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Colorado Springs picked to host start of Colorado Classic, a new cycling race replacing USA Pro Challenge

January 25, 2017 Updated: January 25, 2017 at 8:22 pm
Caption +
Two-time Olympian and World Champion cyclist Alison Dunlap speaks during a press conference Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017, at USA Cycling announcing the inaugural Colorado Classic cycling race Aug. 10-13, 2017. The four-stage race for men and two-stage race for women will begin in Colorado Springs. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Colorado Springs will usher in a new era of professional road cycling when the Colorado Classic comes to town this summer.

Mayor John Suthers and two former Olympic cyclists from the area took part in a presentation Wednesday at USA Cycling announcing that the city will serve as host for the opening day of the stage race set for Aug. 10-13. Stage 2 will be in Breckenridge with the final two stages set for Denver.

The Springs also will serve as the start for a two-day pro women's race that concludes Aug. 11 in Denver.

The introduction of the new race no doubt comes as welcome news to cycling fans left wanting after the demise of the USA Pro Challenge, a seven-day stage race that also got its start in the Springs, with a time trial in 2011. While that event proved popular among fans, who lined mountain roads from Durango to Aspen to Steamboat Springs while watching many of the world's best riders, it never could curb mounting financial losses estimated to be around $20 million over five years. And even after the founders relinquished control of the race in 2015, efforts to revive it were unsuccessful.

Now, less than two years later, elite road racing is back - with a new name, a new ownership group and, maybe most important, a new model for success.

The RPM Events Group, a company formed by Colorado "bike czar" Ken Gart, Denver businessman David Koff and Tim Miller, organizer of road cycling's 2015 world championships, is promoting a fresh approach to bike racing that involves integrating live music, a festival and ancillary events in the host cities.

"It's all about creating sustainability," said Jim Birrell, who's involved in race planning for RPM Events Group.

One way organizers hope to achieve this is through circuit racing, where cyclists ride multiple laps in the same city and the start line also serves as the finish line. That format, which will be used for the Springs stage, drastically cuts down on enormous operational costs. Pro Challenge CEO Shawn Hunter estimated that each stage of that race cost about $1.5 million.

It's an investment that many believe holds promise. Derek Bouchard-Hall, CEO of USA Cycling, is among them.

"To be able to highlight Colorado Springs as one of the greatest cycling cities in the world with this event is great for the city," he said.

Former Olympians Norm Alvis and Alison Dunlap also celebrated the return of pro cycling. Dunlap was quick to praise the inclusion of a women's race, which was absent in all but the final year of the Pro Challenge, when a three-day stage race was added.

"U.S. women are some of the best in the world," she said. "So to have the U.S. women and to showcase their talents here in the U.S. and here in Colorado is just fantastic."

Monument resident Sean Petty will serve as the race director for the women's event - the same role he had with the Pro Challenge in 2015.

"We really proved the formula with the Pro Challenge in 2015," he said. "We put those three days on and the crowds were massive. It makes financial sense to include the women, and it's absolutely the right thing to do."

The men's race is expected to attract quality riders from around the world, having received a 2.HC race classification by the sport's governing body, one level below that of the three grand tours: Giro d'Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España.

And while the race routes have not been finalized, that field of 18 teams will be tested over four days at altitude.

It's the latest chapter in a history of pro cycling that is both rich and rocky in Colorado.

America's first international stage race debuted in Boulder in 1975 as the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic. In 1979, that event was sold for $1 to Michael Aisner, who pitched his idea of a bigger race to Pete Coors. When the beer giant opted to sign on as title sponsor, the event was renamed the Coors International Bicycle Classic.

The Coors Classic went on to become the most successful tour in U.S. history, eventually morphing into a two-week event that trailed only the sport's three grand tours in terms of scope and significance. And the women's component of the race was second to none in the world.

Then, in 1988, Coors Brewing Co. dropped its title sponsorship and the race ended.

While professional stage racing did return to the U.S., it took a celebrated icon of the sport (at the time), a governor and massive financial support to bring the world's best back to Colorado. That's what happened in 2011 when the shared dream of Lance Armstrong and Bill Ritter came to reality in the form of the USA Pro Challenge, backed by Richard and Rick Schaden.

The crowds, with claims some years to be 1 million by event organizers, and the cyclists, including Tour de France champions Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck and Chris Froome, were both impressive. But so was the cost of putting on the race.

Now that burden falls on the RPM Events Group, which seems eager to embrace the unenviable task of maximizing the undeniable popularity while minimizing the cost.

"We're trying to create a sustainable future for big bike racing in the U.S.," Birrell said. "I think this model is something that we're going to focus on for a good period of time and just look at our historical (marks) and look at the present. And hopefully the present helps build a better future for the sport."

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