Racing back to Vail
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL, Colorado ” Each winter, the fastest skiers from around the world flock to the Vail Valley and speed down the slopes on the Birds of Prey course.
This summer, the fastest athletes on two wheels will finally be back in the Vail Valley.
After a 20-year hiatus, professional cycling will make its return to the area with the 2008 Colorado Stage International Cycle Classic. Recently, the Vail Valley Foundation finalized the schedule for the three-stage competition that will run from Aug. 22 to 24 and includes a 130-mile road ride from Breckenridge to Beaver Creek, a circuit race in Vail Village and a time trial from Vail Village to the East Vail cul-de-sac.
“The Vail Valley Foundation came to us a couple years ago with an interest in doing a world-class road race again, and we were very excited,” said Sean Petty, the chief operating officer of USA Cycling. “From a cycling history standpoint, it was great to think we could re-create some of those times in the mountains. For us at USA Cycling, being in Colorado Springs, it’s good to have a world-class event in the state again.”
From 1978-88, Vail had been a host to the criterium and time-trial competitions stages of the Coors Classic ” the biggest cycling tour in America, which helped push American cycling forward. Winners of the Coors Classic include Tour de France winners Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault. Since 1988, however when the Coors Classic ended, there has not been a stage race in Colorado.
“This has been something that’s been off and on the front burner for a while now,” said John Dakin of the Vail Valley Foundation. “We were just trying to make sure we were getting dates, working with U.S. Cycling … and working with the (International Cycling Union) … to make sure we’d get the best possible riders we could.”
Of the 20 six-man teams organizers are looking to invite, five slots are slated for international teams, with the rest of the field made up of pro continental teams.
The other big event at the time is the Vuelta a Espana, which finishes as the Colorado race will is set to start.
“There are 28 riders on pro tour teams, … and with nine riders being at the Vuelta (a Espana), you have a lot preparing for the World Championships (in Italy Sept. 24 to 28), and a lot will travel here because teams have interest in coming to the United States ” there’s a connection to the (team) directors who raced here in the Coors Classic,” Petty said. “And racing at altitude ” and way above altitude ” there will be some specialists who normally don’t get that kind of opportunity.”
While the Colorado Stage International Cycle Classic has the right venue to lure top racers, it also has signed Medalist Sports, the sports-management company that runs the top U.S. races, including the Tour de Georgia, the Tour of California, the Tour of Missouri and the USA Cycling Pro Championships.
“We’ll lean on them and their relationships with the different international teams to really be the guiding force,” Dakin said.
Although professional cycling left the valley in 1988, the Vail Valley Foundation brought professional mountain biking to the valley with the 1992 UCI World Cup Finals and also secured the 1994 and 2001 World Mountain Bike Championships.
“We always look to say, ‘What’s the next step to make the community better?'” said Ceil Folz, the president of the Vail Valley Foundation, who served as the local organizer for the Coors Classic for seven years. “What we like is that everybody ” a person who lives in Beaver Creek or in Gypsum ” can enjoy (cycling). It’s universal in the valley.”
Michael Aisner, who was the promoter of the Coors Classic from 1977 ” when it was called the Red Zinger ” through its final year, decided to bring the race through Vail in 1978.
“We wanted to try to expand into areas where we would be meaningful to the local community.” Aisner said. “Also, summertime for ski resorts made total sense. There are tons of hotel rooms, and you are low on occupancy.”
As the tour grew to include up to 16 stages, Aisner felt Vail remained one of the best stages.
“The race became the fourth-largest event in the world behind the (Vuelta a Espana), Giro d’Italia and Tour de France,” Aisner said. “Of all the stages, … Vail was what many people would say was their favorite because it was conducted in this closed area in front of the Crossroads, and it packed more people in there than you can imagine. It was so extraordinarily loud; it was like being at a soccer game at the World Cup finals.”
Along with the locals, tons of spectators came in from around the state, Aisner said.
“It was the first real place people from the Front Range could go see the bike race,” he said. “We were shown photos by state patrollers of cars parked for a mile in all directions on the frontage roads ” all the parking lots couldn’t contain the number of cars.”
While Aisner was obviously disappointed to see the Coors Classic come to an end when Coors pulled the plug on funding, he’s glad to professional racing return to the state.
“No question cycling has always been favored here in Colorado,” he said. “It’s popularity runs deep. We have more world-class bike racers living in one place in the U.S.”
In September, the UCI approved USA Cycling’s request for a stage race in Vail as a Category 2 race, which stipulates that pro teams can’t participate. But USA Cycling went back to UCI and lobbied for the Vail race to be recategorized at a Category 1 race, which allows pro teams to participate, and the request was approved in late fall. (The highest classification is HC ” which is what the Tour de France and Tour de Georgia are.)
Petty said that one big reason the Category 1 was approved had to do the Vail Valley Foundation’s reputation.
“They have done a superb job over the years with mountain bike races and the UCI was well aware of Vail’s ability on the ski side,” Petty said.
With about eight months before the race, the Vail Valley Foundation is on track with preparations.
“We’ve got a lot of room in sponsorship and fundraising, but we think we’ll be able to do it,” Folz said.
Sports Writer Ian Cropp can be reached at 748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.