COUNTY ROAD 43 - It's safe to say this patch of pavement is lonely for 364 days a year. The winding, two-lane road heads away from U.S. Highway 34, away from Estes Park, away from civilization.
It's off the beaten path, all right.
Yet on Saturday, this small piece of Colorado backcountry filled with loud music and louder cheers as hundreds of people lined each side of the road for nearly a mile of steep switchbacks. Stage 6 of the USA Pro Challenge was en route, and these fans were rolling out the welcome mat.
"Cycling fans and cyclists are a unique breed," said Kara Shell, who traveled west from Columbus, Ohio, to enjoy the seven-day stage race.
Shell and her friend left Boulder at 6 a.m. and staked their claim alongside the dusty road. Others arrived earlier, with some camping overnight on the climb known as Devils Gulch.
Large, energetic crowds have gathered the past six days atop passes named Independence, Hoosier and Rabbit Ears and at ski resorts in Aspen, Snowmass, Steamboat Springs, Beaver Creek and Vail. The message is clear: the higher and steeper, the better.
"This is our first time following the race - we're doing the whole thing - and we've sort of discovered that the most fun is at the climbs," said Shell, who was sporting a lime green mask and cape. "We've been down in the cities, we've been at some of the starts and finishes, but we've had the best time up in the hills."
Up in the hills is where Tejay van Garderen took control, pulling away from his rivals in Stage 4 at Beaver Creek and padding that lead in Stage 5 at Vail. On Saturday, the BMC rider retained his 90-second edge over teammate Mathias Frank and a 1:42 advantage over Tom Danielson of Garmin-Sharp.
"The climbs this year, they've been more selective," van Garderen said shortly after finishing the 115.2-mile stage from Loveland to Fort Collins that included a trek to the base of Rocky Mountain National Park. "You saw that on Bachelor Gulch in the day up to Beaver Creek. It just completely broke up the peloton."
While the race isn't as competitive as the previous two years, fans don't seem to mind. That's why they wait hours at elevations ranging to 12,000 feet for a chance to see a couple of minutes of action.
"It's so humbling to see how fast these guys are," said Evan Sandstrom, who plans to attend every stage. "Until you see it in person and really have an appreciation for it, it's hard to put into words."
That's another thing about steep hills and altitude. The race isn't a blur when the riders are suffering.
"This is the slowest they'll go all day so you get to actually see them for more than 3 seconds," said Scott Richardson of Boulder, who rode the final part of the climb on Devils Gulch long before the pros took their turn.
USA Pro Challenge CEO Shawn Hunter said that race organizers try to balance three main objectives when selecting the course: what's best for the riders, what's best for the fans and what's best for the host communities.
Fans certainly seem drawn to the climbs. And one rider, Danielson, wouldn't mind seeing even more difficulty added to next year's route.
"Shawn, seriously, we need a mountaintop finish guys, a nasty one," he said after Friday's stage.
A mountaintop finish doesn't get any nastier than Pikes Peak, at least in Colorado. On Saturday, Hunter said that a Colorado Springs route involving America's Mountain remains a possibility.
"Absolutely, yeah," he said. "There aren't too many that we won't consider. We're already talking to the local organizing committee down there about that being one potential Springs stage in 2014."
If that's the case, expect a party at 14,000 feet.