A raucous group from the Sports Garage in Boulder, Colorado, set up a sound system atop Feedback Sports bike stands, and soon they had a full-on rave blocking a 200-foot swath of the road. Tour vehicles and team cars crawled through the morass of revelers at three miles per hour, and State Troopers rolled down their windows and high-fived the crowds. So raucous was the party that we might have shut down the race entirely had DJ Good Steve not come on the mic to announce the imminent arrival of the racers.
First came Tom Danielson, over two minutes ahead of the bunch, and he split the crowds like Moses. Next up was a Colombian from team EPM-Une, followed not long after by a hard-charging and much-diminished peloton headed by Teejay Van Garderen, Levi Leipheimer, and the other top favorites. Motorbikes and small groups of riders trickled through for the next 30 minutes, all greeted by great cheers and pounding music. And when the race had passed, the Lycra-clad crowd turned back to dancing.
Dumbledore checks out the view. Photo: Jen Judge.
It wasn't until an hour later, after I'd descended from Independence back into cell range, that I found out that Danielson had held off the group for the stage win—barely—and that all the favorites remained tightly knotted on GC. That I wasn't more anxious to find out the results is testament to just how good the festivities were. And with the race still so tight, the party should go on for days.