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Colorado’s 683-Mile USA Pro Cycling Challenge Kicks Off Monday

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The peloton climbs Cottonwood Pass during Stage Two from Gunnison to Aspen of the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge on August 24, 2011 in Buena Vista, Colorado. Photograph by Doug Pensinger

It’s known as the most challenging bike race held on U.S. soil, and it starts next week. Seven days, 683 miles, and 50,468 feet of climbing—including three visits to 12,000 feet. Good lord. Who dreamed that up? It must be someone with a sick penchant for watching the world’s elite crack. Bring it on!

Starting August 20, the second annual USA Pro Cycling Challenge will bring world-class riders to battle it out on the twisting roads of my home state. Colorado is prime road racing territory. We have an avid cycling population, jaw-dropping scenery, lung-busting altitude, and miles of mountain roads that make for punishing climbs and harrowing descents.

The event attracts the world’s top racers, with notables like 2011 winner Levi Leipheimer, 2011 Tour de France champ Cadel Evans, former Lance Armstrong teammate and workhorse George Hincapie, and ferocious climber Andy Schleck.

The route is simply spectacular, winding through the mountains without regard for lactic acid build-up or risk of bonking. It starts in Durango and ends in Denver, with a list of host cities that reads like an all-star tour: Telluride, Crested Butte, Aspen, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Colorado Springs, and Boulder.

The third day is worth noting: It’s the “Queen Stage,” designed to kick the riders’ butts. Spanning 131 miles from Gunnison to Aspen, it features 9,623 feet of climbing, including the partially unpaved Cottonwood Pass. Trust me, this is brutal. The dirt section is etched with bone-shaking ruts, the sides feature dizzying guardrail-less drops, and the road snakes in a relentless string of switchbacks. After surviving this, the riders face a daunting final push over Independence Pass, which—in places—is barely wide enough for a single car. There’s a sheer rock wall on one side and, on the other, a measly stone barrier that looks like a bike would easily catapult over it if the rider hit it at speed.

Stage four is also a doozy, continuing from Aspen to Beaver Creek. It starts with a painful climb back up Independence Pass that—as cycling commentator Phil Ligget would say—is sure to put the riders in a “world of hurt.” I love the things that come out of that man’s mouth sometimes. Let’s just say, it’s unlikely the riders will be “dancing on the pedals” as they drag their bodies up the mountain.

Then there’s stage six, which passes through my hometown of Boulder not once, but twice. We didn’t get a stage last year, so maybe we’re trying to make up for lost time. All I know is that Saturday, August 25, is going to be a complete festival. The race starts south of us in Golden and follows the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains north through Boulder, with a mid-stage sprint in the heart of downtown. The riders then climb high up the mountains in a crazy huge loop before passing back through Boulder for a mountaintop finish on our iconic Flagstaff Mountain. All told, this is the stage with the most climbing: 10,030 feet. Can’t wait!

This race is a boon for Colorado. Not only is it a great sporting event that gets people outside having fun, but it also delivers tremendous economic benefits. The first USA Pro Cycling Challenge, in 2011, attracted a million spectators—22 percent from out of state, including visitors from 16 countries—and resulted in an $83.5 million economic impact to the state. This includes $67 million in direct spending—on hotels, meals, transportation and entertainment. The other $17 million can be chalked up to team spending, jobs created by the event, and tax revenues. That’s a pretty big boost to our coffers.

In tallying up the race’s benefits, you also have to mention the marketing benefits for the state. The television coverage is broadcast around the world, putting Colorado on the global stage and undoubtedly attracting visitors for years to come. Who wouldn’t want to plan a vacation here after seeing our stunning mountain vistas and bluebird skies?

Tune in! Consider donning your favorite flag or freak suit and lining one of the route’s impossibly challenging climbs. If you can’t spectate in person, check it out on television. The race will be broadcast on NBC stations, with the familiar faces of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen giving us the blow-by-blow. Or download the Shack Tour Tracker™ app and watch online. Either way, use the race as inspiration to get out and ride!

Avery Stonich is communications manager for Outdoor Industry Association. Follow us on twitter: @OIA and @averystonich.