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The Colorado Classic and American Cycling Meet at the Crossroads

Young talent abounds at the new Colorado showcase event, while the host nation’s prospects abroad flounder

Gage Hecht in Utah
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Today Gage Hecht, a promising 20-year-old from Colorado riding for the Continental Aevolo team, evaded the clutches of his breakaway mates and won the opening stage of the Colorado Classic, ahead of Travis McCabe of United Healthcare and Joseph Lewis of Holowesko-Citadel. Hecht, the reigning U-23 national champ in time trials and criteriums, is a bright light on the horizon, and his victory was his first major success.

Or was it? The Colorado Classic is a pared-down version of the American summer international stage race, featuring a four-day format, two days in Vail and two in Denver. The Vail stages include today’s circuit race and tomorrow’s uphill time trial to Vail Pass, followed by two days in Denver consisting of an out-and-back race totaling 161km and some serious climbs, and a downtown crit. This is the signature pro event in Colorado, one of the chambers of the American cycling heart. I spent much of the last week threatening in my mind to preview the race, but after a while I just couldn’t do it. For a fan of the World Tour, there isn’t really enough in Colorado to discuss.

Don’t hear what I didn’t say, I’m sure this will be a fun few days for the participants, and an opportunity to watch a lot of young, talented riders, primarily from the US and Canada, hash it out over a beautiful, challenging course. Along similar lines, last week the Larry Miller Tour of Utah saw a strong, more veteran international field battle over similarly beautiful and challenging roads, where another young American, 23-year-old Sepp Kuss, dominated a field of Ben Hermans, Jack Haig, Hugh Carthy, Michael Woods, and American mainstays Brent Bookwalter, Joe Dombrowski, and Peter Stetina. Kuss, even more so than Hecht, laid down a marker that says he’s someone to be watched. Riding for LottoNL-Jumbo, Kuss was quickly promoted to their Vuelta squad, in time for the start in eight days. We could be catching early glimpses of guys we talk about a lot over the next few years.

Sepp Kuss celebrates in Snowbird, UT
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This is the good news. But I wonder what direction this is really all headed in for the US and its top-level pro scene? The Colorado Classic is a completely separate, new event but inherits the calendar position and legacy of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, a race which needed a less generic name to describe the week’s worth of stages across some of America’s most majestic roads. The USAPCC was a week-long event held on the heels of Utah, tended to feature mountain-top finishes (American-style ones anyway), and drew a half-dozen World Tour teams. The race was (and is) a 2.HC event, which can involve up to 70% World Tour teams. The Colorado Classic still pulls in four of the big outfits, but the big names from those squads are Carthy, Dombrowski and Taylor Phinney.

I am sure there are fairly straightforward explanations as to why Colorado doesn’t have a more prestigious event, including sponsorship and calendar position. Most of the calendar revolves around Europe from the end of the Australian events in January til the Tour de France arrives in Paris, and when that season ends, when nearly every drop of energy has been wrung from the peloton’s top stars... it’s time to head to America.

It’s not a terrible system for a European sport. The cycling folks can even catch up with their favorite soccer/football teams while they are State-side, since a bunch of the big name squads like to head here for friendly exhibitions around the same time. It’s not terrible. It’s understandable. But that doesn’t stop American fans from asking if maybe there could be a bit more to it all.

Thirty years ago was the last running of the Coors Classic, a race which shape-shifted from a Colorado-focused event to one featuring major California stages, along with side trips to Hawaii and the interior West. The last edition was won by Phinney’s dad Davis, a rouleur/sprinter type, suggesting not much in the way of major climbs. But the 1987 edition went to Mexican climber Raul Alcala, a fixture in Europe via the 7-Eleven team, and that followed wins by Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond. Peter Stetina’s dad Dale and uncle Wayne are also on the honor roll from the race’s early years. Maybe that’s a clue to how small the cycling circles are in our otherwise pretty vast nation. The Coors Classic was a big-time event, but American interest and dollars couldn’t sustain it, any more than they can sustain a major international event now. The USAPCC always felt a bit scaled back from the old Coors Classic, and never landed the huge sponsor it required to become an institution. The Colorado Classic is scaled back even further, possibly to the correct size for what American cycling can support.

Of course, all of this is in addition to the Amgen Tour of California, a winter race that morphed into a Giro d’Italia alternative and rode all the way to the World Tour. The TOC is a stable institution now in May, draws riders on track for the Tour de France, and otherwise serves as America’s showcase event in all respect. I am not ungrateful for this.

Back in Europe though, it’s been a quiet year for the US and its citizens. After Gage’s win and Kuss’ rampage last week, Americans are up to 20 victories on the year at the international pro level. Only one of those wins, Sean Bennett’s stage success at the U23 Giro d’Italia, took place in Europe. That puts us level with Algeria, just ahead of Portugal, for victories, 16th world-wide. Italy and France are into triple digits for the season, while a more comparable Britain is up to 50. Comparable I say, because it wasn’t that long ago that the UK were outsiders in terms of both top-flight athletes and events, and with a cycling culture at home that faces some of the same challenges American cyclists and fans do. But British Cycling have done well in funding and in producing top athletes, with three of their people winning six of the last seven Tours.

A year ago the US ranked 8th overall in wins, with 53, with a handful of those in Europe led by Nielson Powless’ two victories in the Triptych Monts-et-Chateaux and the U23 Giro, as well as memorable wins by Larry Warbasse in the Tour de Suisse and Tejay van Garderen in the grown-up Giro. That was up slightly from 2016, though American kids had a nice romp through Europe as riders like Logan Owen (U23 L-B-L), Powless (Avenir stage), Adrien Costa (three wins in France) and Joey Rosskopf (Tour du Limousin GC) powered the American engine. Costa left the sport to pursue other avenues in life, and tragically lost part of his leg in a hiking accident this month.

Over the past decade it’s been slow-going for Americans abroad. The odd success, like Andrew Talansky’s Dauphine win in 2015 and van Garderen’s steady trickle of impressive European wins, have salvaged America’s position in the World Tour, where three of the 18 teams still call America home (for another few months, until BMC becomes CCC). You have to go back nine years to the last impressive run, by our friend Tyler Farrar, who scored eleven wins in Europe including three stages of the ENECO Tour, happening as I type. Sometimes it just takes an athlete or two to have a run of success and give fans a rallying point. Britain has multiple Tour winners, but I’d settle for shouting for Farrar in the classics again.

I’m not qualified to do a full assessment of USA cycling, so I won’t casually demean the hard work of people across the country who are turning talented kids into potential winners in Europe. It doesn’t seem to be happening at the scale of a country this large, in a sport that may be European in nature but is by no means off the radar in the US. This isn’t like Sumo, where a handful of guys from Hawaii get recruited to go to Japan and try their hand. Cycling is happening every day, in every state of the country (except maybe Alaska), during the tolerably rideable non-winter months of the year. It’s here, there and everywhere. It just isn’t producing big winners at the top level. Maybe that’s a tribute to the sport’s integrity: victories in Europe are reserved for elite athletes sacrificing and clawing their way to the top, and America can’t just saunter onto the scene expecting to win. Maybe it’s not so much what America lacks as it is what athletes from Australia, the UK, Colombia and other places have achieved. Mondialisation is real in cycling, which means Americans can go to Europe and succeed... but they have to get in line. And the line is growing long.

Oh well. Enjoy the Colorado Classic. Note that the women’s stages are nearly on par with the men’s events. It’s not a hugely international field, with big events happening in Sweden, Norway, Belgium and France this week, but this is a nice reminder of how there is something for American fans to get excited about. The US is second in the world in victories on the women’s side, behind only the Netherlands. And Coryn Rivera, Amber Neben, Ruth Winder, Megan Guarnier and Alexis Ryan will have something to say in the biggest events in the world. See? Things are looking up already.

Coryn Rivera
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