August 27, 2014

Pouring Rain at the USA Pro Challenge

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As I packed up my photo gear, I looked up at the bike on top of my car and then to the clouds beyond. The rain held off just long enough for me to make some good rafting and kayak photos for a job I was doing at Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area near Salida. Now I had to make the one-hour trek north to Fairplay where the peloton of the USA Pro Challenge was bearing down on the town. If I timed it right, I would avoid the road closure at Highway 24 and make Fairplay in time to ride 11,542-foot Hoosier Pass ahead of the peloton.

Hard rain pelted the car on the way there but as I entered Fairplay and pulled into the visitors center it turned to a light mist. The pass loomed in the distance as I pulled on my cycling kit and loaded ice-cold IPAs into the pocket of my Camelbak for a summit reward.

As the rain turned from mist to downpour I pointed my bike uphill and started to climb but something didn’t feel right. I looked down and noticed my back tire had gone mushy. I stopped and somewhere deep down I heard something tell me it was a sign that I shouldn’t continue. I’d heard that voice before and heeded it, but recently I’d learned to ignore it. I turned my bike upside down and resolved to remove the offending tire.

Just then a van from Carmichael Training Systems pulled up and two people got out to assist. They offered a pump and I was on my way in no time.

The rain was relentless on my way toward Alma but it lessened as I entered the town. Alma boasts the highest saloon in the United States. I thought of stopping in for a pint but improving weather kept me going.

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The road inclined and the weather worsened the closer I got to the top. I passed a sign that showed I was 5 kilometers from the King of the Mountain sprint point at the top of the pass. Knowing kilometers are shorter than miles didn’t help but I powered on through the miserable conditions anyway. Soon the 1 kilometer sign appeared through my rain-speckled glasses and more and more people lined the roads. I kept pedaling, driven by the sound of cowbells and encouragement of those who had come before me.

Soon I was flanked by hundreds of spectators ringing cowbells and yelling me up the hill. A hot pink gorilla wearing a sombrero high-fived me and someone gave me a push from behind as I rolled toward the KOM banner. I sprinted the final meters and quickly turned my bike around to take my place amongst the spectators. Then I cracked into one of the IPAs. It foamed over from being jostled in my pack on the way up but I didn’t care. I drank deep despite being flanked by members of local law enforcement.

Members of the break came by first. They had distanced themselves from the peloton a little on the climb. Soon the main field passed in a blur making my solo attempt at Hoosier Pass seem feeble. I raised my camera to shoot in the downpour and remembered shooting in these conditions is not fun. Raindrops on lenses is seldom a good thing so I alternated between shooting and wiping the lens on my driest layer of clothing.

For the next minute or so the remnants of the pack rolled by at a more leisurely pace – so leisurely in fact that the pink gorilla had time to pass off his sombrero to a couple of the racers. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, but in this point in the race, what did they have to lose? I raised my camera and made an image just to be sure I wasn’t dreaming it.

After the last riders went by the crowd dispersed in a hurry. I walked to my bike thinking about what I had just witnessed. I couldn’t think of a better way to top that than to clip into my pedals, turn my wheel downhill and blaze the quick descent back to Fairplay.

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Chris Stark
Wedding Photojournalist at Stark Bellamy Photography
Chris Stark is an award-winning photojournalist and former news photographer who honed his craft at several Colorado newspapers. Documentary wedding photography translates perfectly into Chris' fly-on-the-wall style. Chris lives in Longmont, Colorado with his wife and daughter and spends his free time on the bike or hiking with his family.
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