Tue August 23, 2011

Pro Challenge Bike Race Brings Economic Boost

Organizers of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge have predicted the event could draw up to a million spectators at stages from Gunnison to Steamboat Springs. Enthusiasm for the race and the sport of cycling appears to be at an all-time high in Colorado but it’s already looking like those predictions about crowd sizes may be a bit optimistic. Even so, some of the mountain communities along the race route are happy for any economic boost.

In fact, you could hear the enthusiasm all over downtown Salida Tuesday.

Cow bells, thousands of them, were rang by an estimated 5,000 spectators who turned out to see the start of Stage 1 of the race. Matt Landry grinned as he peered out on all of this from his propped open shop door on F Street.

“This is great just to have this amount of people,” Landry said.

He said businesses like his are welcoming a late season surge in tourists. Sales at Landry’s Headwaters Outdoor Lifestyles have been up by about ten percent in the days leading up to the race.   

“This is when our season slows down,” Landry said. “The river goes away August 15th when they start holding it up at the reservoirs, so it’s always good to have people in town.”

Business is also up a couple of blocks away at the First Street Café, where owner Darlene Louch was taking advantage of the increase in foot and bike traffic by selling homemade tamales out on her sidewalk.

“It’s been a great week for the economy,” she said.

A great week, but Louch said business has been down overall for at least the last three years; something you hear often in tourism-dependent towns across the state still reeling from the recession. 

“It’s keeping the tourists coming, thank God, because we need them,” Louch said. 

As was the case in Colorado Springs on Monday during the prologue of the race, tourists were coming from all around the US and the world, even in small town Salida, population 5,500. 

“This is religion in Europe,” said Anna Lohn who flew from Poland to Denver and immediately drove to Salida to watch the Stage 1 start. 

Lohn said she’s looking most forward to seeing the racers summit both the 12,000 foot Cottonwood and Independence passes Wednesday.

“It’s going to be very killer, I hope it doesn’t discourage them next year,” she said.

Cooling off in the shade in a park along the Arkansas River, John Engelbrecht was already looking forward to next year. As head of the Salida Chamber of Commerce, he was instrumental in putting together the town’s bid to host one of the stages.

“Salida felt like we were really prepared for something like this,” Engelbrecht said. “It’s not our first rodeo we like to say.”  

Nevertheless, Engelbrecht said business has been a bit slower than expected; for one there were still hotel rooms available which is notable since race organizers and some local officials had predicted more than 50,000 spectators to show up in and around Salida and up to a million across the state over the seven day event.

Asked whether predictions like those were lofty, Engelbrecht said Salida is a starting line town, not a finishing one where people might look to book overnight accommodations.  He added:  “This is an inaugural event, this is the first time it’s ever been done and so sometimes you throw a party and everybody comes, and sometimes you throw a party and nobody comes.”

Engelbrecht said he’s just hoping it’s a big enough party to justify doing it again. 

At Fritz’s Bar, over a pint of local beer and a sandwich after the cyclists had left for their 98 mile ride to Crested Butte, customer Willie Lowe had a similar hope.

“I heard somebody say it wasn’t as big of a crowd as they expected this morning, but you know, it’s the first year,” Lowe said.

Lowe, who’s from North Carolina, said he didn’t exactly plan his Colorado vacation around theUSA Pro Cycling race, but he did know it was happening and was glad the timing worked out.

“It was fun to watch, the biggest fun I think we had was walking by all the bikes before it started trying to figure out what they were all worth,” he said.

After watching yesterday’s race, Lowe figured he’ll now drive over to Independence Pass and maybe even to Breckenridge where the race moves to on Saturday.

No doubt exactly what organizers and tourism officials want to hear.