12:29am

Fri August 23, 2013
USA Pro Challenge

Inside the Peloton: The USA Pro Challenge from a Team Car

All week, the USA Pro Challenge has flashed across TV, computer, and mobile screens… thanks to a film crew on motorcycles. Now we bring you what it’s like to be, literally, in the middle of the peloton. On Stage 2 of the 2013 USA Pro Challenge, Aspen Public Radio’s Elise Thatcher rode in a team car with the Champion System pro cycling team.

  

Every day, before a race begins, the Champion System team meets in their RV. A handful of cyclists sit quietly, suited up in racing jerseys, looking pensive. General Manager Ed Beamon lays out the strategy.

“Take control of the field early, if some of the big guys are going up the road. You guys don’t need to panic, right?”

Beamon’s been running cycling teams for two decades.

“Pay attention to Radio Shack and Garmin, really be wanting you guys conserving and thinking about the finish…”

Team Champion System is a pro continental team-- a kind of mid level category for pro cyclists. And they’re the only team of that kind based in China… it’s part of an effort to grow the pro cycling community throughout Asia. As minutes tick down to the starting gun, team staffers pile in two cars. Beamon drives the first one, mechanic Chris Davidson comes along, and they let me join in.  There’s so much joking around that we barely hear the official start… soon though, we’re rolling, taking laps around downtown Aspen.

“And I’d like to get started with a roll call for the teams in caravan order. Team Cannondale…”

The voice of the race radio is of a woman who is riding ahead in one of the official lead cars.  As the race proceeds she reports what’s happening at the front of the peloton.  Riding with her is an officials known as a Commissaire.   

As we climb up Highway 82, towards Independence Pass, riders that can’t keep up with the peloton begin to drop back… including one from our team, named Thomas.  Ed Beamon gives encouragement.

“Thomas, just good rhythm, use the cars, aight? And just steady.”

Beamon is telling him to ride in amongst the cars, drafting and saving energy. And, Beamon says, that’s not cheating.

“It’s part of the rhythm of the race you know. The cars are essential, we have to be here, and as long as we’re here, there’s not reason to force them to sit out there. And to be able to come off the back of the field, and know you’re in trouble, but stay mentally strong enough to fight to maintain position so that you have the chance to come back, it’s actually a fairly dramatic mental challenge.”

Eventually the peloton rounds the curve and the top of Independence Pass appears. It is surrounded by spectators in lycra and costumes… And then everything quickly becomes more serious.

Chris Davidson: “So descent of Independence Pass now, between fifty and seventy miles an hour pretty consistently. Couple of switchbacks here…”

Race radio: “Riders down, riders down!! Bissell, you have a rider down, rider 113 I believe. We have a rider from Jelly Belly. One Jelly Belly rider one Bissell rider, just before the hairpin.”

<<honking>>

Ed Beamon: “So now, on the climb the field is broken up quite a bit. And so we have riders that are using the descent to try chase back to the main bunch. And it’s a pretty technical descent especially at the top. So everybody has to really be attentive right now… the drivers especially to make sure that they’re keeping an eye out for the riders that are coming up behind them, because at this point the riders can go faster than the cars can.”

Fortunately there aren’t any more crashes, at least that we come across. Then it seems nearly every rider takes a nature break in the flats below the pass. Riders here and there fully stop along the road to pee… and as they return to the road, the peloton picks up speed again. We hand off water bottles, and bags with food for the riders, sprint through Buena Vista, and head over to Fairplay. Then the race really begins. One of our riders, Chad Beyer, is in the breakaway -- that is, he’s in a small group that’s taken off in front of the rest of the riders. We zoom past all the other cars… even the peloton… and catch up with Beyer, who’s in good spirits. Sport Director Chris Wherry rolls down his window, and...

Chris Wherry: “Dude this is a great move for you, Chad.”

Chad Beyer: “This guys are barely riding.”

Wherry: “ I know, but it’s more than four minutes.”

Race radio: “...four minutes to the field..”

Wherry: “So, you want anything else?”

Beyer asks for a Coke to keep him going.

Wherry: “So dude, you’re like the best climber here. There’s a lot of all-arounders. But you’re one of the best guys, so. This is open.

Beyer: “I’ll play it smart.”

Wherry: “Yeah, just take it easy, and wait for the climb, huh?”

In the end, another rider made it to the top of the next mountain pass first-- but still a good-- and successful day for Team Champion System during the Pro Challenge.