By Mara Abbott
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor
As a Centennial State native, I care deeply about the Colorado Classic.
My personal attachment to the success of any competition in those mountains cuts even deeper than the impact last weekend’s female-only edition might have on the profile of women’s sport. It has always been hard to watch others compete in my home state without me, but completing that task spite-free was easier this year: After a recent move to Wyoming, I am now the defector in the relationship, and was free to cheer for the race’s success.
I raced in the 2015 Colorado Classic, and the experience remains one of my favorite career memories. I was so proud to show off my home state to the rest of the peloton, and so excited to compete at a race my family could drive to.
I was part of a 4-woman breakaway headed up one of the final hills into Fort Collins at the end of the second stage, when we came upon two people cheering on the side of the road – one running alongside us wearing boxer shorts and a cape made from a Colorado flag.
When Kristin Armstrong, one of my breakaway companions, breathed a likely rhetorical question about who those lunatics were, I had to confess.
They were two of my best friends from high school.
Racing in Colorado was amazing.
The New Colorado Classic
This year, the Classic’s organizers announced that they would focus on just a women’s race, that it would be classified as a UCI 2.1 stage race, and that they would have a huge prize purse. They said that they were out to change the model for women’s cycling.
I confess I was a bit skeptical at the outset. I knew the organizers personally, and I trusted their commitment and their skills, but promoting women’s cycling in an economically sustainable fashion is an extremely tough nut to crack. During my career I saw many races claim to hold the new key that would save women’s cycling, though none actually did. Throughout my decade racing, far more races disappeared than became permanent additions to our calendar.
I chatted with CTS Coach Mari Holden about her impressions of the race. She directed the ShoAir-Twenty20 team at this year’s edition, so she had a front-row seat to all the action. I should probably also mention that Mari is not an entirely unbiased source – one of her riders, Chloe Dygert-Owens, won every single stage, the sprints jersey, the mountains jersey, and the overall.
Still, Mari has been around cycling long enough to be able to separate her team’s success from the race’s potential. One thing she pointed out, that I agree with and think is important to note, is that Chloe’s many victories did not come because the first-edition field was weak. The 2019 Colorado Classic featured a very respectable field of both domestic and international racers. Chloe, and her team, simply served up an extraordinary performance.
“For those who didn’t watch the race, they might think no one was trying because Chloe was so dominant, but it was great racing for four days,” said race director Sean Petty. “The only question we had before the race was, would people turn out in numbers to watch a women’s only race? The answer was a resounding ‘Yes!’”
For me, the success of the new Colorado Classic will be measured in its longevity. If it is still supporting the same level of women’s competition in four, five, or 10 years, you can count me among the converts. That being said, year one held a number of promising signs for the future.
One of the most impressive aspects of this year’s race – and one that I was able to enjoy from afar – was the live coverage. From YouTube to TourTracker to Twitter to the race’s own website, there was a wide range of ways for anyone to tune in.
“People could watch it online while it was going on, and we could have it on in the car,” Holden said. “I mean, it was huge. Then, they would do the recap at night. That’s what I think women’s cycling needs, is for more people to get interested in watching the action.”
I personally followed the live video on the weekend – which came with strong enough commentary that I could clean my house while watching and still follow what was happening. While at work on Thursday and Friday, I could click through and follow live text updates while still (mostly) doing my job.
Expanding awareness is one of the biggest challenges that women’s cycling currently faces. It’s tough to find new fans if coverage isn’t readily accessible. The Colorado Classic provided free, easy-to find, high-quality coverage throughout the race.
“This is the first time I’ve seen anyone step up and do it in such a big way,” Holden – an Olympic silver medalist and longtime advocate for the sport – told me after the race.
Collegiate All-Star Team
USA Cycling helped sponsor a development team of top collegiate riders that competed at this year’s Colorado Classic. A collegiate “all-stars” team is a tradition that has bounced from race to race over the years, but at Colorado, the program really upped the ante.
The riders had a chance to spend a week at a skills and training camp in Boulder the week before the race, and were able to benefit from the mentorship of professional rider and 2018 Colorado Classic champion, Katie Hall, who raced alongside them as a collegiate alumnus.
The Colorado Classic provided a great opportunity for these riders to be seen and learn from the best in the business. Although I never participated in an all-stars team during my collegiate career, I know from personal experience that the collegiate ranks are an excellent place to cultivate talent for the future of the sport in the US, and I was excited to see that opportunity taken to the next level at this year’s Classic.
Cycling may be a sport of tradition, but it is going to take a few new tricks to grab the attention of new fans in an age of so many entertainment options. The Colorado Classic rolled out several new methods of audience engagement this year that seemed to be very successful.
Each day, viewers had the opportunity to contribute – online, or even via text message – to a pot for a bonus prime. Half of the money donated went to the rider who crossed the line first, while the other half went to a specific, cycling-related non-profit partner each day.
Money talked – the prime pot total hit nearly $10,000 each day, a huge testament to the number of people engaged in the race, and the degree to which they themselves were eager to participate
“People really gave money to those things,” Holden said. “The primes were huge, bigger than the finish (prizes). It was such a cool concept. They really tried to do some things that are different, which I think is what needs to happen with women’s cycling in order to bring the excitement and make it grow.”
Meredith Miller and Brad Sohner partnered to commentate for the online feed. Their coverage was insightful and detailed enough to easily satisfy the most well-informed listeners, but they also provided clear and comprehensive explanations for novice fans. Overall, I was incredibly impressed with programming that seemed ready to help newcomers understand a sport that is not always welcoming to the uninitiated.
The Colorado Classic drew several international teams this year, and continued UCI status will help extend that appeal. Holden believes that making the generous prize purse a tradition will add an extra incentive to teams considering a trip across the ocean.
“I think that if they do continue, they’re going to start to get even more of an international field, more people coming over for that kind of money,” she said. “It’s the same kind of thing you see at Tour Down Under and the Cadel Road Race. I mean, they threw a lot of money at it. Once they upped the prize purse the way they did, and the standard of what they were offering and people started to understand, then the teams started coming. I think that’s the same thing that will happen in Colorado.”