Being part of caravan from Gunnison to Aspen in USA Pro Cycling Challenge a treat
When the USA Pro Cycling Challenge rolled through Colorado last week my wife and I decided to catch a few of the stages.
We went to Crested Butte to take in the atmosphere and to watch the only true uphill finish of the race. We had VIP passes, which ensured that we would have a great view of the finish and ready access to cold beer and snacks.
Levi Leipheimer of Team Radio Shack won both the stage and the overall race. The 10-second time bonus he earned for the stage victory was pretty much his margin of victory.
When the stage was over, we walked over to where the team cars were parked to see if we could find Steve Bauer. Steve was an old teammate who raced with me and he was instrumental in helping me win the Rapport Tour of South Africa in 1996. He also pretty much helped set me up with my wife and we were both eager to see him after 15 years.
Steve is also the greatest Canadian cyclist of all time. He won a silver medal in the road race of the 1984 Olympic Games and wore the Maillot Jaune for 11 days during the Tour de France.
He now owns the Canadian Spidertech C-10 team, which is a mid-level professional team. He is hoping to gain additional funding that will allow him to hire better riders and to potentially compete in some of the bigger European races.
We joined him for dinner in Crested Butte, and he asked if I wanted to ride in the race caravan with him for the stage from Gunnison to Aspen.
In my five years as a professional I was in the saddle for about 20,000 miles a year. Not once did I ever ride in a car during a race. I was excited to see one from a different perspective.
The stage got under way with a tail wind, so it started very fast. It was the longest and hardest stage of the event, and it seemed like everyone wanted to get into the breakaway so they could tackle the looming climbs with a head start.
After about 35 kilometers of racing an announcement of an accident was made over the race radio; two of our guys had crashed in a pile up of about eight riders. The mechanic and I jumped out and ran to see what the riders needed.
What I saw was one of the most horrific crashes I have ever seen. Italian rider Daniele Callegarin of Team Type 1 had his front wheel fall into a gap between two cattle guards. The cattle guards were not long enough to cover the road, so two of them were placed together. The two pieces were not pushed together, which left a gap of around two inches.
Daniele’s front wheel fell into this gap and he instantly went from 35 mph to a stop. His front wheel crumbled and he hit the pavement face first. He broke his jaw, lost several teeth, broke both hands, received deep lacerations on his face and sustained a severe concussion. Andrew Randall of Spidertech C-10 was laying on the ground holding his back and writhing in pain. He needed surgery on his hand and broke his L1 vertabrae. Sergio Hernandez of the Jelly Belly team broke his clavicle.
Medical help was on the scene immediately and our second team car waited with Andrew to make sure he was taken care of. We jumped back in the car and raced to catch up to the peloton.
As we worked our way toward Cottonwood Pass, the skies began to darken. We got called to the front of the caravan to provide support for our riders. Many other riders were at the back of the peloton seeking rain jackets and water bottles including the Schleck brothers and Tom Danielson.
As we began climbing the dirt road of Cottonwood Pass, it appeared as if a truce had been reached within the peloton. The pace was slow and steady and no one got dropped from the field.
As the race reached the top, tents and awnings lined the road. Some people had kegs and were playing loud music. We were over 12,000 feet in elevation on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere and at least 1,500 people had decided to come up and watch the race roll by.
The next big obstacle of the day was Independence Pass. As we approached it, the tension within the caravan was palpable. One by one we passed riders who were unable to keep pace the increasing tempo of the peloton.
As we continued to climb, more and more riders fell off the back, and crowds began to line the road. We could hear a roar as Tejay Vangarderen launched the first attack of the favorites.
By this point the peloton had cracked and there were several large and small groups of riders making their way toward the top.
There was electricity in the air, and it was not just from the threatening storm and lightening. Thousands of people lined the road over the final five kilometers. They were dressed in crazy costumes and running along the side of the road.
As we crested the climb the noise from the crowd was deafening. We were a few minutes behind the leaders as they raced at nearly 60 miles an hour down the pass on wet and slippery roads.
Steve was desperate to get to the front group as Lucas Euser from his team had managed to stay with the leaders. He wanted to be there in case Lucas got a flat tire or needed any mechanical support.
We passed several groups of dropped riders. They would take the inside line on the sweeping corners at about 40 mph and we would pass at 75 or so, with Steve blaring on the horn to warn them of our passing.
In the straightaway sections, we were going nearly 100 and I had a death grip on the sides of the seat and said a quick prayer for our safety.
We finally caught the main group of about 25 riders just before the finish. The group was hammering because five riders had slipped away from the pack on the descent.
As we neared the streets of Aspen the crowds grew again. We heard a tremendous roar as about 20,000 people cheered wildly for veteran George Hincapie as he won the sprint.
My heart rate finally subsided as we pulled into the team parking spots at the finish. It was my first experience seeing a race in a car. And while it was a lot of fun, I was glad it was over.