Maybe it was the unprecedented high altitude the racers reached on the mountain passes, and the world-class field. Or maybe it was the overwhelming turn out of fans and ridiculous nature of their attire and antics. Or maybe it was just time for a world-class bike race to come to the U.S., and, more specifically, to Colorado.
Or maybe it was all of the above.
The Tour of Colorado had six stages, plus the Prologue – the term used for the first day’s time trial. In the seven consecutive days of competition, the competitors rode 509.2 miles and climbed 29,036 vertical feet. The tour took the riders to Colorado Springs, Crested Butte, Aspen, Vail, Steamboat Springs, Breckenridge and Denver and up Monarch, Cottonwood, Independence, Vail and Rabbit Ears passes, as well as Lookout Mountain.
Versus cycling commentator Phil Liggett called the tour “one of the most incredible races ever conceived.”
The route for the Tour of Colorado was unique because of the high altitudes it reached, day after day. The Tour de France is known for the epic climbs during the stages in the Alps and Pyrenees, but the mountains in the U.S. are simply higher.
In the second stage of the Tour of Colorado, the course took the riders from Gunnison to Aspen over two 12,000-foot passes, Cottonwood and Independence. The riders climbed a total of 9,746 feet over 131 miles, the last 13 miles of Cottonwood on a dirt road. The stage was dubbed the Queen Stage, because it was the hardest – the crown jewel of the tour.
Before the Stage 2, American cyclist Tejay Van Garderen said in an interview on Versus, “Alpe d'Huez [a well-know climb in the Tour de France] finishes at 6,000 feet. We’re starting at 8,000 feet. We’re starting at 2,000 feet ahead and going up from there. It’s going to be like breathing through a straw.”
Three-time, second-place finisher of the Tour de France Andy Schleck said, “I can’t predict anything; I haven’t done it before [climbed to 12,000 feet on my bike]. But I think …and what I’m sure of, is that it’s not only [going to be] me suffering up there.”
Multi-stage races are meant to test the field in speed, endurance and climbing, and this one threw altitude at the riders. The winner of the coveted yellow jersey, or “maillot jaune,” is the guy with the fastest cumulative time from all of the stages.
There are other winners, though. Just like the yellow jersey, after each stage, and at the end of the tour, a red polka-dot jersey is awarded to the King of the Mountain, a green jersey to the best sprinter, orange to the most aggressive rider and blue to the best young rider (the fastest competitor under age 25). Throughout each stage there are pre-determined points that riders will race to, in order to win points for the sprinter and King of the Mountain titles.
First there were the headliners – Australia’s Cadel Evans, and Luxembourg brothers Andy and Frank Schleck (who are, it seems, as well-known for their looks and charm as for their cycling; many a female fan held a sign that said, “Marry me, Frank,” or “I love you, Andy.”) The three cyclists placed one, two and three respectively in this year’s Tour de France.
Interestingly, none of those guys placed in the top five in the Tour of Colorado, and only Evans placed in the top ten. It was all Americans in the top five in this tour.
Levi Leipheimer, racing for Radio Shack, won the race by 11 seconds over Team Garmin-Cervélo’s Christian Vande Velde, who interestingly never won a stage, but painfully lost the pivotal Vail time trial, in Stage 3, to Leipheimer by a mere five-tenths of a second.
Twenty-three-year-old Tejay Van Garderen placed third overall, 17 seconds off of Leipheimer. He did earn the yellow jersey and led the race for one day, only for the jersey and lead to be taken away from him by Leipheimer the next day, and never returned.
They say the yellow jersey either gives the rider wearing it “wings” or “the weight of the world.” Sometimes the pressure of the yellow jersey is too much, especially for a young rider. It seemed to give Leipheimer the wings and Van Garderen the burden.
Van Garderen didn’t leave emptyhanded; he won the blue jersey for the best young rider. Rounding out the American top-five sweep, Vande Velde’s and Team Garmin-Cervélo
teammate Tom Danielson placed fourth, and George Hincapie, of Team BMC, finished fifth.
Although it may not seem like it, bike racing is a team sport, in a twisted sort of way. Everyone has a role before the race begins. A team leader is selected and everyone on the team “works” so that person will win. The workers are “domestiques.”
“Working” means they’ll get out in front of the team’s lead rider and protect him by controlling attacks, breaking the wind, orchestrating a counterattack—whatever it takes – so the leader can conserve energy then at the right moment, make his break to win, or simply finish where he needs to finish for the day.
You’ll see domestiques falling back to the support cars and stuffing their shirts with water bottles, then sprinting to the front to deliver them to the lead riders. They’ll do this all day; it’s their job.
Interestingly, the team leaders don’t need to win every stage, and actually there have been winners of tours who don’t win any stages. Tour leaders just need to make sure they’re beating the right guys.
After Stage 3, with his 11-second lead, Leipheimer just had to make sure two guys didn’t finish ahead of him – Vande Velde and Van Garderen. So he rode strategically. If they stayed in the peloton, he stayed in the peloton. If they made a break away, he chased. If anyone else broke out front, his team wouldn’t chase, because those riders weren’t a threat.
In Stages 4 through 6, finishing with the peloton was enough for Leipheimer to keep his lead. These last three stages all ended similarily – the peloton caught the break away and each team’s dominant sprinters raced out the final yards to the finish, with the peloton right behind. When the group finishes together, there is no time differentiation among the riders, except for the top three who cross the line, which in the case of the last three stages were sprinters who were not contenders for the overall title.
A common criticism of the Tour of Colorado course was that there were not enough uphill finishes to separate the pack.
But, even with the last three days finishing in sprints, there was plenty of strategy being played out throughout the race to keep it interesting.
Take, for example, the finish of the Queen Stage (Stage 3). Hincapie, of Team BMC, was in the breakaway pack of six riders, but his teammate and team leader, Cadel Evans, wasn’t. Tejay Van Garderen, of Team HTC-Highroad, also in the breakaway pack and vying for the yellow jersey, knew that Hincapie wouldn’t work for him, because he wasn’t going to help Van Garderen beat Evans. Van Garderen ended up staying out front, giving Hincapie an advantage to beat him in the sprint. They both got what they wanted –Van Garderen the yellow jersey, and Hincapie the stage.
Other games were played, most dramatically during the final three-man breakaway in Stage 4, from Steamboat to Breckenridge. Cycling forces Ivan Basso, Andy Schleck, and Laurens Ten Dam, all riding for different teams, were in a potentially successful breakaway together.
Had the three worked together, it’s possible the peloton wouldn’t have caught them. But Ten Dam kept slowing and breaking, slowing and breaking, playing “cat and mouse” with the other riders, ultimately allowing for the inevitable . The peloton caught them – literally yards before the finish line. Apparently, Schleck was pretty pissed after the stage, commenting to Velo News that he doesn’t race to place in the top ten.
Colorado Governor Hickenlooper nailed it an interview, when he said something along the lines that the bike race would bring with it “color, pageantry and drama.”
The Tour of Colorado was basically a coming-out party for American cycling fans—a group usually regulated to watching bike racing in the privacy of their own homes, or in the one local bar that subscribes to Versus, the only station stateside that seems to broadcast such events. For this race, they came out in force, in costume, and sometimes, just in their underwear.
To say the least, biking fans are committed, especially those who post themselves on the mountain passes. These passes are often closed the day before (or, at the very latest, the morning before) the riders are scheduled to race. To be in place to watch, fans must camp out the night before, or bike up the long mountain pass, often trailing a cooler or carrying a backpack full of libations—all while in costume.
When the race finally comes, the riders pass within seconds. All that work for literally 20 seconds of action. Yet the fans love it, and often linger after the action to relive it.
It’s customary for fans, draped in their country’s flag, or the flag of their favorite rider, to chase the competitors for as long as they can, before diving out of the way. There are literally tunnels of people lining the mountain passes, so close to the riders that in Stage 15 of the 2003 Tour de France, Lance Armstrong’s handlebars got caught on a spectator’s bag, causing him to fall.
But there is some pretty cool etiquette in bike racing. When something like that happens to a race leader, the breakaway group will often slow down to wait for the rider, as German cyclist and Armstrong’s fiercest competitor, Jan Ullrich, did in that stage.
The U.S.A. Pro Cycling Challenge, however, is not a Grand Tour, like the three-week-long Tour de France, and it doesn’t pretend to be. In its first year, it successfully established itself as an one-week epic tour, in which serious cycling legends, as well as the up and coming talent, can go head-to-head.
At the end of the tour, Leipheimer was asked if he’d come back next year. “You’d have to pay me to stay away,” he said.
And even though the Schleck brothers didn’t have a great race, rumor is they love fly- fishing, so they’ll probably return, as well.
And the fans? I think they agree with Leipheimer.
If the tour showed anything, it showed that the time is right for this world-class cycling event to be in Colorado...and to stay.