From plaid-clad college cyclists to world’s best

The cyclists streamed by the scoring tent on Rim Drive in a rainbow-colored blur.

Then, a few minutes later, more collegiate cyclists zoomed past.

Gary Hunter watched the riders pedal – almost in unison – past Berndt Hall and on around the Fort Lewis College campus.

There were cyclists from the University of Colorado and Colorado State University. From Fort Lewis, Colorado Mesa University and the University of Denver. From UC-Colorado Springs. Even riders from the Air Force Academy. Not to mention the brown-and-yellow-plaid-clad University of Wyoming road bikers.

Hunter, the FLC athletic director, turned back and watched more aspiring cyclists climb the steep front hill to the campus.

A huge smile broke out under his salt-and-pepper beard, shaded from the brilliant sunshine by an FLC baseball cap.

“This is so exciting ... and what a day to have this race,” Hunter said as he watched the cyclists compete in the Rocky Mountain Collegiate Cycling Championships at FLC on a warm Sunday morning. “We’re here fighting it out with CU, and we’re having a ball.”

And the fun is only beginning.

In barely four months, he said, the top professional cyclists in the world will be pedaling around the campus on the same streets the college racers used last weekend.

Stage 1 of the seven-stage USA Pro Cycling Challenge for 2012 will start from the FLC campus Aug. 20.

“This (USA Pro Cycling Challenge) is a classic example of working hand-in-glove – town and gown, if you will,” Hunter said of the cooperative effort of Durango and FLC in securing a stage of the pro race that will circumnavigate Colorado.

“With that being said, there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done. And it’s going to take every entity in this county to pull this off,” he said. “But it’ll all be worth it in the end. Money couldn’t buy the promotion we’re going to get.”

He said the community economic impact will be significant, based on data from the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge last summer. But the impact will be much greater than just dollars, he said.

“This is going to have tremendous reach,” Hunter said, “and not only regionally and nationally, but internationally, as well.”

That’s where cycling will come full circle for FLC.

“There are hundreds of TV stations in Europe and Asia that will carry this race,” he said.

Not to mention South America and the hotbed of cycling in Colombia.

And they all will see Durango and the “Campus in the Sky,” Hunter said.

“This will help put Fort Lewis on the international map,” he said. “We, obviously, have been at the forefront of collegiate cycling for a number of years. (The USA Pro Cycling Challenge) will be one more element of exposure for the cycling program.”

A couple of FLC alumni racing in the Challenge will help, too.

Tom Danielson, an FLC graduate and longtime pro cyclist, finished fourth and just missed the podium in the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Fellow FLC alumnus Alex Hagman also raced in the first big Colorado pro stage race in 20 years. He finished in the top 40.

Both are former collegiate mountain biking national champions. And both are expected this year when the race will start where they both attended college classes.

“This is going to be fantastic,” Hunter said, adding that there’s a bit of family pressure to produce a top-notch start to the 2012 USA Pro Cycling Challenge.

Hunter, ironically, has to live up to his son’s expectations.

Shawn Hunter, Gary’s son, is the CEO and mastermind of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge.

Shawn Hunter and his Classic Bicycle Racing Team, who also produce the Tour of California, are credited with the overwhelming success of the first USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado.

“It’s been fun for me to converse with Shawn regularly about how things are being organized. It’ll be fun to watch him work here with the race,” said the proud father. “I think everyone will be proud when this is over.”

dstrode@durangoherald.com