Pedaling through the perfect storm

USA Pro Cycling Challenge brings excitement ... and baggage

Frank Schleck, a member of the RadioShack-Nissan-Trek professional, was bounced from the Tour de France after he tested positive for a banned diuretic that has been used to mask the presence of PEDs. Schleck won’t participate in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, but his brother Andy Schleck will ride for RadioShack. Enlarge photo

Laurent Cipriani/Associated Press file photo

Frank Schleck, a member of the RadioShack-Nissan-Trek professional, was bounced from the Tour de France after he tested positive for a banned diuretic that has been used to mask the presence of PEDs. Schleck won’t participate in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, but his brother Andy Schleck will ride for RadioShack.

When the USA Pro Cycling Challenge begins in downtown Durango on Monday, it will bring with it all the trappings of a major road cycling stage race: the world’s best riders from the world’s best teams, a million excited fans on the roads and dozens of goofy costumed characters gamely chasing after their favorite riders and a few seconds of television time.

It also will bring with it the tattered baggage of the sport in the 21st century: the specter of doping, the contentious legacy of Lance Armstrong and the high cost of presenting a 16-team sporting event that covers 683 miles at high altitudes over seven days.

Fortunately for this race, road cycling is riding high after a popular, if tepid, Tour de France and the global glow from the London Olympics and its huge crowds along historic routes.

The dramatic stage is set, and the Rockies’ version of the field of dreams is open for business.

But will the spectators come?

Will the TV viewers gobble up the 30 hours of NBC Sports’ coverage?

“There is nothing in the world quite like watching the pros descend down the backside of a mountain pass after blowing gaskets to reach the summit,” said Boulder cyclist Arthur Kaufman, who saw the race in person last year but will follow the race online while cycling in Tuscany this summer.

“Forget the pain of the ascent, the tortured lung-busting, the macho face-downs. Leaning into a curve on an eighth-of-an-inch-wide strip of rubber at high speed, letting fear dissolve like cotton candy in your mouth, yeah, that’s the good stuff. Who cares if it all happens in a flash?”

As the race matures and its history book grows thick with memorable heroics and scenes of shock and awe, fans will flock to those sites just as Tour de France fans salivate over the thought of a roadside view of the Alpe d’Huez climb or a seat in the Tribune on the Champs-Élysées’ for the final stage in Paris.

The beauty of the sport is that race organizers and TV producers cannot will a certain steep switchback or gnarly ascent into the canon of a race. They happen spontaneously, sometimes tragically.

The race also is attracting another species of cyclists: mountain bikers. Road cyclists and their mountain bike cousins overlap in many areas, and the high Rockies are a huge magnet.

“The pro cycling tour goes through some of the best mountain biking in the world: Durango, Crested Butte, Carbondale, Breckenridge, Aspen and Golden,” said Jenn Dice, governmental affairs director for the Boulder-based International Mountain Bike Association.

“If you surveyed spectators, I would bet a high percentage go on a mountain bike ride earlier in the day. They are also out watching the race; it might be the perfect Colorado vacation wrapped into one day. Durango is the epicenter of mountain biking, and legends such as Ned Overend and Travis Brown live there. National coverage will inspire a guy watching in Baltimore to buy tickets for his dream vacation to mountain-bike Colorado.”

There are other hazards, some of them man-made. Cycling alternates heroism with cynicism because of the curse of performance-enhancing drugs, or PEDs.

Frank Schleck, a member of the RadioShack-Nissan-Trek professional team that is scheduled to participate in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, was bounced from the Tour de France after he tested positive for a banned diuretic that has been used to mask the presence of PEDs.

Despite the high-profile investigations into Lance Armstrong and many other riders over the years, Travis Tygart, the chief executive officer of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said cycling is not alone in its problems with drugs.

“There is doping in nearly every sport,” Tygart said. “We’ve even seen it in 15-year-old in-line skaters. The threat is not calculated by sport: we categorize it as either high risk, medium risk and low risk.”

Cycling is high risk because the illicit rewards are immediate and quickly reflected in cardiovascular performance.

Tygart said the biggest problems are a result of conflicts of interest that arise from international sports governing bodies conducting anti-doping tests at their own events.

“You cannot both promote and police your sport,” he said. “There are unavoidable conflicts. The solution is to outsource their entire anti-doping programs to an independent entity.”

The UCI will be conducting the drug tests at this year’s race. The UCI has come under criticism from USADA and other anti-doping organizations in previous races, including the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge for not testing for erythropoietin, or EPO, one of the most effective and often-used performance enhancing drugs. It also is one of the most expensive drugs to detect, costing more that $10,000 per race to test.

But the biggest elephant in the corner of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge is USADA’s active case against Armstrong, team director Johan Bruyneel, his coaches and several team doctors. Armstrong has fended off every previous attempt to prosecute him, but this time he may have to challenge the sworn testimony of several riders who were on his U.S. Postal Service and Discovery pro teams.

It has been reported that those riders were offered six-month suspensions from racing for their agreement to testify that they were part of a systematic doping plan directed by Armstrong and Bruyneel. Bruyneel voluntarily withdrew as general manager from his RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team at this year’s Tour de France after he was cited by the USADA.

Unlike previous years, Armstrong has not been able to find much vocal support for his innocence from other racers, perhaps because of the reports that his former teammates already have spoken against him.

That has longtime Armstrong friend, part-time Durangoan and 1988 Olympic track cycling racer Dave Lettieri steaming.

“This is silly,” Lettieri said. “Cycling is crazy not to support Lance. He has boosted cycling for the last 12 or 13 years. All of this stuff about nonanalytical positives. What about his hematocrit levels? You either take a test and pass it or you don’t. He passed them.”

Lettieri, who also served as Armstrong’s personal bike mechanic and is the first American to wrench for a Tour de France winner, insists the “true fan base is not eroding. It is the same as it was seven years ago. And whether you support him or not, you can’t ignore what he’s done with his LiveStrong Foundation over the years.

“And no matter how you feel about Lance, you have to admit that it was all so much fun to watch. The experience was incredible.”

As the “Summer of Cycling” continues after the London Olympics, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge is well-situated for filling the gap between the Tour de France and the final Grand Tour of the year, the Vuelta a España. That especially could be true in non-Olympic years.

The race has a long road to reach three-week status, but a two-week version would have plenty of peaks and high plains to traverse without getting boring, as was the case with the slow start of the 2012 Tour de France.

A good showing by fans on the road and viewers in their living rooms could evolve into must-see TV. With good production values and access, a crazy stage race in the mountains would make a heck of a reality series.

Sal Ruibal has covered 10 Olympic Games and six Tours de France for USA Today. He now is a contributing writer and weekly blogger for BIKE Magazine.

Durango city worker Doug Dowers hangs a USA Pro Cycling Challenge banner on East Eighth Avenue, one of several signs hung around the city to embrace the start of the second annual stage race. Stage 1 will start Monday in Durango. Enlarge photo

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file photo

Durango city worker Doug Dowers hangs a USA Pro Cycling Challenge banner on East Eighth Avenue, one of several signs hung around the city to embrace the start of the second annual stage race. Stage 1 will start Monday in Durango.

Cyclists started the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge in downtown Salida last year. Durango will host this year’s opening stage, the first of seven that will run Monday through Sunday to Denver. Enlarge photo

Nathan Bilow/Associated Press file photo

Cyclists started the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge in downtown Salida last year. Durango will host this year’s opening stage, the first of seven that will run Monday through Sunday to Denver.

George Hincapie won Stage 2 of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge last year in Aspen, and the longtime veteran is riding out his pro career in 2012 – and not without controversy. He’s been linked to the USADA’s lawsuit against Lance Armstrong as an informant against his former teammate. Enlarge photo

Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post file photo

George Hincapie won Stage 2 of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge last year in Aspen, and the longtime veteran is riding out his pro career in 2012 – and not without controversy. He’s been linked to the USADA’s lawsuit against Lance Armstrong as an informant against his former teammate.

A good showing by fans on the Colorado roads and NBC Sports viewers in their living rooms could evolve the USA Pro Cycling Challenge into the ProTour’s fourth major – an American version in the Rockies. Enlarge photo

Nathan Bilow/Associated Press file photo

A good showing by fans on the Colorado roads and NBC Sports viewers in their living rooms could evolve the USA Pro Cycling Challenge into the ProTour’s fourth major – an American version in the Rockies.