Showing students best of professional cycling in our area a real treat
Every once in a while an event comes along that is either too exciting or important to miss.
With a stage finish in my hometown of Telluride, former teammate George Hincapie’s final race, a course design with enough hard finishes to create suspense and some of the best cyclists in the world, the USA Pro Challenge had all the necessary ingredients.
But to me, those were on the periphery. I didn’t want to miss this event because I had a chance to take two students from Colorado Mesa University to the Telluride and Crested Butte stages.
Gawie Van der Merwe and Craig de la Rey came to CMU to get an education and to race bikes. Both are South Africans and raced as teammates in the past, but through a strange series of circumstances and unknown to each other, each decided to come to Grand Junction.
As a former professional cyclist, I sometimes have a tendency to view the sport through jaded and cynical eyes. But the energy and enthusiasm from the boys was infectious, and I couldn’t help but smile and laugh with them. Gawie would say something to Craig in Afrikaans, and Craig would answer in English.
This was an opportunity they had not experienced before, and I felt privileged and honored to be their guide for two days.
As we headed south from Grand Junction, their excitement became transparent. They talked nonstop, giggled and were in awe of the grandeur and spectacle of the Rocky Mountains.
As we entered Telluride, the main road was closed off, and crews were busy setting up the communications trucks, barricades, fencing, stands, tents and the bike expo in the park. We parked at my mom’s, unloaded the car, then went exploring.
Neither of them had been in a ski town before, nor had they seen snow. We jumped on the gondola to get some better views of the mountains. The swaying of the car made them uncomfortable, and I could see their fingers briefly clenching the seat for support. They must have taken more than 100 photos on the ascent alone.
After dinner, I got a text message from a friend that Craig and Gawie were going to be needed to help set up the Garmin tent at the bike expo. Garmin is one of the most successful professional cycling teams in the world, and one of their cyclists won the Giro d’Italia in May. This is the equivalent of a Bronco fan getting to help set up a team store before a game. Needless to say, they were psyched.
Any parent knows it can be difficult to awaken teenagers, but Gawie and Craig were ready to go by 7 a.m. It was cold and rainy, but this did not seem to dampen their enthusiasm. We met the retail director, and the boys went straight to work.
Around lunchtime, we met up again to get a tour of the infrastructure and setup of the race. Our tour guide took us past the media trucks where they briefly spoke with Paul Sherwin, one of the NBC cycling announcers. We got to see the doping control area, podium setup, media area, grandstands and VIP areas. The infrastructure for an event of this stature is mind-boggling.
Again, their cameras were recording every moment for posterity. Our guide seemed to find the boys quite cute, so she decided they could watch the finish from the awards podium, which ensured them the best viewing spot for the sprint.
After the tour, there was time for a quick lunch, so my dad took them out for burger. The waitress noticed their accents and asked where they were from. When they responded, “South Africa,” she said it must be very beautiful there. Craig confirmed yes, “but you are 10 times more beautiful than South Africa.”
She blushed and nearly dropped her tray.
The race itself was pretty exciting. Tommy Danielson was off the front, and there was a frantic chase behind. The peloton caught him with less than three miles to go, and his Garmin teammate Tyler Farrar won the field sprint and the first yellow jersey of the race.
That night Craig and Gawie learned where the teams would be eating breakfast and decided they would try to meet some of the riders in the morning.
They met Ivan Basso, Tommy D, Tejay Van Garderen, Vincenzo Nibali and many others. Cadel Evans, however, did not seem to have time for them, so they decided he wasn’t really a great champion. They were given Garmin vests and invited onto the team bus before the start, where they spent 20 minutes talking to Farrar and the other riders.
The 2012 edition of the USA Pro Challenge will always be remembered as one of my favorite races. Not because of the huge crowds on Flagstaff Mountain or the suspenseful finish in the time trial in Denver. Rather, it was experiencing the race with two young fans. It was opening my eyes to the little joys of the world and sharing the enthusiasm and excitement of two young men.