Cyclists put the ‘Pro’ in challenge

Tyler Farrar begins to celebrate his Stage 1 win in the USA Pro Challenge on Monday afternoon in Telluride, as the crowd cheers. Enlargephoto

Tyler Farrar begins to celebrate his Stage 1 win in the USA Pro Challenge on Monday afternoon in Telluride, as the crowd cheers.

I arrived in Durango a couple hours early.

Just as the pre-race festivities began.

Walking toward Eighth and Main, I heard music playing, the echo of announcers through the P.A. system and crowd cheers growing ever-so-louder.

At 8 a.m.? Gov. John Hickenlooper fired the starting gun two hours later at 10, officially beginning the second USA Pro Challenge endurance bike road race.

After months of hearing about it, reading about it and preparing to cover it, I knew it was a big deal. After all, the USA Pro Challenge bills itself “as the most grueling race in North America” and “the premier cycling race in the United States.” Riders race over Rocky Mountain passes routinely at above 10,000-feet in the seven-day event.

However, I didn’t realize how big this cycling event was until I stepped on Main Avenue.

If you’re a cycling fan or not, everyone knows the Tour de France is the sport’s Super Bowl.

The USA Pro Challenge could certainly be cycling’s Fiesta Bowl.

Thousands of people lined each side of Main Avenue with cameras, iPhones and espressos. I’m pretty sure there was a beach ball flying around somewhere, too. It was more of a European setting on a cool, cloudy morning with a light drizzle, and crowds everywhere, even on rooftops celebrating cycling.

It was a party.

And, one of the more distinguished guests in attendance was the greatest home run hitter in Major League Baseball history.

Yes, the one-and-only Barry Bonds walked right past me.

Once I returned to earth from my star-struck euphoria, I knew I was part of something special.

Like soccer, cycling never will hold the overall appeal in the U.S. as both sports do in Europe.

But for a week, anyway, cycling can call itself king here.

Colorado certainly feels that way, as the USA Pro Challenge has a multi-year contract with NBC. Pro Challenge press director Steve Brunner said it’s “highly likely” that America’s premier road bicycle race will stay in the Centennial State.

The world’s best cyclists clearly feel strongly about Colorado. Some of the top finishers from this year’s Tour de France are in the race. Not to mention 2011 Tour de France champion and Australian native Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) lined up at the starting line right in front of me.

Before I knew it, 10 o’clock struck and the riders were off.

Cowbells and whistles rang, and people cheered as if they won the lottery. I flashed my camera, standing shoulder to shoulder with other photographers. The racers had quickly cleared one lap in Durango and then really put their pedals to the medal, or air, or something.

I was on my way; following the 125-mile Stage 1 route from Durango to Telluride.

Driving along U.S. 160, I saw hundreds more people on the each side of the road, waiting to see a unique athletic spectacle. Even if it was only for a matter of minutes.

I saw people in costumes looking like stuffed animals, I saw men and women in their underwear, and men in women’s underwear?

Cycling is definitely a different spectator sport, but unique nonetheless.

Fans were gathered in Mancos and Dolores when I passed through. Dolores possessed a sprint finish line before the daunting climb up Lizard Head Pass (10,222-feet).

Driving through the rain on Colorado 145 to Telluride, I passed and yielded to plenty of cycling enthusiasts. Not being from Colorado, I used to get irritated with all the cyclists on the road. One Coloradan could say, I was as irritated as a conservative in Boulder, as irritated as an Oakland Raiders fan in Denver, as irritated as a hippie in Dove Creek.

On this day, I had a newfound appreciation for cycling.

But all of sudden, I came to a town at Lizard Head Pass I didn’t recall being there... So it appeared.

Cars, trucks, campers, tents, cops, forest rangers and cyclists lined the road at the Lizard Head Pass summit.

I stopped to take a look.

Walking amid the jacketed crowd of people with thermoses, umbrellas and propane grills, I strangely felt winded.

I mean, if I’m getting tired walking at 10,000-feet, I can only imagine riding a bike that high up, let alone climbing a mountain on two wheels with no motor.

For John Bulliung, 47, of Denver, riding bikes in the Rockies is nothing. He’s been doing so for 15 years and is a longtime cycling fan. The drive to Lizard Head Pass from Denver was no big deal.

“It’s one I can participate in and feel apart of,” said Bulliung about his love of the sport. “You’re not at that (pro) level, but you can feel the pain they feel.”

Spoken like a true fan.

When I arrived in Telluride — a mini Aspen — I thought I was there a few hours before the finish. I sat down to grab some food at a local sports bar where they had on the live NBC broadcast.

Announcer Phil Liggett was on the flat screen talking about scenic Colorado in his charming, articulate British accent. While I was enjoying this concoction called a pork, pork, pork sandwich, the live feed showed the riders already at Lizard Head Pass. Fort Lewis College graduate Tom Danielson passed on a solo breakaway at the Lizard Head summit to earn the King of the Mountains points title jersey.

Yes, I know, it seems like they give out about 50 jerseys to the racers. But that has a lot to do with sponsorships.

Liggett said the riders were blazing down the San Miguel County side of the mountain exceeding 60 mph.

I paid my tab and bolted for the finish line.

On a flat straightaway into town, racers were zooming above 40 mph. Ironically, that would be considered speeding in car where it’s 25 mph zone.

As the riders inched kilometers closer — yes, it’s kilomoters in cycling — photographers and reporters positioned themselves for what could be a photo finish. Fans stood in the steel stands and on the old rooftops of this historic mining town. Faces old and young eagerly anticipated what commentators were saying was the biggest sporting event ever in Telluride.

It was a tight race that was anyone’s for the taking.

Until the final kilometer turn where an American emerged out of the bunch.

The crowd roared, as the announcer’s voice elevated through the speaker that Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda) had pulled ahead.

The American comfortably looked back, turned his head and raised his fists in the air crossing the Stage 1 finish line in victory.

Day 1 was over.

A man that only was given a 5 percent chance to win Monday won at 4 hours, 42 minutes, 48 seconds. For someone like me who isn’t vastly knowledgeable about pro cycling, comprehending riding a bike from Durango to Telluride in under five hours was baffling, to say the least.

Telluride remained abuzz after the conclusion of Stage 1 with Barry Bonds, yet again, among the crowd.

My day was over.

I drove back to Cortez, as the same sports writer, with a greater appreciation for a sport.

These professional cyclists definitely put the ‘pro’ in cycling.

Pro cycling has gained a new fan.

Professional road cyclist racers takeoff after the starting gun sounds Monday morning in Stage 1 of the USA Pro Challenge at Durango. Enlargephoto

Professional road cyclist racers takeoff after the starting gun sounds Monday morning in Stage 1 of the USA Pro Challenge at Durango.

2011 Tour de France winner, Cadel Evans, listens to the roar of the Durango crowd, as his name is called at the Stage 1 starting line Monday morning in the USA Pro Challenge. Enlargephoto

2011 Tour de France winner, Cadel Evans, listens to the roar of the Durango crowd, as his name is called at the Stage 1 starting line Monday morning in the USA Pro Challenge.

Durango crowd favorite and Fort Lewis College graduate, Tom Danielson, high fives the crowd, as he’s called to the Stage 1 starting line Monday morning in the USA Pro Challenge. Enlargephoto

Durango crowd favorite and Fort Lewis College graduate, Tom Danielson, high fives the crowd, as he’s called to the Stage 1 starting line Monday morning in the USA Pro Challenge.

2011 USA Pro Challenge winner, Levi Leipheimer, speaks to NBC Sports Network during the Monday morning Stage 1 festivities in Durango. Enlargephoto

2011 USA Pro Challenge winner, Levi Leipheimer, speaks to NBC Sports Network during the Monday morning Stage 1 festivities in Durango.

Alessandro Bazzana and Tyler Farrar address the media during a press conference at the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride after Stage 1 of the USA Pro Challenge on Monday afternoon. Farrer won the stage and Bazzana placed second. Enlargephoto

Alessandro Bazzana and Tyler Farrar address the media during a press conference at the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride after Stage 1 of the USA Pro Challenge on Monday afternoon. Farrer won the stage and Bazzana placed second.

Cycling fans stand Monday morning off State Highway 145 at Lizard Head Pass to watch professional road bicycle racers of the USA Pro Challenge pass before the descent to Telluride. Enlargephoto

Cycling fans stand Monday morning off State Highway 145 at Lizard Head Pass to watch professional road bicycle racers of the USA Pro Challenge pass before the descent to Telluride.

Cycling enthusiasts sit atop Lizard Head Pass to cheer on the professional road racing cyclists of the USA Pro Challenge on Monday morning. Enlargephoto

Cycling enthusiasts sit atop Lizard Head Pass to cheer on the professional road racing cyclists of the USA Pro Challenge on Monday morning.