It’s chilly and overcast in Aspen, and wonderfully deserted—except, of course, for the coffee shop around the corner from the start. Peach’s Corner Cafe is already at line-out-the-door status, and the assembled clientele seem unlikely to correct that. Though to be fair, expecting a non-native speaker to comprehensibly replicate the faux-French American English pronunciation of “croissant” in such an acoustically chaotic environment is an awfully big ask.
I’m pimped on the doorway hole-shot by an overbuilt, three-wheeled stroller whose pilots make me think the Madewell and J Crew catalogue wrap parties must have gone long last night. I reach for my phone (“I’m racist against strollers”) but the bleary-eyed couple pit-crews it almost immediately, mom popping the buckles and pushing the stroller to an empty space at end of the counter, dad hoisting the squirming pink larvae to his hip before it has a chance to do something stupid with its newfound freedom. I suppose it easy to be cynical about these things.
The coffee is weak, and the breakfast bagel sandwich not made with love, but the service is fast, and on four hours of sleep (watching the livestream of a Vice News crew in Ferguson have more trouble with media credentials than I did was surprisingly compelling) I can’t complain. I’m sitting out on the terrace, ‘gramming LOLs from the local dead-tree tinhorns, eavesdropping on the table next to me.
I suspect they must be Very Important—the Pro Challenge is certainly front-and-center in their conversation, though only as a disordered melange of fundraising rides, celeb glad-handing, and dinner events. One has strongly positive feelings on Bob Roll. Another will be replacing several athletes’ Road Ids before the start.
I’m there early today—the media “Start Tent”, a Republican National Convention “free speech zone” for the Pro Challenge’s whale-shit media pass holders, hasn’t even been set up yet. That’s fine, though—a few raindrops have kept the crowds down, and it’s easy to stroll the team cars—though the riders themselves seem understandably reluctant about stepping out into the weather a moment before they have do.
“Holy cow—is that Cosmo Catalano?”
Except Cannondale’s Ted King, who’s leaning against the squad’s Lexus SUVs, one of several Gentleman’s Rentals from the title sponsor.
He’s kitted up in arm warmers and what has to be a Euro-small vest, still rail-thin from the Tour. The collar is fully zipped, which has the unintended effect of making his head appear just slightly too large, something Jim Henson would have caricatured had he ever come across the need for an ultra-fit, watts-cranking Muppet.
“The best cycling commentary, hands down.” he continued.
“You flatter me, sir”.
“Not flattery. I just speak the truth. “
Cyclingnews’ Laura Weislo is in earshot, talking with King’s former teammate Timmy Duggan, a Colorado native, newly-minted Cannondale brand embassador, and event VIP. I’m hoping she’s hearing this, but they’re in focused conversation on today’s stage and the looming weather.
“Yeah, I’m hoping that’ll make today easier for me” Duggan said in his understated Rocky Mountain rasp. “It’s hard not to be racing, but if it rains”—casting a look in King’s direction—”I’ll be following along in a nice car, warm and dry…”
“C’mon, it’s Colorado. It only ever rains for 15 minutes at a time here, right?”
I nod at the sentiment—it’s certainly my impression as a recent New England transplant, but Timmy and Laura exchange a glance that suggests otherwise.
The weather isn’t the only thing keeping the crowds down. Today’s stage finish is in Crested Butte—some media and pretty much all television production had driven out there the night before. It’s a trip I will not be making. After today’s start, I’m heading back to Fort Collins to await the Boulder-Denver stage on the final day. My budget for vanity journalism only reaches so far, especially while my current IRL revenue hovers around zero.
The upside of a start-only appearance on a point-to-point day is that, in terms of getting access to the race, the low-level media pass is much more useful—no fan mob, no overzealous security to evade, and a reasonably good view from the Start Tent. Plus, there’s a pretty decent spread of food and beverages, which hasn’t escaped the notice of the riders, some of whom have hopped the fence after sign-in to grab a quick bite.
Staging and call-ups are largely—no, completely—ceremonial. King and Optum’s Jesse Anthony sit next to me in folding chairs and nibble bagels while Dave Towle’s proclamations of whose dreams came true yesterday resonate off the courthouse’s Victorian brickwork, this winter colony still largely empty, even at 11am.
As the final countdown enters its closing seconds—they go from several minutes out—the two riders climb back out to their waiting bikes, and join 20 or 30 others who’ve massed about 100ft ahead of the official start line, ready to do actual work in the early going. After two neutral laps, the race is gone, heading down the valley to Carbondale, where coincidentally, Cyclocosm was founded, just under a decade ago.
I’ll leave you with what I can recall of the lost bits from my conversation with Mike Creed. We were wrapping up on the topic of Creed’s approach to directing—very hands-on, setting and reinforcing goals for each individual rider—and whether or not that reflected what he himself had missed as an athlete. Mike agreed, and elaborated (exact quotes obviously not preserved) with a story:
Back when I was riding, there was this rider, and I mean, he is just killing it with hustle. Not a huge talent, but definitely making things happen, riding with pure piss and vinegar. He made it to a WorldTour Tour team, and I can remember telling him, “you know, man—you can’t ever get complacent. Like, it’s great that you’re here, and you’re killing it, but the moment that you get comfortable, it’s over. You’re done.”
And I think that’s a lot of what makes success, kinda regardless of where you are in terms of talent or level of the sport. Like, it’s not even laziness—it’s human nature. You’re going to try to get comfortable. And as soon as you do, you lose that edge. It’s all about finding what’s going to give you that drive and that hustle to keep coming at it like you did when it was new. That’s what gets you the results.
Complimentary hotel room coffee is shit and it always will be shit, but I make it anyway because I hate the outside world. It’s 9am, and I’ve finally crawled out of my bed at the Snowmass Mountain Chalet. I’m in a single with renovated bathroom, but the rest of the decor falls somewhere between Boogie Nights and Hot Tub Time Machine, as interpreted by Ranger Rick. Every vertical or horizontal column, from bedpost to drawer handle, sports a well-shellacked layer of faux pine bark.
On the plus side, the hotel is a mere 200 feet from a New Belgium Brewing ranger station. It feels a little silly to drive four hours west to consume beer made 10 minutes from my house, but when you’ve just finished 38 mile ride at 8000 ft on no water and a packet of Margarita Clif Blocks, you’re a lot less concerned about these things.
I’d been up too late—not drinking, mind you, but fretfully smashing my brain against http://cyclocosm.com’s oddly unresponsive web server. Protip—fatigue is a poor troubleshooter, and much to my dismay, the cabal of magical gnomes that secretly power the Internet had not seen fit to deus ex this particular machina during my 7 hours of slumber.
I cut my losses and got to banging out the previous day’s dispatch, cutting a few Mike Creed quotes that probably would have gotten us both in trouble and speeding up the pace as I really need to get into town—that is, Aspen—10 miles away.
In addition to hating television, I also hate driving, and parking in particular. There were moments of panic at the sight of the “GARAGE CLOSED” sign in front of Aspen’s only parking structure; me whipping my car between the tiny sidestreets with as much fury as can be mustered at 15mph, squinting incensed at the Magna Carta-length regulations signposted above them. But after watching a GMC-branded galleon creep its way around the “closed” garage gate, I snuck in behind it, presented my Media pass, and was handed a ticket.
It was the only benefit the pass would bring me all day.
“Does this get me in here?” I asked ProChallenge polo shirt at the hospitality tent.
I didn’t even want to get in. I just wanted to yell at Mavic tech leaning on the barricades. He used to run the LBS in my home town, and his hair ran grayer, thinner, and more disorganized every time I saw him. It was information he needed to hear. From me.
Polo shirt cradled my pass like an appraiser humoring an eight-year-old who’d handed him doubloon of foil-covered chocolate.
Now that there were actually people in the village depart, it became observationally obvious that having the default “media pass” at the USA Pro Challenge was the equivalent of the stick-on pilot’s wings airlines used to give children. No hospitality tent. No broadcasting area. No staging area. No podium backstage. No post-finish interviews. Sure, you could go to the press room, but so could anyone with modest English proficiency who’d bothered to shower in the past three days. There were, literally, small children and guys driving catering trucks with better access than I had.
The only meaningful distinction I got over “tourist” was entry to Trek’s #FarewellJens party at a El Rincon, a Mexican restaurant on the final corner of the race; an ancillary benefit of my latest The Week in Bike sponsorship. All inclusive food and beer in an uncrowded, course-convenient space is tough to beat, but despite a few entertaining minutes gabbing with Breckenridge Cartwright (of Pez Cycling, once upon a time) it was unlikely to result in any actual journalism.
So I strolled the boulevard with the scrubs, watching as they waited awkwardly outside team buses they couldn’t even confirm were occupied (many weren’t—several teams simply rode in from their hotels), while I attempted to find new angles on the same crap as every other smartphone-toting dweeb. I figured I must be doing something right when, 10 minutes after I ‘grammed a guess-who shot of Taylor Phinney’s leg, a swarm of vested photogs descended on the recuperating BMC rider, lenses trained on that same appendage.
Tim Johnson, umpteen-time US ‘cross champ, underappreciated race commentator, and long-time Cyclocosm fan, was on incognito mode, black Red Bull cap, zip-up hoodie, and wide, dark shades. I walked up to shake his hand.
“You doing TourTracker today?”
“No such luck, I’m afraid.” Of course he wasn’t. Not with P&P on-site.
“So you’re just up for…”
A middle-aged man broke into the conversation. He rode a mountain bike and was accompanied by two, somewhat less-outgoing companions. Eneregetic crow’s feet peeked out between his unstylishly-undersized sunglasses and gray-speckled temples.
“Hey man, I just really want to say I love what you do. Got totally addicted to it last year, really into The Week in Bike, too. Great work, keep it up.”
He turned to Tim. “And you’re Tim Johnson.” Full stop.
It was, without question, the greatest fan compliment I had ever received.
I ran into a number of other acquaintances as I pinballed between team buses, some I hadn’t seen in quite some time—and most with better credentials. But with riders percolating down a staging area that I had no access to in ever greater numbers, it was clear I’d do better focusing my attention on the press room.
“Burrito?” asked guy a Road Bike Action shirt, pointing toward the foil-wrap parked next to my laptop.
“Turkey wrap,” I said.
“Again? Three consecutive meals?!”
“Same spread as yester—”
The press room might have had six journalists in it, and we were implicitly shitting on our otherwise-magnificent host hotel in front of at least as many Pro Challenge polos. Anyone who wasn’t actively “shushing” was giving looks that, if vocalized, would have been far, far worse.
“Same as yesterday,” I repeated, in a significantly softer tone.
That was the thing with the press room. It’s cool, and it’s a unique experience, but it’s maybe not the most conducive to creativity. I did as much as I could to meta-report, but the fact is, it’s not a great place to watch the event—certainly not compared to my multi-screen setup at home. Adding value is tough when your Twitter app obscures your TourTracker, which in turn fills your browser so you can’t Google things.
There was also the irritation of there being a bike race 150 ft from my head. The fact that I was covering it more poorly than I had from three time zones and 2000 miles away hung on me like an ill-fitting shirt. I packed up my laptop and stepped out to the street.
There are some deeply suppressed recesses of my mind where I realize it’s all bullshit. The correct hashtag. The appropriate credentials. The idea that people are individuals with emotions and not aberrant-yet-predictable bits of self-replicating code that can be manipulated to your advantage. It’s not a place I like to go, but I know the way to get there all the same.
“You know the tab’s been closed out, right? So it’s cash bar now.”
Fucking hell. My one VIP experience and I blew it on day-old turkey wraps and a #thanksobama joke.
“In God We Trust,” I joked, opening my wallet and flashing a smile I hoped was transparent.
The crowd at El Rincon was thinning out with the Jens party winding down. I put back my beer with prejudice, and felt it gurgle against the bottom of my stomach, just half a turkey wrap to keep it company. I set up my laptop. I tethered my phone, kicking down to 4G to avoid network congestion. I tweeted jokes. I thought cynical things to myself, about work, and jobs, and money, as Phil Liggett’s misidentifications echoed through the half-empty bar.
Back in the sunlight. 12k to go. Course fencing in the way. My credentials might be bullshit, but the spectators don’t know that. The backpack drew a few stares as I clanked the lattice of orange steel back into its foot on the opposite side of the road. Toss the bag in the press room. No one’s gonna steal my five-year-old laptop in that spread of 3k camera gear.
Follow people who look like they know what they’re doing—especially if they’re carrying a big camera. Run, but not like you’re in a hurry. Wear the sort of intense expression that suggests anyone who looks too hard at you will be hearing it from their boss the next morning.
And suddenly I’m on the course, just after the finish, passing the scrum of vested photogs. I flip the pass around so no one can see the grey border and all-caps “MEDIA” that proves I shouldn’t be there. I shake hands with Manual for Speed. Just another day at the office.
Of course, I’ve also missed the last few kilometers of actual racing. From Dave Towle’s hollering, it seems clear that splits have formed. How, when, and by whom are all lost to me—and, I would imagine, to anyone else making their way into the paradoxical, gated calm past the end of the race course. Is this why interview questions always seem to be so banal? Maybe I just shouldn’t have that beer.
A fist-pumping Kiel Reijnen rips through the calm, tailed closely by a bar-pounding Alex Howes. A gap. More riders. Seconds later, I’m whirlwind of sweat-soaked, spandex-clad ectomorphs, hacking and spitting as their bodies slow long enough for their lungs to catch up with the raspy mountain air. Phil Gaimon puts a foot down three feet in front of me, and I have nothing to ask. Last time I saw him was a lap ago, an anonymous member of the Garmin train, wedged in behind Cannondale, with a simple group sprint looming, race firmly in hand. What have I got now beyond “hey, uh…I hear you like cookies?”
I do what I can to capture something unique—race organizers trying to track down the Best Young Rider. Chaos from a VIP tent as the production crew tries to sort out the order of jersey presenters. Non-NBSCN entities catching an interview with Danny Summerhill over the specially-prepared, network-neutral backdrop. But when your presence at the venue relies on general chaos and the fact that your credentials are facing the wrong way, you can only elbow so hard.
I hammer out a live-tweet of post-race presentation and press conference quotes. Most of the riders are quite savvy; a lot of their lines are sharp, funny, and 140 characters or less. But surprisingly few people are tweeting them.
This was the lasting impression as the day wound down in the pressroom—that for all the changes in technology, the journalists hunched over wide-ranging vintages of Mac Book Pro were doing more or less the same thing as they had a generation prio at the Red Zinger Classic. You could almost hear the clack and ping of Smith Coronas echoing among the neatly-ordered rows.
It’s not that some technology wasn’t there—spying over shoulders, I saw all manner of CMS, piles of fresh, high-res photos, and infinite scrolls of transcriptions and race notes. But what I didn’t see was anyone working back through the footage—uploaded a few minutes after the finish by the latest incarnation of the up-again-down-again CyclingHub YouTube channel.
I suppose that with proper credentials, maybe it’s easy to entertain the delusion that you don’t need it.
LOVED the Creed interview - Pulling an #OpenMic on Mike. Wish we could have heard the last few minutes. Now that you're a serious-ish journalist covering the USProChallenge, maybe you need to get a dedicated recorder...
Yes, I definitely do. My phone is due for an upgrade this fall, and strolling the venue pre-race put me down to 30% battery on photos alone—plus it’s prone to mystery crash at anything below 60.
I should have recorded on my laptop, but even with a new battery, it’s 2-3 hours tops. Understandably, most of my equipment budget (ha) went into a desktop that can crush video editing.
Independence Pass is a festival of bad ideas. Jaguars careen past dilapidated RVs on the sinkholed, guardrail-less climb from Twin Lakes. Vanity-plated sedans brake-hump around oncoming traffic through the multitude of centerline-less sections down the other side. The 1899 abandonment of the mining community that gave the pass its name ought to have been a clear enough signal that this “low” point in the Sawatch Range (12,095 ft above sea level) simply wasn’t cut out for the modern era.
Tucked in against the western foot of this chaos is Aspen, and if you didn’t know that, you could have probably inferred it from the train of over-equipped cyclists unsteadily toddling along in both directions. One might forgive a bit of plodding up a 4,000 foot climb, but I assure you, the 15 mph carbon-rimmed coast-and-brake on the way back brooks no explanation.
I lived in the Valley back in 2005, and the Aspen of the early-aughts still clung to the notion that deep down, it was still a scruffy mining town, just one whose fantastic skiing and induplicable vibe drew the rich and powerful of the world, and occasionally, converted them to mountain hippies. But that summer, watching—listening to, really—an elite crowd of celebrities gathered in a fortified compound to watch one of the region’s more eccentric residents be shot out of a cannon to the tune of “Mr. Tambourine Man”, I knew that the days of this delusion were numbered.
This point was driven home by my walk into the Hotel Jerome to pick up my media credentials. The decor is decidedly western—no shortage of elk, moose, and mule deer were harmed in the designing of this space—but with a meticulous richness that would have been a bit strong for the Palace of Versailles, let alone the American West. It’s what the Bella Union might have become had Deadwood discovered a deliriously expensive leisure activity to keep the money coming before the gold ran out.
“Name”? asked a race official, attired in a crisp USA Pro Challenge polo.
I gave him my name, and after signing and providing contact info, he handed me a pass that described me as a “staff writer”. I’d left the position field blank on the accreditation request because most of the work I actually do on the site—sysops, developer, producer—would probably come across as me trying to be a jackass, and I needed to keep a low profile.
The Grand Ballroom, site of a kick-off press conference about 45 minutes off, was underlit, and photo jocks were sharing tips in a lingo that sounded a whole lot like sore elbows and empty bank accounts. Band-aiding my current site uptime problems by SSH-ing into the Cyclocosm servers and hitting sudo service php5-fpm restart over and over again was a pain in the ass, but hell—at least it’s free.
“Cosmo Catalano, Cyclocosm.com—how did you get a media pass?”
“Uh, I was on the list”
A weak response. The transition between command-line brain and funny brain tends to take a minute or two. And I might actually have been on a pre-approved media list, since I’d been receiving emails from the promoters for the better part of a year.
“Laura Weislo, of Cyclingnews, by the way.” We shook hands. It’d been in the back of my mind since entering the press room that I’d signed up for three days circulating among people I’d spent the better part of a decade insulting. Less amicable introductions are always a concern.
The press conference started late—organizer put casual blame on late-arriving riders—and I got my live-tweet on. The organizers managed to keep the “we-have-no-idea-what-were-talking-about” missteps to a minimum, no one asked about Lance, and in 45 minutes, we were done.
Roaming the streets of Aspen in the offseason is a fairly surreal experience. The town is actually quite pleasant—sure, a few places aren’t open, many are on reduced hours, but it’s comfortable. There’s space to breathe and nary a line to be seen. The effect was magnified several times over today the presence of truly massive race infrastructure, promotional tents, and production vans, all lying in wait for the coming influx of humanity. It felt like Aspen was a 14-year-old in an ill-fitting suit.
At the center of the promotional village, Phil was slowly walking a stage, warming up a modest crowd with tales of Tours past, his recitation worn smooth through hundreds of recitations. Relaxed and affable with his mind on autopilot, he was clearly in his element. That he hadn’t delivered anything even approaching race analysis in a decade seemed, in this instance, less a sign of decline and more a studied business decision.
I drove back to Snowmass to interview Mike Creed. His lower-division SmartStop Team had delivered a dream season thus far. “Yeah, man” he began, as we walked to the team directors meeting. “My mechanic said basically that if we won a stage at Utah, I’d should shit my pants, leave the keys in the ignition, put the team credit card on the dash and just walk out of the team car and off into the woods. I’d become be this legend of Creed.”
The directors meeting took place in a nearly windowless conference room, under the ugliest imaginable fluorescent orange-green haze. It was about as dull as you’d imagine, redeemed occasionally by turns of phrase like “image of the sport” , presented in this case in regard to mechanics hanging out windows. Despite the morbid spectator sport that’s developed around watching the UCI kneecap itself, the commissaires were dull, earnest, and specific in their regulations.
SmartStop got a shitty draw—the 14th name drawn out of the champagne bucket that determined first-day team order. The ceremony was clearly not intended as a public presentation, with names drawn first-to-last, sucking the suspense from what might have otherwise been a gleefully engaging process. “Yeah but after tomorrow were gonna be first” quipped a mechanic, apparently not sharing Creed’s deep belief in “The Jinx”.
Creed and I finally sat down to the interview—cut a few minutes short unbeknownst to me by a glitch in my phone recorder—and afterward, I headed out to ride with Chris Mahoney of NBCSN. It’s a common misconception that I hate NBC—it’s really more the entire medium of television. At any rate, I’ve done a bunch of riding with Chris in Connecticut, he’s good company, and really, what rebel would turn down a glimpse at the inner workings of the Death Star?
Chris wanted to ride Maroon Bells, which I’d done in a race back when I lived here. It was more or less familiar, though I’d forgotten the “marmot crossing” sign as a decent indicator of when the road got tougher. I managed to hang on to the top, carrying on the conversation between gasps, and we ripped back down the descent into the valley in an overly-optimistic effort to beat the sunset back to Snowmass.
Hard to pinpoint exactly when the wheels came off—might have been my attempt to find a non-existent bike trail across Buttermilk, or his to big-ring the Owl Creek switchbacks, but at some point, it became clear that we were both pretty worked and it was now officially dark. Still, I’d brought along my Knogs, and we back-tracked our route using my GPS as Chris’ conversation became progressively less coherent as the bonk took hold.
Lucky for him, NBC’s relatively lush accommodations were about 400 feet further down the mountain than where I’d parked, and I crawled up the last angry pitches in Snowmass’ absurd sea of parking lots to my car on my own.