DOLORES — Here they come! And there they go!
It was a thrilling few seconds, with the primary word being “few.”
Approximately 500 people, possibly more, lined the streets of Dolores and parts of Highway 145 eagerly anticipating the arrival of the second annual USA Pro Cycling Challenge. The race, touted as the premier cycling race in the U.S., started in Durango with Gov. John Hickenlooper firing the starting gun.
The first group of riders sped down into Dolores around 12:30 p.m. The 24 riders flew into town with three breaking away furiously racing for the sprint finish line.
Moldova’s Serghei Tvetcov of Team Energy pulled ahead to win the sprint. U.S. rider Tyler Farrar, from team Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda, won the opening stage with a late sprint in the final kilometer in Telluride in an unofficial time of 4 hours, 42 minutes.
The sounds of cowbells, handed out by local businesses, and raucous cheering echoed throughout Dolores as the riders blitzed through at more than 30 mph. “Man, that was fast,” Bob Coates of Dolores said. “I can’t believe they go that fast. That was pretty exciting.”
Exciting, yes, fast, definitely, eventful, indeed.
The race has some of the top cyclists in the world competing in the seven-day stage race that ends in Denver on Sunday. The field includes six of the top finishers from this year’s Tour de France with a total of 126 riders from 24 countries.
By the time the second pack of riders, which is referred to as the peloton, cruised into Dolores, the pace was slower but anything but slow.
The event is one that definitely falls into the don’t blink category.
There were few empty hands in Dolores, with some ringing a bell and the others clicking away with cameras, the event provided a unique opportunity to see world class cyclists fly through Dolores.
The race will choose a different route every year.
“That was very interesting,” Don Foth of Cortez said. “It’s really unbelievable how much energy they have, and they are riding a 125 miles today.”
As soon as the riders departed, a massive caravan of support vehicles, representing all 16 of the cycling teams, motored past. Carrying replacement bicycles worth tens of thousands of dollars on top of the SUVs, the vehicles trail the riders prepared to swap out bicycles if needed, provide mechanical help, water and snacks during the 125-mile stage to Telluride.
The enthusiastic crowd, along with a similar-sized gathering in Mancos, was impressed with the unique sporting event.
Susie Montgomery, who was visiting the area from Denver, admitted that it’s not the most spectator-friendly sport, but she was happy that she witnessed it.
“It was a neat event. They zipped by so fast that it was over in less than a minute,” she said smiling. “I’m glad I got to see it. It really is quite a huge undertaking.”
For Debbie Caldwell of Dolores, a Ride the Rockies veteran, the race was a special event.
“It was thrilling, this is really exciting,” she said.
At the start of Stage 1 in Durango, thousands gathered to watch an event that drew more than 1 million spectators over seven days in 2011.
In the Durango crowd was former Major League Baseball superstar and seven-time MVP Barry Bonds, who is now an avid cyclist.
The intricacies of the sport of cycling were lost on nearly everyone watching on Monday except for the hard-core cycling fans.
Even though the race is made up of individual athletes, it’s a team sport with the strongest teams working to get their lead rider on the podium.
In Dolores, the sprint finish was another interesting part of bicycle racing. Sprinters will accumulate points during each stage trying to win the coveted sprint jersey and title as the best sprinter. A similar title is given to the best climber in the King of Mountain.
The nearly 700-mile race will take cyclists over some of the highest-elevation mountains some of the competitors have ever ridden.
Prior to the race, many of the European and other non-U.S. riders like 2011 Tour de France champion Cadel Evans from Australia, said the Colorado altitude will be a challenge, and that’s why the U.S. riders will have the advantage.
Last year, the top three finishers — Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde and Tejay van Garderen — were all Americans and they are all back for this race. All three are favored to contend for the overall title as well as Fort Lewis College product Tom Danielson.
One of the highest mountain stage finishes in Tour de France history was less than 9,000 feet.
The main climb in Stage 1 was Lizard Head Pass, which is more than 10,000 feet.
The highway leading up to the pass was lined with cycling fans, some clad in colorful costumes.
Riders will have a grueling couple of days in Stages 3 and 4 when they go from Gunnison to Aspen over 12,000-foot Independence Pass, then head back over the steep pass the next day on their way to Edwards.
All total, cyclists will have more than 42,000 feet of climbing over the seven days.
It was on Lizard Head where Monday’s race got interesting. Danielson pulled ahead on a solo breakaway to claim the King of the Mountain points at the top of the pass but he was soon joined by another three riders.
As is the case with cycling, the peloton is a massive chase machine, often catching the breakaway. That’s what occurred Monday, with the peloton catching the group with about 3 miles to go, setting up the sprint finish.
For the fans who lined the streets in Mancos and Dolores, Highways 160, 184 and 145, little attention was paid to who won the sprint finish or who won Stage 1. It was simply a unique event and the chance to watch world class athletes as they sped past at blazing two-wheel speed.
They came, they went and it was fast. But it was fun, even if it lasted only a few minutes.