JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
Thousands of spectators turned out Monday for a blazing start to the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, a seven-day, 683-mile race from Durango to Denver.
While turnout was strong, the number of tourists in town appeared to be far fewer than the 25,000 city officials had predicted. Motel rooms remained vacant Sunday night.
“It looks like there were plenty to go around,” said Keith Cressy, an employee at Best Western Rio Grande Inn. “There were about 40 (rooms) that we had left (Sunday night).”
The Comfort Inn & Suites at 455 South Camino del Rio said 46 of its 123 rooms were filled Sunday night.
The start of the race went off without a hitch, with 126 racers from 16 teams making three laps in the city before setting off on the 125-mile trip to Telluride.
The race started under partially cloudy skies with occasional rain drops. But the sun came out and the sky turned blue soon after the start. People sat on rooftops, on window sills and on balconies to cheer on the racers.
Spectators who lined both sides of Main Avenue wore jackets, rang cowbells, snapped photos and beat on the side of the barricades to make noise.
A row of spectators lined the Front Hill leading to Fort Lewis College, the first climb of the seven-day race.
Mark Wardell and his girlfriend, Miriam Gillow, wore costumes to celebrate the start. He wore a rainbow wig with fairy wings.
“You could feel the wind off their bikes as they rode by,” Wardell said. “It made my wings flutter.”
Announcers and local dignitaries worked to pump up the crowd near the start line at Main Avenue and Eighth Street.
“Durango, are you ready to send these riders off?” an announcer screamed. “There’s never been a start in North America quite like what we have here in Durango.”
The city hosted four days of events leading up to the big race, including a firework show Sunday night. It budgeted about $560,000 for the race, which included road repairs, new paint and trimming of trees.
“It will be some good TV exposure,” said John Chasse of Durango. “It’s also been a good excuse to spruce things up a little bit.”
Durango Mayor Doug Lyon and FLC President Dene Kay Thomas gave spirited speeches at several events.
Thomas promoted Fort Lewis College and its 19-time national-champion cycling program.
“I would like to welcome all young cyclists to come to Fort Lewis College where we have active minds and active bodies,” she shouted at the start line.
Lyon promoted Durango as a “wonderful place to live, work and play.” He invited visitors to return, saying Durango offers four seasons worth of activities, has more restaurants per capita than San Francisco and has achieved a “gold” standard for bicycling.
“There’s one thing that we do better than just about anybody else in the world, and that’s anything to do with bicycles,” he said at the start line.
Residents said they were glad to have the bike race in Durango, but many expected more visitors for the international event.
Crowds that lined Main Avenue were two to three rows deep.
“I was thinking there’d be a lot more people,” said Durango resident Matt Coleman. “I’ve seen busier Snowdown parades.”
The race brought in some of the biggest names in cycling, including Cadel Evans, who won the 2011 Tour de France; Levi Leipheimer, who won last year’s Pro Challenge; and George Hincapie, who completed a record 17 Tour de France races and is calling this his last race.
Local favorite Tom Danielson, a graduate of Fort Lewis College, rode his bike up and down Main Avenue moments before the start with his hand extended for the crowd to touch.
“I’m so thankful for today and this entire week,” he told spectators about an hour before the start. “Thank you, guys, for making it happen. I love you, Durango.”
Danielson finished the first stage as part of the lead group; teammate Tyler Farrer won the stage, which ended in Telluride.
Gov. John Hickenlooper attended the start, as did Barry Bonds, the former Major League Baseball player, who is an avid cyclist.
Former Gov. Bill Ritter, a cycling enthusiast, also was in town. He planned to follow the tour for the first few stages. He had several rides planned, including from Dolores to Telluride and Montrose to Crested Butte.
“Durango is one of my favorite places in Colorado,” he said at Saturday night’s gala at Fort Lewis College. “Over the course of the week, we get to showcase the state with an international audience.”
Crowd estimates are not expected until mid-week, City Manager Ron LeBlanc said.
He thanked the hundreds of volunteers and city employees who helped make the event possible.
“We did a tremendous job,” he said. “Our plan was perfectly executed.”
Residents and business owners said the town felt busier than a typical weekend, but the number of visitors seemed lower than promoted.
Keith Roush, owner of Pine Needle Mountaineering, 835 Main Ave., said there were slightly more people downtown than average, but they were mostly locals.
“It certainly got a lot of people downtown,” he said. “I don’t know that it got a lot of out-of-towners.”
The race will be shown in more than 200 countries and broadcast on NBC and NBC Sports Network across the nation.
Durango already is well known for cycling and mountain biking, Roush said, and maybe the publicity will reach more people.
NBC affiliate 9News in Denver did its morning weather and sports reports remotely in Durango.
Brian Dahlstrom said he traveled 2,800 miles from Connecticut to watch the start of the bike race. It was the first time he has seen a professional bike race.
“It’s about what I expected,” he said. “Great enthusiasm.”
Those in attendance, visitors and locals alike, seemed pleased by Durango’s organization and preparedness.
“I’m impressed at how Durango set this up the last two days,” said Sherilyn Gourley of Breckenridge. “The town has done a marvelous job. The vibe is great.”
Meanwhile, Gourley’s husband, Todd, admired the cyclists’ cardiovascular endurance and ability to withstand physical discomfort.
“My butt hurts just thinking about (riding 125 miles in a few hours),” he said. “But that’s why they’re professionals. The riders love the challenge, the crowd, everything.”
Not everyone knew what to expect. Some were amazed at the number of support vehicles and everything that goes into supporting a major pro race, said Gaige Sippy, director of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic.
“The first time I went to a big event like this, I was just in awe of the entourage that goes with it. That’s the part you don’t necessarily see when you’re watching it on TV.
He said: “If you look back on the history in town, there were a couple of milestones here, and this is a big one.”
email@example.com. Herald Staff Writer Luke Groskopf contributed to this report.
DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald
SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald