DENVER, Colo. ((VN) — The inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge was a smashing success by almost all accounts – even the opinions of overall winner Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) and race CEO Shawn Hunter — and will be back in 2012. The first-year event had many questions to answer after a sometimes rocky build-up to the prologue in Colorado Springs, and did so with gusto, attracting the largest number of fans for any cycling event in the U.S. and playing host to great racing from day one through seven.
Questions still surrounded the event as recently as two weeks before the inaugural race took place. After a bumpy start followed the announcement of the race on the steps of the State Capitol last year, many, including those near the top of the race organization, were uncertain how well the event would come off.
They got the first hint in Colorado Springs when fans turned out in a big way for the prologue. Two days later in Vail, before the race had even reached Steamboat Springs, Breckenridge, Golden or Denver, a poll of longtime U.S. racing insiders had the inaugural event eclipsing any race ever run on American soil. The crowds on Independence Pass were particularly overwhelming; co-chairman and CEO Shawn Hunter and race director Jim Birrell stopped at the summit to take in the energy.
The event’s biggest technical glitch came earlier that day when the gap between two grates in a cattle guard on the road to Cottonwood Pass trapped Team Type 1 rider Daniele Callegrin’s front wheel, sending him to the road hard and causing a pileup midway through the peloton. Callegrin was airlifted to a Denver hospital after suffering significant facial injury — and multiple lost teeth — that required reconstructive surgery.
By the time the peloton roared into Steamboat Springs for the first of three bunch sprints two days later, the fans in the cowboy ski town, which calls itself Bike Town U.S.A., were unlike any we’d ever seen in the States. Thirty minutes before the riders arrived, fans lined five deep along the finish straight on Lincoln Avenue beat their hands on the barrier signs for every lead vehicle that appeared. Some thought the race was over after the Vail time trial, but no one told the huge crowds arriving to the race for a three-day weekend.
Over the next two days, the energy around the event continued to snowball. Fans clogged the Swan Mountain climb in stage 5 and Breckenridge broke out into a city-wide party when Elia Viviani arrived at the head of a bunch finish for Liquigas-Cannondale. But that turnout would be topped the next day in Golden and Denver.
Hunter said the crowds in Golden made stage 6 the “largest start I’ve seen, especially on American soil.” The pictures told the story with thousands packing downtown Golden and Lookout Mountain. The largest crowds of the week waited for downtown Denver, however. The Speer Boulevard circuit was madness. The hospitality tents overflowed and fans stood on anything they could find to see over the masses. It was even hard for media to move around the course in the final laps to ready for the bunch finish.
Hunter spent Sunday morning with USA Cycling CEO Steve Johnson and UCI management committee member Mike Plant.
“They said this was the largest spectator crowd for any stage in the history of American cycling,” Hunter said after the race. “We don’t have our final estimate yet, but that should push our numbers well over a million, which is great for a first-year event.”
The riders noticed. Best young rider and third overall Tejay Van Garderen told VeloNews he would definitely be back in Colorado for the race’s second edition.
“Absolutely,” said Van Garderen after taking his place on the race’s final podium. “This is going to be on my calendar every year from now on.”
Overall winner Levi Leipheimer, a California resident and three-time winner of that state’s tour, struggled to describe the support he felt from the huge crowds.
“It’s hard to put into words to describe the emotion,” said Leipheimer. “When I was 13 years old I watched the Tour de France on television and read magazines about the Coors Classic and the battles between Andy Hampsten and (Greg) LeMond and (Bernard) Hinault on those roads in Colorado.
“Now to be here, 25 years later and experience the size and scope of this race is beyond belief. I wouldn’t expect this many people to come out for this race. That’s the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen in the West, and the Tour of California produces enormous crowds. (Sunday) really raised the bar.”
The race will be back for Leipheimer and Van Garderen in 2012. The Schaden family, owners of the Quiznos and Smashburger franchises who sponsored the event, initially made a $10 million investment for the race’s first two years last fall. Hunter said his team would pursue an upgrade on the UCI calendar and had already begun planning for the 2012 route. UCI president Pat McQuaid was positive about the event’s ability to grow, but would not guarantee an upgrade when he met the media on Saturday.
“Our first focus is on 2.HC,” Hunter told VeloNews, referring to UCI ranking that applies to the Amgen Tour of California; the first USAPCC was category 2.1. “I’ve spent 518 miles in the car with Jim Birrell talking about where we want to take this race.”
Race officials hosted representatives from a number of communities considering making a bid for the second edition this week. While they would not provide details of next year’s route, Hunter did say that the race’s overall finish should remain in Denver. If the fans in the capital were any indication, he was right.
Other potential host cities include Fort Collins and Durango, the southwest Colorado town where Tom Danielson attended college, and where Hunter’s father-in-law is the new athletic director for Fort Lewis College.
When asked by VeloNews about what the race organization had learned in the event’s first running, Hunter said that the television coverage needed improvement, but that he “didn’t have any core moments of truth.” Television coverage was interrupted during the stage 2 climb and descent of Independence Pass due to icing on the race’s airplane. The two-hour NBC live broadcast of Sunday’s final stage did not go live until after the day’s major obstacle, the ascent of Lookout Mountain, where the final KOM standings were decided.
“The TV coverage was a little bumpy,” Hunter to VeloNews. “I have to remind people that unlike most major pro sports, we don’t control our court or our field.”
With no major fires to put out and the largest crowds in the history of U.S. racing, Hunter said his team would work to put together an improved television package for 2012.
The questions surrounding the race — how it would unfold for the teams and how it would be received by the public — were answered in full last week. By August 2012 we should have a whole new set.