When is a race more than a race? When it's an event.
That's not really a riddle as much as a puzzle Colorado race coordinators worked hard to solve after a professional bike race there was dissolved a couple of years ago.
The solution they devised is the Colorado Classic. Combined with a tandem spectator event called the Velorama, it's something like the Lollapalooza of bike racing. It may also be the most ambitious elite-level bike competition in the country after the Tour California. And year one is starting strong off the line.
The Colorado Classic is also the highest (in terms of overall elevation) bike race in North America. This year's event consisted of four days and some of the best racers in world lapping through the downtowns of three cities, up some of the state's prettiest and most demanding peaks, livestreamed by NBC, following a flotilla of pace and support vehicles, watched by hundreds of spectators and one helicopter.
The races culminated in a three-day festival in downtown Denver with food, drink, a marketplace and a concert by 20 bands including Wilco and Death Cab for Cutie.
It's a race series that seems organized more for spectators than for cyclists, which is sort of the point. The multiple laps ensure that no one misses the action, repeatedly. The Western backdrop gives the courses a cinematic quality. The bands, beer and bikes along the main streets, plus impromptu parties along the route, are all for fans of the sport and designed to make the race profitable and therefore sustainable.
A new classic
The first Colorado Classic featured 16 men's teams and 15 women's for a total of 186 elite riders. The women completed 70 miles between two races in and around Colorado Springs and Breckenridge, with 8,000 feet of total elevation. The men had two additional stages, both in Denver, and over four days, they completed 313 miles with more than 21,000 feet of intense climbing.
The morning of the first stage, racers woke to the flash and boom of a thunderstorm. But by the time they kicked off in downtown Colorado Springs, the sky had turned into a blue canvas with puffy storybook clouds, broken only by a flash hailstorm in the middle of the men's race.
The Colorado Springs stage contained six laps of 93.5 total miles for the men and five laps of 38.36 miles for the women. The women's race, announced by Rio Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, kicked off dramatically with the James Bond theme blaring.
The winding route, the racers say, was hard but fun. It flowed up, down, left and right, past downtown shops and red moon rock formations jutting into the sky like the hands of an ancient giant. Clusters of crowds popped up along the route, many on bikes themselves, all in the shadow of fabled Pikes Peak.
The iconic sandstone formations, known as the Garden of the Gods, are located at the highest elevation of the race. It's popular with tourists and a hard-fought milestone for riders who repeatedly climbed nearly 600 feet to reach them. The Colorado Springs stage ended in cheers from the crowd downtown, followed by a traffic logjam as most of the racers and crews made their way to the next day's event, 100 miles away.
Stage 2 began and ended on main street Breckenridge, a pretty mining-cum-ski town 80 miles from Denver. It was mid-August, and there was still snow on the ridges of the nearby mountains. Grass freeways were visible between trees, carved out for ski runs in the winter.
The second-day race was made up of 10 laps over 64 miles for the men and five laps over 32 miles for the women. Each lap started downtown, whizzing past ski and bike rentals, après-ski bars, tourist shops, bakeries and a Smokey Bear sign (fire danger "low" on race day). Past Smokey, the field of racers began the steady climb along expensive houses and condos to the top of the mountain and then back down fun switchbacks through the natural beauty known as the Illinois Gulch.
Other than the start/finish line, the most popular spot to watch the Breckenridge stage was along the steep climb known as Moonstone -- located 10,000 feet above sea level -- where bell-clanging spectators lined the road, some in costume. "The energy from the crowds was amazing," said Jillian Bearden, 36, who was taking part in her first pro race. She said Breckenridge tested her personally, but overall, the day was "epic."
The last two stages of the Classic over the next two days started in downtown Denver for the men's teams only. Stage 3 was a single out-and-back loop of 81 miles, with an elevation of 6,500 feet going through the beautiful Golden Gate Canyon park and taking a fun detour onto dirt roads in the foothills. Stage 4 was a thrillingly fast urban loop of 7.5 miles.
And all that racing is just half the fun. The three-day Veloroma festival -- part concert, part craft fair -- took up more than six downtown Denver blocks over the weekend and attracted about 30,000 people who drank, ate and shopped among 200 vendors, as well as watching several more pro-am races. Velo is the French word for bike.
"It was a broad, epic celebration of health, wellness and community," said Ken Gart, chairman of RPM Events, which organized the Colorado Classic. But there were some first-year problems: ATMs crashed, beer lines were long, food trucks ran out of meals before everyone enjoyed them, and some complained that the $25 to $50 entrance fee was too, shall we say, steep.
The Classic evolved from Colorado's USA Pro Challenge, which ran for five years. Despite the million spectators who came to cheer racers on, the annual event struggled to make a profit.
Colorado: First place for bikes
Colorado is arguably the most bike-friendly state in the country. Topographically speaking, there is an extensive network of trails into mountains and along flat areas, cities are committed to bike lane expansions, and there are races all year long, both amateur and professional. Gov. John Hickenlooper even pledged $100 million to the effort and appointed Gart the state's "bike czar" to oversee the effort.
The state's topography is well-suited for many types of recreation, from mountain climbing and biking to kayaking and fishing, but the hills and flats are ideal for bike race training and competitions. And the altitude helps any athlete increase their red blood count -- which in turn increases oxygen flow and improves performance -- a reason one of the three US Olympic Training Centers is located in Colorado Springs, next to the starting line of the Classic.
"Colorado is unsurpassed in the US" in terms of outdoor recreation, Gart said. And what's special about supporting biking culture is that bike riding is "something anyone can do."
Reaching your own peak
The Classic invited the highest ranked racers they could get among teams licensed with the International Cycling Union. There were several national and world champions and one from the most recent winning Tour de France team. There were also sponsor teams. As if the scenery and prestige weren't enough of an incentive, prizes for racers totaled $84,400.
In order to qualify for race consideration, a cyclist must have accumulated enough points or have been a finalist in other races. For those not on the pro circuit but interested in participating, some of the Veloroma races are open to amateurs.
Once you've qualified for the Classic, your physical condition should be up to the challenge of multiple days of competition and hours of uninterrupted riding at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour, at high altitudes. But since it's possible to qualify without necessarily having done serious climbing, cyclists may still need to clock those climbing training runs.
Bearden trained for the Classic with "lots of climbing, every day, an average 10,000 feet a week." She also shed 13 pounds with a balanced diet in order to pull less weight uphill. And she raced elsewhere with her team so they were familiar with one another. Racers coming from lower sea levels need to build in days for acclimating to Colorado's elevation.
Biking is, of course, excellent exercise, strengthening core and back in particular. Although biking has been common for more than 100 years, the sport continues to grow in popularity as a way to stay fit and lose weight (which helps in getting up those hills!). And cities around the world are getting progressively bike-friendly.
Many runners turn to biking after an injury because it's easier on your knees while still engaging major leg muscles from your rear to your ankles: glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings and calves.
According to fitness expert Dr. Tom Flaherty, who compared the two for CNN, running outdoors burned 970 calories an hour, while biking got only 570 calories. But biking uphill burns a lot more depending on steepness grade and headwind; it's two to four times the number of calories than on a flat surface.
And then there are the well-known mental benefits of exercise and exposure to nature. Before she started staying fit to compete, Bearden started riding to stay fit. She also loved to immerse herself in the outdoors. In general, she found biking to be an effective mental stress release, "a therapist, so to speak," she said. "It helped me move through challenges in life (and) eventually got me off antidepressants."