ASPEN - Aspen's dream setup for the USA Pro Challenge came true Wednesday when organizers of the cycling race announced that the 2013 event will start in Aspen with a circuit race and hang around for the beginning of the second stage.
Aspen will host a circuit race on the opening day of the event, Aug. 19, organizers announced in Aspen. Aug. 20's Stage 2 will start in Aspen and travel to Breckenridge.
The exact routes for the seven-stage race, which is entering its third year, won't be announced until the spring. However, Shawn Hunter, CEO and co-chairman of the USA Pro Challenge, provided a glimpse of what he hopes to see happen on the opening two stages.
"You're probably going to see a six-lap race here," Hunter said of the Stage 1 circuit race. A route is being sought that will provide 20 to 21 miles per lap, he added. Hunter wants the circuit race to showcase Aspen, Snowmass Village, Maroon Bells and Woody Creek - though doing so would require a route longer than 21 miles.
Organizers also hope to route the Aspen-to-Breckenridge stage over Independence Pass, though no specific route has been picked yet nor approved by local officials, Hunter stressed. Clearly, he said, it would be good for the race to include the 12,095-foot Independence Pass for the third straight race.
"It's become an iconic piece of the event," Hunter said.
Last season, one stage came over the east side of the pass and ended in Aspen. The stage the following day departed Aspen and crossed the west side of Independence Pass before the riders moved on to Leadville and ended in Beaver Creek.
The host cities announced for 2013 include favorites from prior years such as Aspen, Beaver Creek, Vail, Steamboat Springs and Denver. The race will make its debut in Loveland and Fort Collins.
Here's the list of host cities and stages:
• Aug. 19, Stage 1, Aspen/Snowmass Circuit
• Aug. 20, Stage 2, Aspen/Snowmass to Breckenridge
• Aug. 21, Stage 3, Breckenridge to Steamboat Springs
• Aug. 22, Stage 4, Steamboat Springs to Beaver Creek
• Aug. 23, Stage 5, Vail individual time trial
• Aug. 24, Stage 6, Loveland to Fort Collins
• Aug. 25, Stage 7, Denver Circuit
Hunter said the race is again "showcasing the top resort communities in our state." The event drew more than 1 million fans in each of its first two years. The 2013 race seems positioned to attract bigger numbers with the addition of the Loveland-to-Fort Collins stage, which will tap the Front Range urban market. Those cities also have focused on building cycling communities.
The route will be good for the riders as well as the spectators.
"We hope the race goes down to the last day," Hunter said.
Christian Vandevelde, the overall winner last year, didn't secure his victory until the last minutes of the last stage.
Aspen cycling fans were ecstatic about the stage and host-community announcement.
"We wanted a circuit race in the first year," Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland said. That didn't happen in either of the first two years.
"I brought the idea back to Shawn late one night at Justice Snow's," Ireland said, referring to the Aspen bar and restaurant. The organizers have been impressed with Aspen's work to host the first two years, so they gave strong consideration to the request for a circuit race this year. City officials also lobbied hard for Aspen to host the start of the race and have at least one overnight stay.
"Two days will have a huge multiplier effect because the weekend will be all about getting here to see the race," Ireland said. "It should be a four-day result."
Ireland, an avid cyclist, said the Stage 1 circuit race could conceivably use Owl Creek Road, McLain Flats Road or both. Working Maroon Creek Road into a circuit route would be tough because it is 10 miles from Highway 82 to the Maroon Lake parking lot, he said. That would make it hard to limit a route to 21 miles, as Hunter said was the goal.
Cycling fan Rich Schultz, of Aspen said he was initially lukewarm about a circuit race but later took a liking to the idea.
"From a viewing standpoint, it's really nice to see that type of thing," Schultz said of the circuit race.
Spectators can plant themselves at a strategic spot along the route and watch the racers go by five or six times, usually clumped together in what's called a peloton, he said. On a more common stage race from Point A to Point B, spectators along the course get the "30-second peloton blur," Schultz said.
The other neat quality about a circuit race is that local riders will be able to see how fast the pros tackle the roads that are familiar to locals. If the circuit climbs to Maroon Lake parking lot, for example, local riders can compare their times to the screaming efforts the pros put in, Schultz noted.
Raifie Bass, another Aspenite who is hooked on cycling, welcomed word that the racers and traveling sideshow that goes with the event will be in Aspen for two days.
"For an economic-impact point of view, it's just fantastic," Bass said.
In 2011, a stage ended in Aspen, but the next day's stage started in Vail. The vendors who sell everything from cycling gear to clothing and food erected booths in the morning and were gone by midafternoon.
"They blew out of here pretty quick," Bass said.
Last year was more relaxed. The vendors stayed put because one stage ended and the next began in Aspen. Children and adults were able to get a glimpse of and possibly an autograph from their favorite racers.
Pro racer Timmy Duggan said the lineup of host cities assures that the 2013 race will repeat some of the best parts of the prior years' races and add promising new routes, such as Loveland to Fort Collins.
He said the event went from "kind of a vacation race" that teams were uncertain about in 2011 because of Colorado's high elevation, to an event that was immensely popular and hard-fought last year.
"Last year it was game on from the word go," Duggan said. Expect more of the same in 2013, he predicted.