Storm clouds built quickly over Cottonwood Pass early Wednesday morning, the day of the Queen's Stage of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Last year, we'd pedaled up Cottonwood Pass to watch the pro cyclists summit the only dirt road portion of the entire week-long race, only to be chased back down the mountain by lightning before the peloton arrived.
We decided not to chance a repeat performance this year, particularly since I wasn't sure how far up the Pass I could even get. The Lizard drove us and our bikes to Independence Pass, hoping we could find a parking spot and that I could pedal up to anywhere I could obtain a primo view of the cyclists during their second monstrous climb of the day.
The weather on Indy looked much more promising, and we lucked into a great parking spot before the Pass was closed to motorized traffic. I successfully pedaled the mountain bike 1.2 miles up the steepest portion of the Pass and found a great lookout without big crowds where we would be able to watch the race for a mile below us before watching the riders climb a mile up to us. I couldn't have asked for a better photography perch!
About half an hour before the breakaway riders, Tommy D and Francesco Colorado (yes, that's really his name!!!), came into view, the official mobile race announcer vehicle crossed the valley below us and then climbed up to where we were waiting, sharing awesome news that Tommy D had a three-minute lead on the peloton!
I had hoped George Hincapie could repeat last year's fete and win the Queen's Stage again, but Tom Danielson is a talented young rider from Colorado, and we rode with him last year in and chatted with him after the Durango Fall Blaze. He's a very down-to-earth guy, and we were excited to see him making his way up a difficult climb and making it look fun.
Wednesday's race leader Tejay van Garteren (in the yellow jersey) was next up the climb, leading the first fragment of the altitude-splintered peloton. He not only looked as if he was having the time of his life, he made steep climbing in thin air look easy!
Tommy D went on to win the stage, as well as the Day's King of the Mountain, which means top climber of the day, an honor he held onto for three more days. (In the end, Tommy D took home the Most Aggressive Rider's jersey and sixth place overall.)
That night we camped at Twin Lakes, at the base of Independence Pass. The next day's route would send the riders back up the Pass from the opposite direction, the very same way we had crossed the Pass in June during Ride the Rockies.
I like to take pictures of cyclists climbing because they aren't moving as fast, plus it's easier to focus the camera. Twin Lakes is such a picturesque venue, I decided I wanted to capture the riders with Colorado's beautiful scenery this time around. If weather conditions didn't deteriorate, we would have a spectacular view of Mount Hope reflecting in Twin Lakes as the riders sped by.
I practiced with the less-predictable iPhone shutter while The Lizard pedaled up Independence Pass prior to the start of the race. Clouds set in, and soon drizzle did wonderful things to my hair and skin. We hoped Mount Hope would shine again in time for our photos.
We were alone at this photo perch when the announcer silently approached. He had no one to announce to until he reached us. He delighted us with news of 39-year-old veteran Jens Voigt, another personal favorite, in a solo breakaway with a five-minute lead!!! ("Jens Voigt doesn't get road rash, the road gets Jens Rash.") Voigt went on to win the stage, proving age is no handicap! This guy can ride! And get this: he and his wife have SIX kids!!! And he has a sense of humor to boot.
We opted to ride Waterton Canyon rather than fight the crowds Saturday during Stage 6 from Golden to Boulder via the Peak to Peak Highway and an uphill finish on steep Flagstaff Mountain.
Upon our return from yet another photogenic tour of one of our favorite rides any time of year, we learned 39-year-old Levi Leipheimer, yes, you guessed it, another personal favorite, winner of last year's race and one of the best time trialists in the country, had smoked the rest of the competition and moved from fourth place to first place on the steepest climb of the day. (Oh, and Jens was in the breakaway yet again. Can you say, "Woohoo!") The final stage of the race would be a time trial through my work stomping grounds in downtown Denver. Levi won the time trial stage last year, and I hoped he could do it again this year. (He ended up taking eighth in the time trial and third overall.)
Not only is Levi another of our favorite riders, but earlier this year he was hit from behind by a car while on a solo training ride. His fibula was broken, and his bike was destroyed. Complicating matters in both the Tour of Utah and Colorado's race, Levi's Omega Pharma- QuickStep team did not send a full team to support him. Nevertheless, Stage 6 of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge is Levi's first win of the year! He came back from what could have been so tragic, proving not only does age not matter, but pain, suffering, recovery, rehab and determination can take you higher than you ever thought possible.
In that respect, this man has inspired me in ways I hope will take me to new heights. Literally. Here's to climbing again one day. I'll never give up Hope.