Right from start, atmosphere captivates Colorado cycling fans

Winner Levi Leipheimer, second-place finisher Christian Vande Velde and third-place finisher Tejay Van Garderen stand on the podium Sunday after the final stage of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Denver. Cycling fans across Colorado enjoyed the inaugural event.

By almost any definition, the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge was a smashing success.

From its start in Colorado Springs to its traverse of the Continental Divide to its finish in downtown Denver, the race captivated cycling fans throughout the country.

The atmosphere on the high alpine climbs and in the finishing towns was almost electric.

One could feel the energy and excitement in the air. At each finish the crowds grew and grew until the culmination in Denver, where it seemed the entire city had come out to cheer for our American racers as they challenged some of the best in the world.

The race highlighted professional cycling in America. It returned the sport to its American roots of Colorado.

Our riders and teams used to be a mere curiosity on the European scene. The U.S. now boasts four elite level teams capable of competing and winning races around the globe. Cadel Evans, Mark Cavendish, Thor Hushovd and Andreas Kloden are international stars headlining teams domiciled in the USA.

We also now have three major stage races, of which Colorado is already the most prestigious.

The race became a battle of the veteran Americans, Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie and Christian Vande Velde, battling for supremacy with Tejay Van Garderen, the upstart 23-year-old newcomer from HTC Highroad.

Van Garderen was an animator in the race and looked to have set himself up for the overall victory with a daring attack on the wet descent from Independence Pass into Aspen.

On this stage, I was riding in the Canadian Spidertech C-10 team car with my former teammate, Steve Bauer. The crowds atop the pass reminded me of the big European races and as we descended the pass, we hit 100 mph in the car trying to catch the lead group.

Van Garderen was beaten to the line in Aspen for the stage win by Hincapie, but he claimed the overall race lead and seemed to have a large enough cushion to ensure his victory.

However, on the following stage into Vail, he did not have the legs to match Leipheimer nor Vande Velde and slipped to third place in the overall.

Leipheimer rode an intelligent and aggressive race to win the overall title, and Team RadioShack rode very well to keep him protected from his rivals.

By the finish in Denver, Leipheimer led a sweep of the top five positions by American riders racing for American teams. His blistering attack up to Mount Crested Butte and the 10-second time bonus he earned was essentially his margin of victory.

Grand Junction made a colossal mistake by inexplicably failing to bid for a stage. We are now in the unenviable position of having to unseat another town for the rights to host the race. Ask any politician how much easier it is to run as an incumbent.

The race has already been called the biggest sporting event in Colorado and next year promises to be even bigger and better.

This year it was broadcast in 158 countries. Many top European pros have been rumored to have asked their team managers what it will take to ensure they are at the start line for 2012.

We can only hope that includes a sprint finish along Main Street in Grand Junction.

Email Scott Mercier at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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