If you haven’t had the chance to watch a top level pro stage race, DO IT! I’m a huge fan of watching racing on TV (or the internet), but seeing the race in person is an entirely different experience. Road racing is truly meant to be watched from a helicopter or a motorbike within the race. However, the experience of the race is best from the side of the road.
Rightly, the TV pictures focus on the riders in the race, but by doing so they miss everything else. It may seem ridiculous to stand on the side of the road for hours to catch a short glimpse of the race (literally a few seconds), but there is a lot more to it than that.
Firstly, traveling to watch the race and driving the courses helps give a proper sense of perspective about how much terrain is covered over a 100+ mile road stage. We drove to Aspen and over Independence Pass. The pass was climbed long before TV coverage started, but to be there gave a proper understanding of what it would be like to race up such an enormous climb.
As a cyclist, spectating for any stage is best done by bike, but especially in the mountains. The roads are closed to cars early in the day and you can enjoy riding the pass. Many of these mountain passes have narrow roads and aren’t the safest for a weekend ride. By going to watch the race, you get an opportunity to ride some of the best routes with less traffic, and numerous other cyclists.
Which bring me to my next, and favorite point: Everyone willing to take the time and effort to watch the race in person is a cycling fan. Not just of pro cycling, but bicycles. Cycling is still a bit of a fringe activity, and it is really fun to be on the side of the road for a few hours with so many other riders.
Usually you can keep up with the situation in the race on the internet. You can also watch the race from a shop along the route that has the race on TV. If you look closely the next time you watch the finish of a European race in a city, you’ll see dozens of fans bolting from the barriers back into their shops and houses to catch the finish on TV seconds later.
This year I followed the USA Pro Cycling Challenge for four stages. I watched Tommy D blaze into aspen at 1k to go, followed only a few seconds behind by a furious chase. We then looked over our shoulder to the portable jumbotron to watch him cross the line first.
Then we headed up Independence Pass early in the morning. We drove, and the pass closed to cars very early (about four hours ahead of the race). We stopped low on the pass and went on a hike, then driving higher to another quiet pullout. With no Internet service and a quiet pullout that we only shared with one other family, we had a relaxing day and were able to cheer on the riders and know they would hear what big fans we were. When Jens Voigt came by alone we went crazy cheering him on. Later, we encouraged the last couple riders that would later abandon after being dropped so early in the stage.
In Colorado Springs I raced a short criterium on the finishing Circuit. It was a thrill to race downtown with spectators already lining the course. When I was off the front in a solo move, I was flying across the finish line at 35 mph with fans banging the barriers! It was easily a highlight of my season I won’t soon forget. The crowds were so thick when the race came through, I could hardly see Tyler Farrar launch his winning sprint at 45 mph!
The Boulder stage was perfect for spectators. We watched the riders come through downtown from a friend’s house along the route, and then headed up Flagstaff. The youthful crowd was very excited to see the race come through, and it was great to bring my wife to see a race of this magnitude for the first time. Now she knows what I dream about…
If you’ve ever thought of watching the Tour de France, but don’t have a European travel budget, watching a domestic stage race can be 90% of the experience. You’ll also have a lot better access to the riders and team busses, since the race won’t be jammed to the gills like the Tour is. Subtract the language issue of foreign travel and add the large contingent of American pros, and you can easily see that an experience like this close to home is not one to be missed.