Thousands of spectators cheer as Elia Viviani of Team Liquigas-Cannondale races toward the finish line of Stage 4 of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Steamboat Springs on Aug. 26, 2011.

Photo by John F. Russell

Thousands of spectators cheer as Elia Viviani of Team Liquigas-Cannondale races toward the finish line of Stage 4 of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Steamboat Springs on Aug. 26, 2011.

Steamboat shows up in force for Stage 4 of Pro Cycling Challenge

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Steamboat finish

Riders come through the finish line during the USA Pro Cycling Challenge Steamboat stage finish Friday afternoon.

— Did that just happen?

Never have so many people partied so politely for so long on Lincoln Avenue just to experience six-tenths of a second of pure adrenaline. But when it finally arrived, it was intense.

Italian cyclist Elia Viviani, of Team Liquigas-Cannondale, flashed across the Sixth Street finish line barely a blink ahead of Denmark’s Michael Morkov, of Team Saxo Bank-Sungard. Dozens of other wolves in Lycra were fractions of a second behind. But in the end, the leaders of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge held onto their positions as they get set for Stage 5 on Saturday and the climb over Rabbit Ears Pass.

The crowd had been gradually building on Lincoln Avenue since 12:30 p.m. But it was hours later when the anticipation began to build with 5 kilometers to go in the race that began in Avon. Spontaneous shouts of approval broke out as familiar landmarks along Colorado Highway 131 south of Steamboat appeared on the jumbo TV screen.

Minutes later, when race announcers proclaimed the peloton was within the city limits and the race was shaping up to become a free-for-all, the patient crowd became electrified, banging cowbells and inflated plastic batons against the rigid advertising placards lining the last few blocks of the 82.8-mile stage.

A few motorcycles streaked down the street and suddenly the lead pack, including dozens of tightly bunched cyclists, flashed by with a single figure in lime green pulling ahead. And then it was over.

Cycling street fair

Right up until the sudden appearance of the racers, the scene on Steamboat’s main drag had resembled a street fair. Outdoor dining tables at the restaurants were packed, there was live music by local band Loose Change, and shoppers pondered the promise of energy supplements between sips of Sierra Nevada beer.

Steamboat’s Larry Handing, a mild-mannered accountant most days, was feeling frisky Friday, making a short appearance on Lincoln Avenue in a devilish clown suit. It was just a preview of things to come.

“I’m going to run in front of the riders (Saturday),” he promised, referring to the climb up Rabbit Ears Pass.

Across the street, a group of boys took test drives on recumbent bicycles, describing figure eights in the intersection of Seventh Street and Lincoln Avenue.

“These are cool,” Logan Spiegel, 7, said.

Nearby, 10-year-old girls like Lily Starkey climbed onto stationary banks at the Exergy tent to see if they could generate enough watts of electrical energy to power a flat-screen TV.

“That’s really hard!” Lily said.

Estimating the size of the crowd was a challenge with people stretched out over seven blocks and rooftop parties lining both sides of the street. As the race finish neared, people were standing six deep on the roof of Old Town Pub. Certainly, thousands had gathered for a glimpse of the best bicycle racers in the world.

Pearl Izumi, a Colorado company, was selling the official Pro Cycling Challenge jerseys as fast as cashier Mike Johnson could ring them up.

“We’re going to sell out by Denver for sure,” Pearl Izumi’s Ron Rod said. “We’ve pulled all of our inventory off the Internet and brought it here to make sure we’d have enough.”

Race fans who arrived at the finish line before 1 p.m. were treated to the sight of Olympic athletes taking part in the U.S. Paracycling Challenge.

“I heard they are averaging 30 miles per hour. I think that’s remarkable,” Gary Robinson said. “To take the limitations they have and say, ‘Screw it, I’m going to go for it.’ We all have advantages and disadvantages in some way.”

In Bike Town USA on Friday, there seemed to be no limit on Steamboat’s passion for the sport of cycling. Even Pro Cycling Challenge CEO Shawn Hunter said it was perhaps the largest and most energetic crowd he’s seen at a professional cycling race anywhere.

— To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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