On an overcast, unseasonably cool, late August morning, a roar, a cacophonous clatter of cowbells and a riot of horns and sirens rose up from the streets of downtown Durango, Colo., as the second annual USA Pro Cycling Challenge got its start. From there, the peleton -- 126 riders, including some of the world’s best -- would wind and pedal and suffer through seven days of racing across the state before ending up in Denver.
If one believes the hype, then the spandex-plastered riders and their mind-bogglingly extensive entourage of team and media and support vehicles might as well be throwing handfuls of hundred dollar bills to the communities along the route. For that, say supporters, is what hosting a stage of the race amounts to: A short- and long-term, clean green economic boon for towns and cities whose tourist industries are sagging under the weight of the ongoing Recession.
Call it the two-wheeled economic stimulus plan. If it lives up to the hype, that is.
Judging by the roar of the thousands-strong crowd at Monday’s race start, the hype was realized. But only hours later, as the race and its entourage set up camp in another town, the hangover started to set in along with a bit of uncertainty.
According to a study commissioned by the organizers of the event, last year’s Challenge drew some 1 million spectators to the various stages. And those spectators -- with an average household income of $114,000 -- had money to spend (these aren’t the sleep-in-your-car, peanut-butter-banana-sandwich-eating bike racer hippies that I used to spin with, that’s for sure). As a result, the “Colorado economy was the beneficiary of $83.5 million in economic impact” from the race. And, perhaps coincidentally or perhaps not, the state posted a record in visitor numbers last year.
Numbers like those prompted towns statewide to clamber to be chosen as a host city this year. Colorado Springs, which will see a stage for the second year, is expecting 50,000 spectators to crowd an eight block area downtown. That influx, local officials hope, will make up for some of the tourism dollars lost as a result of the Waldo Canyon Fire, whose suburbia-devouring flames got quite a bit of international coverage of their own (and knocked lodging occupancy down by about 15 percent, reports the Colorado Springs Gazette). Durango -- where a few fires this summer also may have dented the tourism economy -- had more modest expectations, hoping for 25,000 race-related visitors. That, in theory, would bolster lodging and dining business enough to generate sales taxes that would more than make up for the $560,000 the City reportedly budgeted for patching streets, tidying things up and hosting race-related festivities.
Had the 25,000 visitor number held up, and if even a fraction of them stayed in local hotels, then there wouldn’t have been a bed left in Durango on the night before the race, a time that is already in the peak of tourist season. The Durango Herald reported, however, that those looking for last minute lodging had plenty of vacant rooms to choose from. Though the figures aren’t available yet, it’s hard to imagine that there was enough extra business (about $7 million in sales) in town to replace the half-million spent on preparing for the race. Aside from the cyclists, their entourage and Barry Bonds (seriously), the bike race-related crowd seemed mostly to be made up of locals. Maybe expectations were a bit too high: Last year, another town that banks on a combo of Old West and outdoor recreation, Steamboat Springs, hosted a stage of the race and decided it “wasn’t a great retail event,” reported Steamboat Today. This year, the race route skipped Steamboat.
Disappointment in the short-term boost may be a recurring theme, but so is optimism regarding the long-term impact of the race. Steamboat and Durango observers both shrugged off the lack of extra business saying that what really matters is the exposure the race brings to their communities. Nearly every county that hosts the race this year has a much larger reliance on tourism than the nation as a whole, according to U.S. Census figures. And marketing is one of the most important components of tourism. All the bikers and their entourages, along with spectators who came just for the event, got a big dose of in-the-flesh marketing. Meanwhile, the hundreds of thousands who tune in to watch the 30 hours of coverage by NBC will get acquainted with the race route communities, their histories and the landscape around them. Telluride Mayor Stu Fraser put it this way, as reported by Jason Blevins at the Denver Post:
"When we look at this from an exposure standpoint, it will be substantially more than we have ever had before," said Fraser, who has conjured dozens of uses for the upcoming iconic photograph capturing the stage winner arriving in historic downtown, arms upraised and framed by Ingram Falls tumbling from the canyon's rim. "So many people who don't know Telluride will be seeing us for the first time. I think we will impress a lot of people, and we are hoping that will expand our tourism base."
Coverage thus far has indeed gone beyond the canned Colorado Old West myths, perhaps expanding viewers' preconceived ideas of the state. British commentators Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett spent some time talking about the role of the Utes in Colorado's history, and mostly got it right. Cameras also lingered for a long time on the arid area around Blue Mesa Reservoir, a landscape that is less likely to make it into Colorado marketing brochures.
Boulder, home to what may be the best stage of this or any other race, will run an ad during race coverage that seems to be aimed at attracting independently wealthy, jobless folks with way too much outdoor gear (as though Boulder didn’t have enough of these already). If the ad campaign works it will likely bolster Boulder’s already ongoing two-wheeled stimulus package -- a survey found last winter that cycling-related businesses generate more than $50 million in sales and 330 full-time jobs in the city.
Back in Durango, after the racers left town, a sizable crowd hung out in a downtown park watching the unexpectedly thrilling stage unfold on the Jumbotron, sponsored by BP -- a reminder that an older sort of economy is prominent here, too. At one point, a troupe of Southern Ute dancers showed the crowd some of their moves, to wild applause.
A lot of folks I talked to said things like, "This is fabulous for the town." None of them could articulate why, since the expected "windfall" had yet to be realized. But maybe it's just because it's a lot of fun. And maybe, in a place where "quality of life" is one of the biggest sale points, that's enough.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News and is based in Durango, Colo. He's currently devising ways to stow away in one of the team cars at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace
Images of the peleton rushing through downtown Durango and a Southern Ute dancer at the race festival courtesy of the author.