If you thought Colorado’s arduous terrain wasn’t enough for a bike race to deal with, throw in slick gravel roads, a thundering monsoon and debilitating altitude and you’ve got a proper battle on your hands.
The opening one hundred kilometres weren’t particularly eventful, as the bunch kept the breakaway’s gap in check. Instead, the gravel roads in the latter part of the stage had been a talking point for some days. Locals reassured riders that they wouldn’t cause problems, but erring on the side of caution, 120 riders still jousted for the top positions in the melee. At the head of the peloton, I soon felt a sense of anti-climax: this wasn’t the carnage that I had expected. The sun-baked forest tracks were no more challenging than any of the tarmacked roads we would encounter.
As we climbed higher and higher up the final climb of Kebler Pass, the surrounding clouds began to darken and the peloton shrunk in size. After half an hour of climbing slowly up to 9,000ft, with another half an hour of ascending still to go, the summery conditions finally gave way to icy rain and wind. Most riders slipped back to the convoy to collect rain jackets and gloves, while other more hardy competitors forged on in their already-soaked summer clothing.
On cresting the summit of Kebler Pass, the select front group and one original breakaway rider met smooth, clean tarmac for most of the descent. We had only 15 kilometres left to race, most of which were downhill. We threaded our way down through dense fog, sweeping round chicanes. There was just a two-kilometre gravel section on the descent remaining, then we would finally be safe to climb up to the finish in Crested Butte. Team BMC ploughed through the mud trying to catch the lone crusader, now only 45 seconds ahead.
We soon bounced back onto asphalt from the dirt track and our filthy clothes began to rinse clean as fresh water sprayed off the tyres. Then, as some sort of painful joke, the race organisers blocked the road and brought the group of riders to a skidding stop. Voices were raised and tempers flared as riders protested the neutralisation of the race.
We had managed to conquer all the slippery gravel roads unscathed, so why was there a need to stop the race now, with only the short climb to the finish remaining? Confused, cold and angry riders busied around the gridlocked race convoy, trying to find any warm, dry clothing they could in desperate attempts to beat the elements.
After what seemed like an endless wait in the deluge, the solo breakaway rider was released from the commissaires’ clutches and allowed to continue on his bid for glory. When his 45-second lead was reached, the chasing group of some 30 riders (and those who had caught up on the descent when we stopped) were given the go ahead to carry on, but our now-disorganised nature had disrupted the pursuit.
After close to five hours in the saddle, an underdog emerged successful in truly epic conditions. He won by seven seconds to hold off a fragmented group of seasoned professional riders. There’s been much debate on whether the race stoppage was necessary and whether it helped or hindered the day’s winner.
But one point every rider did agree on was that the gravel roads, combined with the weather, had lived up to our expectations and added a heroic factor to the stage. We won’t forget the second day of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge any time soon.
Hugh Carthy is a professional cyclist for Rapha Condor JLT. He has signed for Spanish squad Caja Rural for 2015.