John F. Russell: Hanging with the peloton at the USA Pro Challenge
Steamboat Springs — After 97 miles of rolling hills, steep climbs and more than a few challenges from the peloton, I found myself headed up the off-ramp of U.S. Highway 40 Monday afternoon racing toward the finish of the opening stage of the 2015 USA Pro Challenge.
Along the highway stood dozens of screaming fans, and as I got closer to the finish line, the size of the crowd and the volume of their cheers increased. By the time we reached main street, the fans were stacked six deep crowding the finish line — they were standing on rooftops, all anticipating a heart-stopping finish. Behind me, the field had picked up the pace, but it was sucking on my exhaust as I crossed the finish line first.
That’s because I was riding on the back of a high-end BMW motorcycle and had traveled along the same course as the USA Pro Challenge’s top riders.
When they were reaching the top of the King of the Mountain, I was either stopped waiting to shoot an image or racing down the hill hoping to find the next big stop. Crossing the finish line first, Taylor Phinney’s hands flew up in the air with the satisfaction that he had conquered the rolling hills, had overcome the intimidating climbs and had survived a brutal headwind that made the final seven miles of the race some the hardest of the day.
Maybe I wasn’t in the field, but that didn’t stop me from sensing the exhaustion that every mile brought or from experiencing the excitement that pumps through your blood when you are greeted by thousands of screaming fans while riding down Lincoln Avenue.
I’ve never been a bike racer, and I’m not one of those die-hard fans who spends their summer days watching the different stages of the Tour de France or getting up early the day of the race and jumping in my car to head to the top of the King of the Mountain stage. Heck, I don’t even own a cape or a helmet with huge antlers attached to it.
My exposure to professional road racing has been limited to my efforts to cover the USA Pro Challenge when it comes to Steamboat Springs. I’ve covered two of the three events that have passed through Steamboat, and I’ve discovered that the athletes are top-notch and the fans are passionate. I’ve learned that the race is going to disrupt our daily routine, but normally, that interruption lasts only a few hours or maybe, like this year, for a day.
I also discovered on Monday that the best way to watch the race may be sitting behind a driver on the back seat of a motorcycle. From that vantage point, you get a different perspective on what it takes to win a stage and a better feel for the circus that chases these riders around the course. From that position I learned to understand a language of beeping horns, the etiquette that controls the team cars and the strategy that creates winning teams and earns riders the yellow jersey.
I’ve sped in front of a peloton as it races downhill and watched and waited as the same group crawled up a long climb. I’ve witnessed a breakaway and felt the energy expended by the peloton as it reels those riders back into the group. I now understand the tightness in your gut when a rider is pinched by the peloton and the desperation that comes if you are the rider that gets dropped.
But as this year’s USA Pro Challenge draws to a close in Denver Sunday, I realize that speeding along Stage 1 of this year’s race at high speed has taught me a valuable lesson — no matter how many miles I log on the back of the stationary bike in my family room my best chance, well let’s be honest, my only chance, of winning a stage in this bike race will come on the back of a motorcycle.
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