VAIL, Colorado - With a 30-mph whoosh of excitement, Vail Village was transformed into a pro-level race course on Sunday, as the Tour of Vail Cycling Weekend culminated with the first-ever Vail Criterium.
The event doubled as the final race in the USA Crits Championship Series, which represents the top level of competition in criterium racing - where cyclists compete on short laps through city streets for a specific amount of time.
A selection of the nation's best elite and professional cyclists competed for more than $25,000 in cash and prizes on a course that took riders on a 1K loop over the International Bridge, (which served as the start and finish line) past Solaris and the Vail Parking back to the International Bridge.
"Great course, exciting atmosphere," said men's winner Luke Keough, who came in from Boston to participate in the race. "It's the last race of the year, so to end it with this event here in Vail is unbelievable. It's a one-of-a-kind race, we've got the altitude as a factor and a lot of the locals came out so it was a great field, and all that made it really fun."
Among those locals was pro cyclocross racer and Avon resident Jake Wells, who was competing for Stan's NoTubes/AXA Equitable. Wells was the top-finishing local at 21st overall.
Keough was not only the winner of the men's race, he also won the overall series for the second year in a row, and his team, Team Mountain Khakis, was the winning team on the series for the first time ever.
"Our team's from North Carolina, coming up here I felt like someone was sitting on my chest," Keough said after the race. "But we all kinda laid low and tried not to use all our energy right away. It worked out well."
Keough and the men competed for an hour and 13 minutes, circling roughly 70 laps on the course and hitting speeds of nearly 40 mph on the slight downhill along Gore Creek Drive, averaging roughly 30 mph throughout the race.
Crash at finish
The women competed for 60 minutes, at speeds slightly slower than the men, but may have made for more interesting competition as their race allowed spectators a chance to see the nuances of criterium racing. The first three competitors in the women's race lapped the field - and wiith Erica Allar, Alison Powers and Whitney Schultz one lap ahead of the pack - the main group was actually competing for fifth at the finish line, as the fourth-placed competitor was technically the first to finish the one-hour mark and dismount the bike, leaving the final sprint a contest for first and fifth, with fourth already decided.
That sprint led to a spectacular crash at the finish, in which several women were left skidding across the pavement at the moment the race was being decided.
"There was a slight dip right before the finish, which was a challenge," said women's winner Alison Allar. "When you're sprinting full on and you hit that dip, it can bury you in, and I think that's actually what ended up happening at the finish."
Allar, who's win solidified her third straight year of dominance in the sport, said Powers' presence in the race pushed her to compete harder.
"It's always great to race against (Powers), she's really strong," said Allar, who lives in Tucson, Ariz. "She's acclimated, she lives in Boulder, so I just watched her, and we were able to make that breakaway and lap the field."
Allar said her favorite part of the course was the Vail Village backdrop.
"I really liked the fact that it's in downtown Vail," she said. "There's shops and stores here and people can spectate from many different areas," she said.
Hopes for next year
Coming into this weekend, those spectators may not have known there was a race going on in Vail Village, but once in the village it was impossible to miss.
"I had no idea this was even happening until I got here today," said Stephanie McCarthy, whose shop, Blitz, was right in front of the Meadow Drive portion of the course. "I got an Eagle County Alert at 12:06 p.m., saying Blue Cow Chute and Hanson Ranch Road were going to be closed starting at noon."
Vail Crit VIP/Hospitality Director Stephanie Leclerc said the surprise splash was party what they were going for.
"We kinda wanted to just sneak in and shock everybody," said Leclerc. "We planned this one pretty fast ... Next year we'll improve what we've done."
Event director Dieter Drake said the event went off smoothly, and is hoping this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
"As long as they'll have us back, we'll come back," he said. "The plan is for next year to have it some time in August ... Next year we'll get a higher-level sanctioning so we'll be able to invite even better competitors. It will be sandwiched between the Tour of Utah and the U.S. Pro Cycling Challenge, so we're hoping we get a handful of crossover competitors."
For more information and the full results, visit usacrits.com.