Circuit course punishes riders, thrills fans

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

The third-place finisher in Monday’s opening stage of the USA Pro Challenge didn’t mince words when asked to assess the circuit course between Aspen and Snowmass Village. “Wicked,” said Kiel Reijnen, a U.S. racer on the UnitedHealthcare team.

Reijnen labeled it a “great course” that punished all racers equally. The sharp curves and short, steep climbs “wore all the sprinters out,” he said.

The peloton was stretched out for a good share of the race, an indication that some of the best male cyclists in the world were putting in a big effort.

Reijnen said he heard “a lot of heavy breathing.”

“Honestly, I didn’t feel that great, either,” he said.

Matt Cooke, a U.S. rider on the Jamis-Hagens Berman team, captured the polka-dot jersey awarded to the best climber of the stage. Although he performed well, he paid a price.

“For a while you feel great, then you say, ‘I’m actually kind of tired. My legs are hurting a little more than I thought they would,’” Cooke said.

He said he had to grit his teeth to power through the final climb.

Reijnen said he liked that the course offered variety with the climbs and flats.

“A lot of times in these races there is so much emphasis on the time trial,” he said. “It’s not a sprinters stage. It’s hard for everybody, deceptively hard. A lot of riders come in and expect it to be an easy start to the tour. It was not,” Reijnen said.

The race featured a steady climb to Snowmass Village via Owl Creek, then a short, very steep climb into a neighborhood in the hills above Snowmass Village and a final climb up W/J hill.

Stage winner Peter Sagan said the saving grace was the course was only 100 kilometers, total. “It was hard but the climbing wasn’t very long,” he said.

Today’s stage, which includes a climb over the west side of Independence Pass, will be tougher, he predicted.

While the circuit course was punishing for racers, it was a race fan’s dream. The racers made three laps around the course that was slightly more than 20 miles. The racers opened with a couple of exhibition laps in Aspen, giving fans at the start line a chance to see the athletes five times.

Many spectators didn’t stay in one place. Hundreds of people departed the race start/finish area — after the racers departed on the first lap — and rode their bikes to other vantage points.

Gilbert Garza, of Dallas, traveled on his road bike to the east summit of Power Plant hill to check the racers toward the end of the first lap. Roughly 100 other spectators had the same idea.

Garza said he picked Power Plant hill because the racers would be coming off the fast pace of McLain Flats and burning a lot of energy when confronted with the short, steep hill.

After the peloton whizzed by, he planned to check out the course along Cemetery Lane or a 90-degree corner on Smuggler Street in Aspen’s West End for the next lap.

“It’s just great to see ’em three or four times,” he said.

Former Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland hightailed it to various spots along the course for the three laps. A highlight was watching the racers grunt up W/J hill. It’s obvious they suffer just like mortal riders do, Ireland said, but they just go faster — much faster.

Louie Hayes, of Paonia, loaded up his bicycle with a sleeping bag, small stove and clothing for the trip over McClure Pass to Carbondale on Sunday. He said the bike and gear weighed about 80 pounds.

He traveled to Aspen in time for Monday’s race and planned to camp Monday night on Independence Pass. He planned to climb to the summit today for the start of the second stage.

“I think it’s fun,” Hayes said of watching the race. “You get to see the riders go by multiple times,” he said.

Shawn Hunter, co-chairman and CEO of the USA Pro Challenge, said the Aspen-Snowmass stage was a perfect way to start the race.

“What we wanted to do was combine something that was an incredibly challenging first day for the riders but also compelling for the fans,” he said. “I think the opportunity to see the best cyclists in the world multiple times with this backdrop, it does not get any better anywhere in the world.

“We already talking about how we can incorporate Aspen into the 2014 route,” Hunter said. “That’s how strongly we feel about the job that’s been done.”

However, he said there are no promises another circuit race will be held.

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