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The Colorado Classic has world-class cyclists, big parties and four days to prove it can survive

“It’s the part we can’t control.” After going all in to create the only Olympic-qualifying race for female cyclists in the Western Hemisphere, organizers are just waiting for the crowds.

Fans cheer on cyclists at the finish line during Stage 1 of the 2019 Colorado Classic on Thursday in Steamboat Springs. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

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AVON — The best women cyclists in the world are on course. Live racing video is streaming. The host cities are throwing parties. The events are stacked deep. Equity for women is the hottest topic in sports

Now the question is whether Coloradans will line up to support not just the Colorado Classic’s new strategy for pro bike racing in the state, but also the women cyclists fighting for the future of their sport.

“We’ve done everything we can. We need to throw this amazing event and we need to have support from our sponsors and not only from the industry, but also from the community, and that’s a big unknown. It’s the part we can’t control,” said Lucy Diaz, the race’s chief operating officer. “Are we going to have big crowds? It’s hard to say. I think we have set ourselves up for success.”

Most every pro female cyclist in the world is racing with a one-year contract. They work jobs and raise families as they train and race with salaries that are a fraction of what male cyclists are paid. And every race is a test. If they want to make it to the next season, they must excel. 

WATCH FROM HOME:

Start-to-finish race coverage is available on the Colorado Classic’s “Watch Now” page and also through embedded streams on two dozen cycling media websites. The race will be simulcast on the Colorado Classic Facebook page and YouTube channel.

In the Colorado Classic’s paradigm-shifting theme this year, the race will be shown worldwide using Kiswe’s CloudCast technology, which enables local commentators around the world to call the race, live, in their own native tongue. There are media reporters across the globe lined up to announce the race across the internet.

In the U.S., cable’s 10-state Altitude Sports network and AltitudeNOW will broadcast each day’s race live with replays each night. 

The Colorado Classic is operating under similar pressure. The decision to shift the race to all-women and create the only Olympic-qualifying, UCI-sanctioned race in the Western Hemisphere was a gamble in a state where pro-cycling races (leaning heavily on the men) have struggled.

So there’s a lot to prove as the 96 women hammer through Steamboat Springs on Thursday, Avon on Friday, Golden on Saturday and Denver on Sunday. They are chasing not only international ranking points and one of the largest purses in women’s cycling ($75,000 plus fan-and-sponsor-supported bonuses for sprint laps) but validation that female competitors deserve as much attention and as many accolades as their male counterparts.

“I think the really big issue to watch here is this: Will people turn out to watch this thing? Do people care? Will the organizers be able to get crowds to show up? If they can, it will be a success and maybe they can build on that next year and bring in even bigger sponsors,” said Steve Maxwell, a Boulder-based business consultant and journalist who has researched American cycling’s struggling business model. “But if it turns out to be a dud and no one shows up, they will be faced with a tough decision about what to do going forward.”

Pro cycling in the U.S. is a graveyard of failed gambles. Many state-supported and private-investor races have crumbled. The longest running races — the Tour of California and the Tour of Utah — have persisted thanks to deep-pocketed owners and sponsors. The owners of Colorado’s USA Pro Challenge lost $20 million before shuttering the race in 2017 after five years without a title sponsor.  

The RPM Events Group anchored the Colorado Classic in 2017 and 2018 with a music festival in downtown Denver, hoping Velorama ticket sales would help buoy the race, offset the high cost of live television and sow a new crop of race fans. This year, RPM nixed the music and relaunched the race as a women’s-only contest with start-to-finish live-streaming of the race online instead of a pricey contract with a major network. RPM also enlisted new-to-Colorado VF Corp. as the title sponsor.

Colorado Classic Stage 1 winner Chloe Dygert, riding for Sho-Air Twenty20 crosses the finish line Thursday in Steamboat Springs. The hilly 54-mile loop included 6 miles of treacherous gravel. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The challenge with women’s racing can be traced to a lack of exposure. The racing is just as exciting as the men’s, maybe even more so considering the backstories of athletes taking time away from jobs and families to train and compete. But exposure is expensive and viewership is uncertain, especially in the U.S. where the culture of bike racing is not as vibrant as it is in Europe. 

Exposure is how you build that culture, though. 

“It’s a chicken-or-the-egg thing,” Maxwell said. “And that’s the biggest problem with women’s cycling. It’s hard to find a place to watch it on television and if you are not able to promote it, it’s difficult to grow the sport. I think when people watch, they will quickly learn it’s exciting. But it’s hard to convince people that it’s exciting when it’s not on TV.”

WATCH LIVE:
Stage 2, Avon, Aug. 23: Start and finish is at Nottingham Park. The criterium — seven, 5-mile laps through downtown — winds through Main Street Mall. The final climb up Beaver Creek tops out at Daybreak Ridge Road, accessible by foot only. This will be rowdy. 
Stage 3, Golden, Aug. 24: Start and finish of the seven-lap stage is under the Golden Arch on Washington. The climb up Washington at 15th will determine the stage’s Queen of the Mountain winner. Golden’s New Terrain Brewery on 44th offers patio-viewing with cold beers. 
Stage 4, Denver, Aug. 25: Start and finish of the eight laps at Coors Field. Lots of grassy lawn to view from City Park and the sprints up 17th Ave. offer all kinds of restaurant patio viewing. 

If ever there was a time to cheer women athletes, it’s now. Equity in pay is top-of-mind for even the most casual sports fans as the U.S. women’s soccer team sues the U.S. Soccer Federation over unequal pay after winning their fourth World Cup title. Pro women surfers and hockey players have won pay-equity fights, and the chorus of female athletes demanding equal slices of revenues harvested from their contests is growing. 

“And Colorado is the place where the fix could happen,” RPM chairman Ken Gart said. “I think our timing is really, really fortunate. From surfing to ice climbing to soccer, everyone is dealing with these equity issues right now and I think this could be the place where we start the journey to equal pay through the ultimate global featuring of these athletes. It could all be starting here in Colorado.”

In Avon, the town has prepped about 160 volunteers and scheduled music, a beer garden and activities for Friday’s race, which includes seven laps around a downtown circuit followed by a grueling climb up into Beaver Creek and Bachelor Gulch.

“Avon is well-suited and we know the drill,” said Danita Dempsey, the town’s special events supervisor, noting that Avon hosted a stage finish in the 2013 USA Pro Challenge. “In the early days of the Pro Challenge, we were a little blind and didn’t know what to expect. It’s still a little like getting your crystal ball out, but for us, this is about community engagement and adding diversity to our event calendar and putting things out there that we know our community will rally around.” 

JOIN THE FUN:
Organizers of this year’s Colorado Classic scheduled participatory events in each of the four host cities, allowing fans of cycling to do more than watch. 
The Colorado Classic Bike and Lifestyle Expo at each stop will have screens showing live race action as well as demos, art, food and activities. 
Avon’s expo is Friday in Nottingham Park from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Golden’s expo is Saturday in Parfet Park from 9:30 to 2:30 p.m.
Denver’s expo is Sunday at Coors Field from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Avon is hosting a concert on Friday afternoon at 1 p.m. in Nottingham Park. Golden has a community ride on Friday at 5:30 p.m. followed by movies and music at 7 p.m. in Lions Park. 
• Eight downtown blocks in Denver will be closed to cars on Sunday, Aug. 25, from 10:45 a.m. to 12:30 as part of Open Streets Denver, which allows anyone to bike, scooter, walk, run and play in the streets without worry of traffic. The zone is part of the route the cyclists will race later in the day.

Early indications for the Colorado Classic are excellent, Gart and Diaz said.

They fielded twice as many requests for media credentials as last year and they have recruited three times as many volunteers to help run the race. Sponsors are doing more than providing dollars: This month, the Gates Corp. enlisted its employees to help build 220 bikes for Denver Public Schools’ Wish for Wheels program as part of its sponsorship of Denver’s final stage. 

Diaz said volunteers and sponsors are sharing with her that this year’s race “is more meaningful.”

“Their contribution is making an impact,” she said. “They feel as though they are part of a movement.”


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