On Monday, Aug. 22, Colorado Springs will kick off what may become the state's largest spectator sporting event.
Some of the world's top cyclists will be here. Visitors will fill our hotels and restaurants. Roads will close. A small city of booths will spring up. Parties and competitions will fill some streets. International media will broadcast hours of live footage across the nation, and to as many as 100 other countries.
On that day, our city will be known globally for just one thing: being home to the prologue of the first-ever USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
Heard of it?
Don't be sheepish if you haven't. Only in the past few weeks has word been getting out locally. And that's at least partly by design: Local organizers wanted to wait until after the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament at The Broadmoor to start their most aggressive marketing.
But now the road race, which will extend over seven days and 518 miles around Colorado, is blowing up. Organizers recently announced that 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans, along with second-place finisher Andy Schleck and third-place Fränk Schleck, will all compete here. That's the first time the Tour de France's top three have participated in a single, same-year race on American soil, and it's a coup, especially since they all chose this event over Spain's well-established Vuelta a España. The big names will only help NBC and Versus, which are sending crews to broadcast 25 hours of live TV, plus delivering online coverage.
Projections on just how big the Cycling Challenge will be, range wildly. Organizers say 50,000 — no, 100,000; no, 250,000; no, 500,000 — people will descend on Colorado Springs to watch the time trial that will run from Garden of the Gods through Old Colorado City and into downtown.
Economic impact predictions have been breathless, too. Tour co-chair and CEO Shawn Hunter says that he wouldn't be surprised to see a $100 million economic impact on Colorado, akin to the Amgen Tour of California's impact on the Golden State.
But the truth is, no one knows.
Across the state, and locally, hundreds of volunteers and enthusiasts have spent the past year mapping out every detail of this race, from road closures to stage set-ups to fundraisers to bike-themed entertainment. And for them, the decisive moment is near. How the crowds and the world respond to the Pro Cycling Challenge will determine whether it goes down as a mass victory or a missed opportunity.
Why not try?
According to Hunter, the story goes like this: A couple years ago, seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong took off from his Aspen home for a nice ride through the mountains. Upon returning, Armstrong wondered, "Why doesn't Colorado have a major stage race?"
So Armstrong did what any one of us might do if we had a great idea: He picked up the phone and called the governor, then Bill Ritter.
Ritter, himself an avid cyclist, was game. He and Armstrong began building a group to put together a race blueprint. Among that inner circle were Ken and Tom Gart, founders of several chains of sports stores.
With a loose plan in place, the group went seeking sponsors, hitting up big names like Coors and Qwest before ringing Colorado-based Quiznos Restaurants. Quiznos founder Rick Schaden not only was willing to make Quiznos the race's lead sponsor — donating millions — but he and his father, Richard Schaden, also agreed to buy the race, ensuring it would continue for years. (Reflecting Schaden's strong influence, the race originally was named "The Quiznos Pro Challenge.")
Steve Johnson, CEO of Springs-headquartered USA Cycling, was involved early on, and says he was immediately reminded of Colorado's past glories. The Red Zinger/Coors Classic road race blossomed in the 1970s and '80s, before it lost funding and died out. This seemed like a second chance for Colorado.
"It's a huge deal to bike racing in America, too," he says, "because when you bring an event of this caliber it tends to capture the hearts and minds of young people."
Hunter, an expert in setting up these types of events, was brought on to help propel the event into the upper echelons in the cycling world. Indeed, he was able to attract the major sponsors, media interest and top athletes that the race's founders had hoped for. "A lot of it is relationships and history," Hunter says.
He notes that he spent the last week of the Tour de France talking to athletes and their managers about the challenge, which will be the highest-altitude road race in the world.
"I think the more and more they heard, the more and more they got excited," he says.
Meanwhile, requests for proposals were sent out to cities across Colorado, seeking their best offers for hosting a stage of the race. One landed at the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau a year ago.
Creating a celebration
If you know the name Chris Carmichael, here's why: He's a former Olympian and bicycle racer who owns the local company Carmichael Training System.
Oh, and he coached Armstrong.
Needless to say, it didn't take Carmichael long to hear that these RFPs were landing across the state. He immediately brought the CVB together with a group of Colorado Springs power players, among them USA Cycling's Johnson; Nor'wood Development Group president Chris Jenkins; Meredith Vaughan, president and partner at Vladimir Jones advertising and marketing agency; former U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Jim Scherr (who now owns 776 Original Marketing); and local architect and race official Randy Shafer.
"Look," Carmichael remembers telling the group, "I think we have a good opportunity if we submit a bid to get a stage of this event."
And Carmichael didn't want just a stage. He wanted the prologue.
The prologue, a time trial, determines which racers get the lead spots for the rest of the tour. (See here for more explanation.) While all race stages are a day long, only the prologue and Vail's Stage 3 time trial stay in one city the whole day. And racers, media and fans tend to stake out the prologue site days ahead of time.
For Carmichael, that meant a chance to put on pre-race, bike-themed celebrations that could become a long-standing tradition of fun (and profit) for the city. That was important because there's no guarantee the Springs will always host a race stage; organizers say the course will change slightly year to year.
"What we'd like to see," Carmichael says, "is, eventually, when the race moves on from Colorado Springs, we're left with this cycling fest."
All of these ideas went into shaping the Springs' RFP, which was the only proposal to request a specific race stage.
The RFP had certain requirements: The prologue city needed to be able to host the race and a high-dollar gala, meet hotel needs, and put together a local organizing committee to plan the details.
Colorado Springs' proposal went well beyond those requirements.
Carmichael called friends in the bike and racing world and set up a week's worth of activities, from street parties to kids' races. The CVB hustled to ensure that hotel space, discounts and complimentary rooms were available. A volunteer local organizing committee, headed by Carmichael, was formed. It would spend the next year planning the event — if the proposal was chosen.
In November, the good news came.
Breaking it down
Planning an event of this scope has an Ocean's Eleven feel to it. Everyone has a part to play individually — and if, for some reason, any entity can't pull off its role, that ruins it for everyone else. Which is why it was important to bring in strong players.
Ten key people volunteered their time — in some cases, thousands of hours — to be part of the local organizing committee (which is run through its own nonprofit, the Pikes Peak Cycling Society).
Carmichael is the George Clooney/Brad Pitt of the operation, ensuring all pieces fit together. As for his team:
• Paige Carmichael, Carmichael's wife and founder of the nonprofit Kids on Bikes, filled the role of outreach/education director. One of her main jobs was making sure booklets designed to teach kids about cycling and racing, produced for the race, ended up in local children's hands. That meant contacting every area school district superintendent and making arrangements, as well as hitting up summer camps, the YMCA and the Boy Scouts. She's also been involved in helping volunteers.
Paige has a special interest in seeing the prologue do well financially. Any profits left over from the day's event that aren't applied to next year's bid will be donated to Kids on Bikes, which gives bikes to children experiencing hardships and those who meet academic goals.
• Steve Locke, USA Field Hockey CEO, serves as ancillary events director. Since bringing special events and celebrations around the prologue was a major push by Carmichael, Locke had a lineup in place when he took the position. Each scheduled event has its own organizers and fundraisers; Locke's job was to act as a "clearinghouse" and make sure all was coming together smoothly. (For a list of events leading up to the race, see here.)
• Vaughan and Christina Brodsly, both of Vladimir Jones, serve as marketing director and PR/media director, respectively. All told, Vladimir Jones has put close to 10,000 hours — free of charge — into the Pro Cycling Challenge. The effort has involved all of Vladimir's departments, from digital to creative to account services. Vladimir has marketed through Facebook and Twitter, and more recently through billboards, print, digital, radio and TV advertising. It's sent press releases as updates about the race have surfaced, and reps have reached out in person at local cycling and running events.
• Scherr has been sponsorship director. He was able to use his marketing company's resources, as well as his vast social network, to bring in major sponsors. "We're still closing out our sponsorship sales platform, and we think more companies will join us as we go forward," he says. "But there's been a really good response."
Nonprofits were hyped, too. El Pomar Foundation gave $25,000 to the event, and the Downtown Development Authority, whose staff planned the People's Pedal Party, a street party the night before the prologue, gave $50,000.
• With decades as a race official, Shafer easily stepped into the technical director role. He worked with the city to ensure all permits were filled. It was his job to lease parking lots and figure out where entertainment platforms would be set up. He also had to make certain all temporary structures could be erected and torn down quickly, to reduce traffic interruptions. He planned for fencing and TV platforms, booths and the finish line.
The city, meanwhile, agreed to give an in-kind $60,000 gift: police officer time, emergency services and traffic control. Officials also guaranteed that medians and roads along the race route would be in good repair. The Downtown Business Improvement District spruced up the area with lots of new flower planters.
• Carmichael's Stephanie Leclerc filled the role of VIP/hospitality director, and was Chris Carmichael's right-hand woman. Leclerc was in charge of doing all the hotel booking for VIPs and coordinating the race celebration dinner. She made sure sponsors got their perks, distributed information packets and gifts, and took care of all the small details of the prologue.
• Colorado Springs Utilities' Denise Sulski and the USOC's Alicia McConnell have worked together as volunteer directors. Their role was much easier than they thought it would be, McConnell explains. In early 2011, a request for volunteers was put online. Around April, McConnell was working with Vladimir Jones to develop a promotional message to attract volunteers when she realized they already had too many — 400 people had signed up online. They took down the website.
"We're such a strong cycling community, and you think about all the nonprofits we have, we also have a strong volunteer base," McConnell explains.
Since April, the volunteer coordinators have been sending regular messages to volunteers, who also play a huge part. They're currently delivering informational fliers along the race route. On race day, they'll serve as parking attendants and course marshals, keeping pedestrians off the racecourse.
Beyond the finish line
After the first USA Pro Cycling Challenge ends on Sunday, Aug. 28, in Denver, another type of work will begin.
Statewide organizers will conduct an economic impact study to gauge just how much the race is worth to Colorado in cold, hard cash. They'll try to figure out what kind of crowds the race can expect to see in the future, and if this really could be Colorado's biggest sporting event, or even America's biggest road race.
Similar questions will be asked locally. Besides "How much did we make?" the other big question for the Springs will be, "Is the race coming back?"
And the answer, if things go as well as it's thought they will, is likely "yes." Hunter says our city, with its markets and amenities, will "always be at the top of the list" even as the stages shift year-to-year.
Which brings to mind other local considerations. As City Councilor Tim Leigh puts it in an e-mail, "[E]verything we do in our city is done for at least 2 reasons: 1) to make our city interesting and to 2) attract new business."
On the "interesting" front, Carmichael says the race presents an opportunity to continue developing that week-long bike fest — a celebration that the city could become known for, and a source of community pride.
Shafer, too, sees that potential. He helped coordinate the setup of big-screen TVs downtown to broadcast the race, and even that has gotten him thinking bigger.
Why, he asks, couldn't the Springs do that sort of thing more often? Why not show sporting events outside more frequently? Why not "treat downtown like a living room?"
As far as attracting new business, Mayor Steve Bach sees the potential to get more people interested in the city as the race helps to shift the city's "brand." The Springs has long been thought of as a military town, or as the evangelical Vatican, but many locals would prefer that outsiders associate the Springs with outdoors, sports and even sports medicine.
"Beyond those who visit in person, many more will see the beauty of Colorado Springs through the live television coverage," Bach states in an e-mail. "The event itself will have immediate economic impact to our community, but we expect the long-term impact to also be powerful as we continue to position ourselves as a destination of choice for sporting enthusiasts and participants."
No question, a lot has to go right. (For one thing, though the event will take place rain or shine, a little sun would be nice.) But if it does, what happens on the 22nd could be a prologue to something much bigger than a bike race.