Lindenstein: Saturday USA Pro Challenge stage brought back memories of exciting journalism start

Pardon this momentary departure from prep sports for a ride down memory lane.

Everything I know about cycling I learned riding shotgun with Jonathan Vaughters on a support car death ride down South St. Vrain Canyon.

It was eight years ago today, my second official day on staff at the Daily Camera after interning that summer. The race was the Colorado Cyclist Classic, a five-day stage race based in Estes Park.

A fresh college graduate and native of the Midwest, I knew who Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong were, and maybe Jan Ullrich, Armstrong’s chief Tour de France rival at the time. And beyond that, my cycling expertise was slim.

Terms like peloton and general classification certainly were not part of my vocabulary.

But darting down Highway 7 that day into Lyons gave me an appreciation for cycling that’s made me a casual fan of the sport for life. It’s that day that still has me getting up at 6 a.m. in July to catch the Tour de France on television. And it’s that day that made today’s stage of the USA Pro Challenge in Boulder — complete with a descent down South St. Vrain Canyon — such a fun event to watch.

The race also served as a nice primer for the various local bike races I would cover in the area over the next few years.

Like plenty of races before and after it — including the USA Pro Challenge — the Colorado Cyclist Classic was doing its best to recapture some of the magic lost when the Coors Classic folded up shop more than a decade earlier.

Day 1 of the Cyclist Classic had been a short, flat prologue time trial in Estes Park that made me wonder why my editor had sent me there. To make matters worse, it rained while I was tracking down interviews, and I’d left the lights on in my car, requiring a jump-start from a policeman.

Day 2 was to be a road race heading south from Estes to Allenspark, then down to Lyons, on through Hygiene, Berthoud, Loveland and then back up to Estes Park via Glen Haven. The organizers of the event, Todd Plummer and Rich Godesiabois, hooked me up with a seat in Vaughters’ car.

At the time, the former Lance Armstrong lieutenant was in the early stages of building the Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda group that has shown well this week in the USA Pro Challenge.

Vaughters’ team was then called TIAA-Cref and was a junior development squad that included Peter Stetina — the son of world-class rider Dale Stetina and a Boulder High grad who finished 12th in Saturday’s sixth stage of the Pro Challenge up Flagstaff Mountain.

The TIAA-Cref team was a green group of riders, but a talented one that nonetheless had a rider among the three-man break that day that gained an early 10-minute edge on the peloton.

Vaughters, determined to catch up to the break to support his rider, put the pedal down on the way down the canyon, passing over double yellow lines on the winding open road course at upwards of 75 miles per hour. While I wondered if this was how my existence was going to end, he schooled me on the finer points of cycling strategy.

When we finally caught the leaders, we didn’t slow down much, which was what really caught my attention. Watching three riders race wheel-to-wheel down the hill at speeds of 50-55 miles per hour, with maybe a few millimeters of tire touching the pavement, brought the sport to life for me.

No one ended up catching the break that day, despite cows crossing the road as we maneuvered our way back up toward Glen Haven and Estes Park. While TIAA-Cref’s rider finished third, it was a thrilling finish nonetheless, with Boulder’s Will Frischkorn edging Danny Pate for the victory. Frischkorn would go on years later to ride for Garmin in the Tour de France, as would Pate.

The Cyclist Classic concluded with a circuit race in Estes, followed by another around Horsetooth Reservoir near Fort Collins and then a criterium in North Boulder Park. Frischkorn won the general classification. And the race’s brief stint on the local race calendar ended after the 2004 edition.

While I was no doubt captivated by the racing I watched that week — and especially during the stage in Vaughters’ car — the event was one I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. But I did know I loved the access my newly-chosen profession gave me to sports. The day is one I’ve reflected upon often as I’ve covered other races or watched the Tour on television.

The finish up Flagstaff on Saturday was no doubt exciting, with Levi Leipheimer making his move for the GC lead. But it was shots of the riders bombing it down South St. Vrain Canyon that brought the day home for me and made the memories of that August day in 2004 come flooding back, when a young sports writer got a rush from the up-close view of a sport he’d barely known.

Follow Josh on Twitter: @JoshLindenstein