Raucous crowds atop the Moonstone Road KOM.

Commentary: Is Colorado Classic’s unique format a new template for stage racing?

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DENVER (CT) — The inaugural Colorado Classic concluded Sunday in Denver with a final stage that emulated an American criterium. It was, arguably, the most conventional aspect of the new four-day race, which featured short stages, six-man teams, and a concurrent festival with nationally known musical acts.

The state of Colorado has a long history of hosting professional road cycling events, from the Red Zinger and Coors Classic of the 1970s and 80s to the short-lived Saturn Classic, the one-day ride from Boulder to Breckenridge, and most recently the USA Pro Challenge, which ran from 2011 through 2015.

Though serving as the continuation of a tradition, the Colorado Classic differed hugely from past events in the state.

Ken Gart, head of race organizer RPM Events Group, wanted, in part, to model the Colorado Classic after the successful Oklahoma criterium series Tulsa Tough. It’s wildly popular with fans and racers alike and “something the community just loves,” he said. “We need to come up with concepts that fit the community to create energy and excitement that appeals to non-cycling fans.”

The Colorado Classic was distinctly American in form, though Italian winner Manuel Senni (BMC Racing) said the enthusiastic crowds made him feel “like it’s home.”

The four-stage race didn’t try to emulate European racing, standing alone as an experimental model of the American stage race. Shorter stages, two held on urban circuits, appealed to spectators and racers alike. The courses were a departure from the traditional European model, but still led to exciting and engaging races.

Professional road cycling in the States can’t logically imitate European racing — the physical and societal infrastructure just doesn’t exist. The communities hosting the courses don’t have a storied history of hosting bike races. Even in communities were cycling thrives, a culture and infrastructure built around automobiles also makes hosting stage races a challenge.

But can the Colorado Classic’s unique format be a new template for stage racing? The short answer — perhaps.

Trek-Segafredo at the front, in the rain, on Stage 1.

The culture and history of road cycling is storied and deep. Traditionalists are quick to dismiss adaptation and change within the sport. But the reality is that much of the history of pro cycling through the 20th and 21st centuries has fostered a negative perception outside of hardcore fans.

Year after year we see hugely demanding back-to-back mountain stages at the biggest races in the world, often with only a handful of racers able to contest the finale. There’s very little daylight between the traditional model of long, demanding stage racing and what led to the proliferation of performance-enhancing drugs. It’s worth remembering that the Tour de France began as an event imagined to be so difficult that few, if any, could finish it.

We’ve seen epic days create legends. For many, those sights shaped an initial infatuation with the sport; we cling to the folklore. This epic history has shaped the narrative of professional road cycling, but now many of those legends are exposed, or exiled. The responsibility for the widespread abuse in the past is shared not only by the racers and teams, but by course designers as well. They’ve often been people separated from the reality of bike racing, creating absurd, spectacular courses designed to propel their event above the rest.

After an opening circuit race in Colorado Springs, the second stage of the Colorado Classic,  in Breckenridge, was only 100 kilometers in distance, yet it may have been the most epic racing of the 2017 North American calendar. TJ Eisenhart (Holowesko-Citadel) attacked from the gun and rode most of the ten demanding circuits alone, only to be caught and edged out at the line by Colorado native Alex Howes (Cannondale-Drapac). Crowds were deep atop the Moonstone Road climb in a ski town with a population of just 5,000 permanent residents.

Howes spoke on the unique layout of the race. “It’s definitely a little different, the Colorado Classic isn’t exactly the Giro or the Tour, but I think it made it more exciting,” he said. “Look at [Stage 3]. Everyone thought we were going to ride around and have a 35-man bunch sprint at the end but it ended up deciding the entire race. I think cycling needs more of that. As bummed as I am about how things went yesterday, I think we need surprises, and I think the UCI needs to adapt as well. Maybe we need to take a lesson from roller derby. We need to animate it up a little bit.”

Alex Howes (Cannondale-Drapac) won a difficult Stage 2 of the Colorado Classic in Breckenridge, but his GC hopes slipped away the following day after Manuel Senni (BMC Racing) attacked and went clear with Sergei Tvetcov (Jelly Belly-Maxxis). Photo: Brian Hodes/Cor Vos.

It’s no secret that if one were to create a new sport for today’s fast-paced, short-attention-span millennials, it would not be centered around four- and five-hour stages where all the action is compressed into the final 15 minutes. So the motivation for adopting new and innovative formats, such as Velon’s Hammer Series, is twofold — to generate interest and excitement, and also to help combat the scourge of doping.

While the topic of doping in cycling is vast and complicated, it’s noteworthy that Samuel Sanchez’s recent positive test, prior to the start of the Vuelta a España, marks at least one positive drug test before each Grand Tour this season — two Bardiani-CSF riders were caught just before the Giro d’Italia, and André Cardoso (Trek-Segafredo), on the eve of the Tour de France. While perhaps less prevalent than it was 15 years ago, doping is still a reality in the pro peloton — particularly, it seems, when it comes to Grand Tours.

Professional cycling in its current state still faces immense challenges, many brought upon itself. If the sport wants to move past its shrouded history, it needs to adapt and create a fresh perspective from which to view the sport.

Change isn’t easy, but it’s necessary for preservation. Adaptation will need to come from all sides — racers, organizers, and the governing bodies. It’s within everyone’s interest to keep the sport viable and engaging into the future. Spectatorship and engagement should drive the direction of the sport, not tradition.

Bike racing in the states differs greatly from its counterpart in Europe. But an attempt to emulate the European model of road cycling will ultimately fail if applied to racing in the United States. Organizers need to create their own format to appeal to the unique demands of hosting a stage race in the United States, and for four days in August, the Colorado Classic did just that.

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