By Jennifer Charrette
When the USA Pro Cycling Challenge wrapped up in Colorado, one million spectators had lined the streets from Durango to Denver. It went down as the biggest single-day crowd in the history of U.S. cycling. The seven-day, 683-mile stage race through Colorado, which drew 138 pro riders from around the world, also heralded a long-overdue emergence of young American cyclists, which, given the recent implosion of our most infamous homegrown star, couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
Tejay Van Garderen, 24, took second overall behind 36-year-old veteran Christian Vande Velde. This came on the heels of Van Garderen winning the best young rider jersey in the Tour de France in July, joining Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten as the only Americans to do so. Taylor Phinney, 22, won the time trial on the final stage of the Pro Challenge, capping a banner year in which he finished fourth in the Olympic Time Trials in London and wore the leader jersey for part the Giro D'Italia in May. (Cycling’s in his blood: He’s the son of Olympic gold medalist Connie Carpenter and American cycling superstar Davis Phinney.) Then there’s Peter Stetina and Alex Howes, both 25. Even younger are the athletes on the Bontrager-Livestrong team, including 21-year-old Joe Dombrowski, who finished tenth at the Pro Challenge, won the race’s best young rider award, and took third at the 2012 Tour de Gila this past spring.
Why the surge in new talent? USA Cycling is shifting its focus from seasoned riders to the next generation. These young riders are the first to benefit from USA Cycling camps in Europe and intense support from the prior generations of professional cyclists. In addition, teams like Bontrager-Livestrong and the Slipstream Junior Development Team are signing riders as young as 12. Still, the U.S. has some catching up to do. Europe has been investing in young cyclists since the early days of the Tour de France, and in many communities there are bike-share programs where 10-year-olds have access to high-end road bikes such as Colnago and Pinarello.
My seven-year-old and I had a couple of moments before the Montrose to Crested Butte stage to ask Van Garderen a few questions about junior racing. He started riding with his father when he was 10 and began racing nationally just a year later. “I tell young riders to keep it fun and find other kids their age to ride with. It’s just like soccer or any other sport,” he said. “Parents should also keep the atmosphere fun, find development programs, and support their child’s racing.”
The Pro Challenge certainly did its part to inspire youth cyclists. Kids lined the streets on their bikes cheering for their favorite riders. Racers took the time to sign autographs and take pictures with young fans. There are not many sports where young people have such access to the pros. Even toddlers had representation at the Pro Challenge. Every finish had a kids’ zone, many of which included a Strider area with a bike course and Strider Cup races with a start ramp and small wooden bridges. At the Denver stage, I had a hard time prying my 18-month-old away from the Strider corral, even after an hour and a half in the extreme heat.
He wasn’t the only one fired up to ride. “I was 13 years old when I watched the Tour de France on television and I read magazines about the Coors Classic on these roads here in Colorado,” said defending champion Levi Leipheimer, 38, after he won the leader's yellow jersey at the Boulder stage on August 25. “To be here 25 years later and to experience the size and the scope of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge is just beyond my expectations. I didn’t expect this many people to come out. Today really raised the bar for American cycling."
For tips on how to teach your kid to road ride, click here.
Jennifer Charrette is the creator of the blog velomom.com and a software engineer for IBM. She lives under the San Juan Mountains of Colorado with her husband and two sons.