Mountaintop experience

For some cycling fans, nothing tops a mountain pass

Chris Bilowich of Gainesville, Fla., sports Florida Gators colors as he cheers Jens Voigt across the top of Independence Pass Thursday. Voigt was the first across the pass and went on to win Thursday’s stage of the USA Pro Challenge bicycle race. Bilowich said he dressed up “so my friends could watch me at home on TV and spot me.” He said it worked, as he was televised during the previous day’s stage, which crossed the same pass.

Jens Voigt, of Germany, crosses the summit of Independence Pass on Thursday during Stage 4 of the USA Pro Challenge cycling raceVoigt, at 40 the oldest rider in the race, completed the 97.2-mile road race from Aspen, to Beaver Creek, in 3 hours, 54 minutes to win by nearly 3 minutes.

Riders climbing Independence Pass on Thursday during Stage 4 of the USA Pro Challenge encountered Eric Grindstaf, right, in his costume as they neared the top.

ASPEN — For fans of the sport, no place is a bad place to watch a bicycle race.

But for some, nothing beats the top of a mountain pass.

“The finishes and starts are really exciting but this is where the fun is,” said April Ralph of Salida on Thursday as she waited for participants in the USA Pro Challenge to climbs state Highway 82 from Aspen to the top of Independence Pass, which is on the Continental Divide and exceeds 12,000 feet in elevation.

Caitlin Fitzpatrick of Evergreen shared similar sentiments, saying “it’s more of a party” watching bike races on the passes.

It’s fans like Fitzpatrick and Ralph who help give bike-race spectating on mountain passes such a festive feel. Fitzpatrick was busy writing the name of cyclist George Hincapie in colorful chalk on the road to cheer him along as the longtime American pro rides what he has announced will be his last race before retiring.

For Ralph, the fun partly involved working with her husband, Greg, to hand out cheeseballs to recreational riders who had chosen to cycle rather than drive up the pass to watch the race.

“We find that only the really fun athletes take a cheeseball. The very serious ones, not so much,” April Ralph said.

Elsewhere, music blared from loudspeakers and induced impromptu dancing, cowbells rang out, picnicking fans relaxed in lawn chairs and under awnings beside vehicles, and people paraded around in costumes ranging from a banana to a cross-dresser to a 1970s-era skier with skinny planks and a fluorescent ski suit. 

Some outfits elicited a mix of laughter and cringing from onlookers, such as the man in a Speedo swimsuit, a prerequisite for any bike race worthy of television coverage.

That role was capably filled Thursday by Eric Grindstaff of Columbus, Ohio, who was visiting friends in Colorado and decided he wanted to see his first pro bike race. In a cape that read, “Don’t Tread on Me.” And a tight, white Speedo. And not much else.

Grindstaff donned the attire, such as it was, “just to come out and have fun. I’m working on my tan right now.”

That seemed a dangerous proposition at such sunburn-inducing altitudes. But to each their own while watching bike races on mountain passes, where there are few rules, other than to leave room for the racers to ride by.

That can be a challenge during some mountain pass bike stages, where surging crowds lean in for photos and a better view as cyclists struggle toward the top, occasionally even leading to a competitor inadvertently being knocked down. But that wasn’t a problem Thursday on Independence Pass, where turnout was notably light.

That might have been partly because the pass was early on the riders’ route to their eventual finish in Beaver Creek. It may not have been viewed as being strategically critical — although it turned out to be decisive on this day as the first breakaway rider to top the pass, Jens Voigt, held his lead to win the race.

Threatening weather also might have been a factor. Also, this year the U.S. Forest Service banned camping along the roadside for about five miles on each side of the pass due to concern about preventing damage to fragile alpine tundra. The rule hadn’t been in place during last year’s stage involving the same pass.

Jeff Cox of Arvada and his friends have been showing up at passes along the race route all week and weren’t deterred by the camping restriction.

“We came up (Thursday) morning, watched the sun rise, got a good spot and hiked to a boulder field,” Cox said.

His group then passed time playing cornhole — a horseshoe-like game involving corn-filled beanbags. They tossed the bags back and forth across Highway 82 near the race finish as they waited for the racers to arrive.

Cox was on the pass for Wednesday’s stage too.

“It was crazy. It was like a disco party,” he said.

But while pass-going spectators like to party, they’re also often serious racing fans. Antoine Rollin, one of many who biked up the pass, is originally from France — home of that other bike race — and now lives in Atlanta. He said many of those who came up Thursday were “hard-core cyclists” who follow the sport closely and know the riders well.

Several spectators said they liked watching on a pass because the riders are going slower and often are more stretched out along the road, so there’s more time to see them. And they also can admire the hard work the racers are doing, laboring at much higher speeds up the same climbs many of the fans have just ridden.

Kristi and Bruce Hamilton biked up from the Leadville side of the pass, overcoming the altitude challenge as low-landers from Austin, Texas. Kristi was looking forward to the racers’ arrival, saying that “it’s just fun to be right there and see them fly by you.

“There’s no other sport where you can get this close to the athletes,” she said.

Karen Pollack came all the way from Wilmington, Del., to watch this week’s USA Pro Challenge race in Colorado. A fan of rider Jens Voigt, she got to enjoy the thrill of watching him be the first competitor to top Independence Pass on Thursday, on his way to winning the day’s race.

“He’s a great cyclist. He’s just a good sport and he enjoys what he does,” said Pollack, who cheered him on with a “Jens for President” sign.

As it happens, Voigt is German. As Pollack thought about it more, she acknowledged, “In theory, he can’t run for president.”

Besides feeding cheeseballs to bicycle fans who pedaled up Independence Pass, April and Greg Ralph of Salida passed out doughnuts and other goodies to law enforcement personnel from around Colorado who helped out during Thursday’s bike race. And April came to notice a distinct trend.

“We found Aspen police would only take croissants and Boulder cops would only take bagels,” she said.

She said she had no plans to try to hand out food to the racers.

“Oh, heavens no. They ride too fast,” she said.


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