Cycling Boom or Bust?

Photo by CR Chambers

USA Pro Challenge experiences flat tire with local businesses

by Rick Langenberg:

In the aftermath of the USA Pro Challenge race, local civic leaders and business operators are giving the Stage 5 cycling launch-off from Woodland Park mixed reviews. But one overall view that everyone agrees with: “Rain, rain, go away.” The weather played a role as the main villain that hampered media coverage and crowd attendance for the challenging 104-mile trek between Woodland Park and Breckenridge, one of the key final stretches of the overall week-long race. Due to a bombardment of hail and chilly rain, NBCSP television helicopters couldn’t air any footage from Hoosier Pass, touted as the strategic climb for the 150 or so Stage 5 competitors.  As a result, Breckenridge snagged the lion’s share of the Stage 5 publicity coverage, with an exciting finish capped by a narrow victory by Laurent Didier of Luxembourg   

Still, Stage 5 planning committee members and city officials are declaring the event a complete success and an overwhelming triumph for the mountain community, with much praise from the Pro Challenge organization. Altogether, preliminary estimates indicate that crowds of between 8,000 and 10,000 people attended the start in the Woodland Park area, according to the local Stage 5 organizing committee. “It was a great day for Woodland Park,” said Woodland Park City Manager David Buttery.  “There were a lot of smiling faces. It was a great family event, and there were a lot of activities for kids.” “It was a great effort,” said Mike Perini, of Perini & Associates, who headed the local organizing committee for the Stage 5 launch.  “The day itself was flawless. I couldn’t have been prouder of our volunteers and our committee.”

Photo by Olivia Reid (CR Chambers Studio Intern)

However, local business owners and merchants have a different take on the Stage 5 showdown.  While lauding the pageantry and uniqueness of the Challenge, along with the detailed village set-up, they described the day as a basic “business disaster.”  Some business owners are questioning the crowd reports, noting that parking for cycling fans was never the problem that organizers anticipated. They cited a bevy of empty lots throughout the morning. “(Local) business stunk,” admitted Jan Wilson, owner of Curves of Woodland Park and Vintage Vines and The Staircase Gallery. “People came here to see the cycling event. They didn’t come here to shop in our stores and eat in our restaurants.” But that said, Wilson describes herself as a big supporter of the Pro Challenge and hopes it returns to Woodland Park. “I thought it was awesome,” she added. “It was a fun event to be involved in.”

Deb Nichols, owner of the Cowbells Western Interiors, agrees with these sentiments.  “It was a great thing for Woodland Park, but it wasn’t such a good thing for local businesses.” Nichols said she didn’t notice any additional traffic in her store from the cycling launch-off.  “It didn’t really help or hurt me. Friday is usually a good day for me,” added the Cowbells owner, who described the summer of 2014 as a good season for her shop.

Several local restaurant operators, though, have described the event as a business bummer, and cited problems in competing with event vendors. Some even described it as one of their worst Fridays of the summer. “The turnout was disappointing,” said Thor Furnes, owner of Grandmother’s Kitchen.  His restaurant made many extra home-made pies in anticipation of an influx of cycling fans and out-of-town visitors that never materialized. He believes one of the problems is that the previous Stage 4 took place in Colorado Springs.  “A lot of people just didn’t come up because they saw the race in Colorado Springs.” said Furnes. “I just hope it was good for the city of Woodland Park,” said Tony Vilgiate, owner of the Ute Inn, who agreed that the Challenge negatively impacted many Woodland Park businesses by taking away parking normally used by local patrons. He believes the event could have worked better if the duration of the race start could have been extended.  

Photo by Jessica Burton (CR Chambers Intern)

Another complaint echoed by local merchants and several civic leaders dealt with the lack of publicity for Woodland Park, despite its commanding role as a host city. “For all the work and money we (Woodland Park) put out, we didn’t get much press,” said Nichols. She and others wonder if the Stage 5 event was worth the financial investment, when the start-up ride through Woodland Park lasted less than 15 minutes.  According to Nichols, the crowds were much larger two years ago, when Woodland Park served as a sprint location and one of the main mountain communities cyclists cruised through at a high speed dash in their journey between Breckenridge and Colorado Springs. Little footage was aired of Woodland Park or Teller County in the subsequent NBCSP live television coverage the afternoon of Aug. 22. Instead, the cameras were focused on the finish in Breckenridge and final ascent up Boreas Pass Road.  

According to Buttery, the city is currently tabulating its tab for the event. Initially, the city had to invest $65,000 to become a Pro Challenge host city, but it got additional funds from a variety of local sponsors.  A full report is expected from the city shortly, along with recommendations for improvements.  

Business owners and committee leaders agree that Woodland Park should try to lobby to become a finish area during future Pro Challenge events.  Other ideas being mulled include doing trial runs near Woodland Park, such as a trek up Pikes Peak.

A long-term home run

Perini concedes that the event didn’t generate the instant bump that many business operators desired. But from a long-term perspective, he described the Pro Challenge as an absolute home-run. “It gave us global, international coverage,” said Perini, who touts the Pro Challenge as the most popular cycling event in the United States, with professional cyclists from all over the world. “This was never about the instant (business) bump.” Also, he noted that it put Woodland Park on the national map as a great cycling hub.  “Many of these people (cycling fans) will be coming back. It was a very positive thing for cycling in our area,” said Perini. And from a strategic standpoint, he believes the event demonstrated Woodland Park’s amazing ability at pulling its resources together and organizing a sports village that rivaled what is done in Vail and Aspen. “We have received many positive comments,” said Perini, in describing the reaction from actual cyclists and the USA Pro Challenge organization “It showed that our community can really collaborate,” he added, in noting the detailed work is assembling a start village, VIP area, a vendor section, media tent and tending to the needs of scores of cycling teams. In fact, he believes Woodland Park made an impression on several key sports groups as a future satellite site for competitions that normally occur in Colorado Springs or larger locales.

More than anything, he cites the excitement from a week of additional events.  The post-race August 22 concert was well-attended, especially in lieu of the weather conditions, noted Perini. The Challenge also attracted much pre-race hype that allowed local residents to get a personal look at the top cycling competitors in the world. While the eventual race winner, Tejay van Garderen of Aspen, attracted much attention, the real local fan favorite was 42-year-old Jens Voight of Germany competing in his final completion, under the slogan, “The Jens Farewell Tour.”

Scores of local fans scrambled to get an autograph of Voight outside the Trek Factory Racing trailer, as if he was a member of the U-2 rock band. It was a scene that almost turned into a pushing match in an area near the high school, dubbed as “autograph alley.” The introduction of the riders, just prior to the start, probably emerged as one of the highlights of the Stage 5 launch. Then, the big start arrived, with racers taking several loops before heading out of town, a process that only lasted 11 minutes