The Tour de France may be the Grand Dame of cycling, but the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, a seven-day event through Colorado's Rocky Mountains, may be harder on a pro rider's lungs. That's because America's preeminent bike race, now in it's third year, climbs to elevations nearly 3,000 feet higher than those found at the Tour, making for grueling battles at 9,000 feet. Of course it's as much a party as it is a sporting event, with concerts, kegs, and costumed super fans lining the course in places like Aspen, Vail, and Denver. To make sure you can make the most of your viewing experience, we scouted out the prime real estate along the course.
Stage 1: Aspen
A spot on the Castle Creek Bridge will give you two chances to get up-close views of riders jockeying for position in this course bottleneck, first as they sweep down from Highway 82, then at the end of the lap on their way back from Power Plant Road.
W/J Hill is notorious among local riders who compete for best times on the .8-mile, 7-percent grade climb. On race day, pros sprinting up it could hit 25 miles per hour. Spectator note: It’s just a ten-minute walk from the top of the hill to Woody Creek Tavern, Hunter S. Thompson’s old watering hole.
Distance: 68.2 mils (three 22-mile laps)
Elevation Gain: 7,780 feet
Stage 2: Aspen to Breckenridge
The 19-mile, seven-percent grade climb up the West slope of Independence Pass (12,095 feet), gets packed with rowdy cycling fans, some of whom camp near the summit at Lost Man Campground ($17) for several days beforehand and ride into Aspen for Stage 1.
Watch the finish line from the upper deck at the Breckenridge Brewery, then head outside for the free concert in the street.
Distance: 126.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 12,250 feet
Stage 3: Breckenridge to Steamboat Springs
The pre-race staging area in Breckenridge is the best spot on the course to get a “behind the scenes” experience by walking around the team buses, where you can catch riders on going through their race-day prep and score autographs.
Two of the better places to camp during the week are Prospector Campground, (from $18 night), on the shores of Lake Dillon and close to the sprint action on the flat Swan Mountain Road, and Dumont Lake Campground, along the Rabbit Ears Pass climb ($12 per night).
Distance: 102.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 11,627 feet
Stage 4: Steamboat Springs to Beaver Creek
Book a room near the start at The Steamboat Grand (doubles from $178) and you can watch from your balcony as riders round Mount Werner Circle.
Stake out a spot on the skiers’ bridge over the Beaver Creek access road connecting the village hotels and condos for a bird’s-eye view the riders making their final ascent to the finish line.
Distance: 102 miles
Elevation Gain: 11,627 feet
Stage 5: Vail
The last three miles of this rare uphill time trial offer some of the most dramatic moments of the event. Die-hard race fans, wearing costumes and swilling beer, will run alongside the solo riders and cheer them on. Seconds—if not hundredths of a second—will likely decide this stage.
Distance: 10 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,694 feet
Stage 6: Loveland to Fort Collins
The Inlet Bay Marina at Horsetooth Reservoir rents party boats (complete with waterslides) as well as kayaks. Float on the water and watch the riders rip past on Route 38.
For 2013, organizers rerouted this stage so it passes the historic Corn Roast Festival in downtown Loveland. Highlights: a shucking contest, music by 80s band New Sensation, a corn roast parade, and corn eating contest.
Distance: 115.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 11,855 feet
Stage 7: Denver
The Start/Finish line in Civic Center Park, right in front of the state capitol, will be packed with food vendors and should be buzzing with energy if the overall winner is once again decided on the last day. In 2012, Christian Vande Velde took the overall victory by just 21 seconds.
Tight turns around City Park offer the best opportunity to see aggressive action. Bonus: you can picnic on the grass.
Distance: 72.4 miles (eight nine-mile laps)
Elevation Gain: 1,478 feet