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“I’ll have the snake,” I said.
When he looked at me in a bewildered manner, I realized my words weren’t matching my thoughts and then I corrected my order. “Oh, I meant to say steak. Yes, steak. I’m sorry, I’m just so weary.”
“No problem,” he replied and seemingly just minutes later I was served one of the most succulent steaks ever. I gobbled it down along with a heap of Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, fresh green beans and a big gulp of red wine. I felt exhausted and much in need of sustenance and this unassuming restaurant delivered.
I had been on the road a few days by the time I reached Breckenridge and realized that following a major sporting event, especially one that changes locales daily required a lot of hustling about, but then adding a book promo tour to it was like doubling town. I had been busy much of the summer promoting my new book, A Tour of the Heart: A Seductive Cycling Trip Through France, although I saved the biggest push for the end when I’d scheduled a number of events and publicity opportunities in conjunction with the USA Pro Challenge, a major bike race which was marking its third year in Colorado. It seemed like a good fit, so why not give it a go? My core audience seems to be made up of outdoor enthusiasts and discriminating travelers, just the kind of people you find showing up for this big cycling event, especially in Aspen, Beaver Creek and Vail.
I set out in Misty, my old 1993 Subaru with over 250,000 miles to her credit, late Sunday, August 18, for Redstone, Colorado, a delightful little mountain town just under an hour from Aspen. From Telluride, the drive ranks as one of the finest in Colorado, punctuated by bucolic farmland scenery in and around Paonia and dramatic mountain vistas up and over McClure Pass. I arrived at the warm and cozy Redstone Inn to find its bar and restaurant bustling with Sunday evening diners.
“Would you like a towel for the hot tub?” The woman kindly offered at check in. I declined since I needed to do some work on my computer and thought it best not to ease into any more of a relaxed state than what this inviting inn already conjured within me. My room—replete with a block of wood that I used to prop open the window—exuded all the charm of a gently worn historic inn, the kind of place I love dearly, so I decided to hole myself up, enjoy some nibbles from my cooler and get some work done. Wrong. Although most of the inn is wired with wifi, it wouldn’t work for me. I knew there was no cell service for my phone but I was counting on the wifi. I bet I could have logged on downstairs in the library, curled up with a brandy in hand. But no, I was secretly ecstatic to be shut off from the world. Too bad for the work, I thought. I popped a bottle of Asti Spumanti that a friend had bestowed upon me for my travels, munched on some grapes, cheese and chocolate and leafed through glossy magazines from Aspen. Boy, was it great to feel like a tourist and not like a travel writer on duty.
The old radiator, which blasted off like a steam engine tackling a high mountain pass, woke me up twice during the night until I finally had to call down to the front desk. The fix proved to be easy enough, one of those fusty matters that when taken in stride, only adds to the allure of the old-fashioned ambiance of such an establishment. I couldn’t, however, fall back to sleep, so I was forced to take a sleeping pill at 2a.m. Somehow, in perhaps my Spumanti haze, I forgot that I had to get up and out early to Aspen before the obligatory road closures of such an important event. I bolted out of bed at 9a.m., grabbed a cup of tea at the bar at the inn and prepared to head out. The fellow at the front desk couldn’t have been nicer about providing me with info. regarding road closures, so Misty and I left the inn buoyed with confidence that we could still get into the center of Aspen in time. So much for being in relaxed tourist mode.
Construction and a bunch of “Sunday drivers” along the road from Redstone to Carbondale made me antsy but not as much as my stress about where I was going to stay that night. You’d think being a travel writer I’d have everything laid out nicely before embarking upon such a trip. Well, I usually do, but this time Aspen escaped me. My family has had a condo there for years, so I just assumed that I’d be able to stay in the lock off, a unit that’s never rented with the rest of the property. But this time it was and I found that out at the eleventh hour. I’ve scrambled to make plans at the last minute before but finding a room in Aspen during the USA Pro Challenge is like locating a room in Telluride during Bluegrass Festival. Probably the biggest time of the year for both of these prized mountain destinations—along with the week after Christmas, of course. Plus, I’m a travel writer, a profession dependent upon special considerations. But a comped room during a peak time? Fat chance.
I thought I could always stay in Glenwood Springs that night if need be but as always, things worked out. As I pulled into Aspen, I figured I could at least go and park in the lot where my family has their property. Since the town was packed with spectators and there wasn’t a parking place to be seen, I was relieved to have been warmly welcomed by the folks at Frias, the management company for my dad’s place and one of the biggest and most reputable condo rental suppliers in Aspen. (My family’s place is Silverglo 208 in case you’re looking for a nice, four-bedroom/three bath unit in a great location.) Not only did I score a parking spot but they set me up in a spacious condo, right next door to The Little Nell, to boot! When I saw that it sported the name, Chateau Dumont, I felt convinced my landing there was destiny.
I freshened up and headed off to the thick of the festivities at Paepke Park to check out the Village, an assemblage of vendors and other places of interest for the USA Pro Challenge—including the Jumbotron that displays coverage of the race and other doings. The excitement was palpable, the sort of level of interest and euphoria you encounter at other great sporting events such as the Olympics, Wimbledon or the Tour de France. I bopped around some in my yellow jersey distributing flyers for A Tour of the Heart. My self promoting was met with lots of enthusiasm so I directed people to nearby Explore Booksellers to buy the book. I zeroed in primarily on the ladies, a tony crowd of discriminating travelers, most of whom expressed a healthy appreciation for France, most likely the food and wine aspects of this rich country, something I cover in my book both on and off the bike.
It was beastly hot and by now I was happy to seek refuge at Explore where I conducted a reading within their delightfully fresh, air conditioned interior. Explore, a beloved establishment for many years, is a must see in Aspen and an excellent resource for books, cards and a plethora of gift ideas. Francophiles take note, since Phoenix, the shop’s top buyer, boasts a penchant for Paris, and she’s filled the shelves with an open-air market-sized display of City of Light goods in a variety of forms.
I left Explore in search of a fun place to go for a drink, a bar or restaurant where I could get in on the scene. I poked my head into a few different places until I finally settled on The Red Onion, another Aspen institution of sorts. It seemed pretty quiet there, but I settled into a place at the bar and soon began chatting with a couple of guys. Well, lo and behold, wasn’t one of them Jason Blevins, a feature writer at The Denver Post. “I do books, too,” Jason told me with a wry smile when he heard I was in town touting mine. “And a couple of other writers from The Denver Post are on their way to join us here any moment,” he added.
John Henderson, a well respected sports writer for Colorado’s top paper and a Tour de France aficionado/reporter par excellence, showed up and we hit it off right away, trading stories about France, bike races and the buzz on the USA Pro Challenge.
“Aspen is the bike capital of Colorado,” Jason said. “I just finished a story about this that will appear tomorrow—Aspen is really where it’s at.” We also shared chuckles about the writer’s life: the challenges meeting deadlines, the scrimping by (while also enjoying some incredible perks), the eating-out-of-cooler adventures, the passion that drives us. How lucky I felt to have landed here at this restaurant/bar with these gents, I thought as I ordered a second beer and a salad.
I watched John at work the next day at the start in Aspen while I snapped pictures of many of the riders and distributed more flyers. I put “the working it” on hold and hurried off to the rails where I saw the world’s cycling elite pedal up to the start, small and slim in their colorful jerseys, much like jockeys on a horse. After the Star Spangled Banner was sung, loud, revved up music added to the hype around announcing the top riders, blaring vibes that accentuated the excitement spectators were experiencing as the cyclists, motorcycles and cars sped around the course a few times before heading out for the nineteen-mile, 4,200-foot climb to Independence Pass.
Vroooom. I packed up Misty and barreled out in the opposite direction for Breckenridge where the cyclists were due to arrive after 126 miles of grueling racing across an elevation gain of 12,250 feet in the mountains. I lost time heading out of Aspen but still, even after speeding on the interstate, I arrived in Breck just in time to park and position myself for the guys’ arrival into town. Swoosh, I felt as the lead group powered through. And then an even bigger swoosh marked their passing as the peloton blazed by.
By now I was parched—although I couldn’t imagine how the cyclists felt. I was happy to have been invited to a gathering above the Breckenridge Chamber of Commerce on a spacious terrace furnished with expansive views of Breck’s many numbered peaks and a supply of frosty beverages. Most of the movers and shakers in this mountain town’s hospitality industry were there, including Bob Barto and Bruce Horri from Beaver Run, and I was happy to see that Jason showed up as well. (John was pounding it out in the press room.) We schmoozed and chatted as we strained to listen to Railroad Earth, one of my favorite Bluegrass bands, who was giving a free concert to the gazillion people that had showed up for the race.
Somehow I made it to Beaver Run where I managed to order snake, or rather steak. Not one to miss out on any action, after dinner I ambled down to Base 9, a bar/lounge beneath Spencer’s to check out the scene. I had learned that all of the pro cycling teams were staying at this resort, an almost unthinkable occurence, so I couldn’t imagine missing out on any excitement. Indeed, it was buzzing with slim, handsome men in style-y, sweatsuit-type attire hashing out the day’s race over drinks and small talk. The bartender took one look at me and kindly offered water. Smart move, since I was too tired to drink anything else. Yet I did want to chat with these fellas, most of whom were trainers and managers, primarily European. The racers were not surprisingly already in bed.
“Guys love Colorado and the race, but not the altitude” one of the trainers said. That seemed to be the topic of conversation, since they were all nodding their heads in agreement. Indeed, cyclists in the Rocky Mountains have to achieve an elevation far superior to anything in the Alps. They sleep high, too, which doesn’t help acclimatization. “Those who do the best are the ones that arrive well in advance and train and get used to this altitude,” the man continued.
I could use neither elevation or a hard day on the bike as an excuse for my fatigue. But it did occur to me that Misty and I were doing a lot of driving, something we never do back in Telluride where my main mode of transportation is the gondola.
I meandered around the village and the start area the next day in Breckenridge, taking in the doings while handing out more flyers. I had an added bounce in my step because the Summit Daily News published a feature story about my book and the event I’d be doing that day at French Kiss, a gem of a boutique showcasing books, home decor items, artwork and other unusual gift ideas, owned by Anita and Russ Halpern. The guys were off with a flash and I was set into promotion mode at French Kiss, chatting with shoppers whether they came in for my book or not. By the time I left the shop that afternoon, the town was emptied out—just like one big swoosh of the peloton.
It was time to backtrack on I-70 to Beaver Creek. Thankfully I was going to be spending two nights at The Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa at Beaver Creek Mountain, one of my all-time favorite resorts. (This one-night-stay business was beginning to wear me down.)
I like to give a wink or a cute comment when I ask the valets in such grand establishments to “take care of my limousine.” Everyone seems to get a chuckle out of it although I can tell few care that I pull up in an old jalopy. This is Colorado after all, a state where success is measured more in what run you skied, what mountain you climbed or “your current project” rather than what kind of a car you drive.
This time though as I stepped out of the car and began to sort out my pile of cargo, I was enthusiastically greeted by one of the hotel guests, a fashionable lady and her husband just stepping out from dinner. “Oh, you must be the author,” she said. I guess my 5 X 3 foot poster of the cover of my book was a dead giveaway. “I read about you and your book in the hotel news.”
That helped to puff me up some, which added to the elation I felt about arriving at The Westin, a property that exudes understated luxury on every level. Luxury is often most felt in the service provided and here at The Westin, it’s always topnotch and as friendly as can be. Plus, the property places a huge emphasis on sport and recreation and for me their saline-filled pool is the showstopper of them all, a pool where I would gladly swim laps every day of the year.
I woke up Thursday, August 22 and did just that. It was my birthday and in addition to feeling fabulous after swimming laps, I realized I was staying in room 822. Nice. I also learned that the Vail Daily picked up my feature from the Summit Daily News, a sharing of content that proved particularly fortuitous for me. By noon, I was ready to install myself at a table in the lobby for a couple of hours of book signing/meet and greet. It’s always fun chatting with people about travel to France and such but just as I was beginning to feel a little out of the loop by missing all the bike race finish action at the top of Beaver Creek, something elevated me back to my day’s theme of euphoria.
“Hey George,” I yelled. That something was actually someone in the form of George Hincapie, a cycling great that I’ve always been sweet on, whom I feature twice in A Tour of the Heart. Apparently he was a guest at The Westin, too.
“I recognize that book,” he said, pointing to my display for A Tour of the Heart: A Seductive Cycling Trip Through France. “I have it back on my desk.”
“Yes, I sent it to you. I hope you’ll read it,” I said.
“I will. I definitely will,” he reassured me as he graciously posed for photos and chitchatted about our previous encounters in France (You’ll have to read the book.)
A little while later he rolled out his bike all suited up and slick, unafraid to brave a bike ride beneath stormy skies. Damn, that would have made a great photo. But I refrained from entering full groupie mode and just gave him a little wave.
I caught up on lots of note taking over a festive dinner at Maya, a Richard Sandoval creation, housed within The Westin. As I sipped a luscious watermelon margarita, I reflected on how I was dining alone on my b-day for the second year in a row. It didn’t matter at all, since attending such a bike race felt like one big week-long party. Plus, I was feasting on gorgeous, modern Mexican food within a warm, exuberant decor. The staff pulled out all the stops with one of the most beautiful birthday desserts I’ve ever received. And they were discreet enough to refrain from singing Happy Birthday, something I’d enjoy if it wasn’t for the fact that I was there alone. Fortunately solo mode didn’t last interminably since before I downed my last sips of Cava, my hunny showed up, big dimpled grin and all.
Not to be distracted, the next day we headed down to the pool for more lap swimming before setting out for Vail to take in the time trial. We arrived at the Vail Spa Condominiums in Lionshead without a hitch traffic-wise, something we had feared would interfere with our day. Since most of the action was taking place in Vail Village, navigating around here was a breeze.
I resumed my flyer distribution along the barriers of the time trial route where cyclists were launched every couple of minutes along a narrow pathway that traversed Vail’s most picturesque streets. Truly the ideal setting for a time trial, it was fun to see the racers blasting along against the backdrop of European-styled, alpine chalets. Here, the interest in A Tour of the Heart ranked high, prompting many people to show up at my signing at nearby Christy Sports after the race.
“Hey how about we come back here tomorrow and take a couple of bikes out for a spin?” I asked my guy (I won’t tell you his name here in case you read A Tour of the Heart). He agreed and so we returned to Christy’s the next day to head out on our own little bike tour. I had had enough of watching people pedal—professionally and for fun—over the past week; it was time to ride. We took out a couple of Christy rentals and sped away through the streets of Vail and along the bike path by the river’s edge. “This is a blast!” I shouted as we careened around town.
Our time together was short lived, since I needed to jet off to Denver to catch the last stage of the race on Sunday. As Misty chuffed up Vail Pass, I imagined the time trialists pushing their way up the 8.7 miles of this 1,831-foot climb after they bombed through Vail.
“I saw some of them on the Jumbotron,” my hunny said. “Some of them were climbing slowly but steadily; others were weaving and looked as though they were about to topple off their bikes.”
I thought of this as I pushed harder on the gas. Then harder, my foot all the way to the floor. Misty is an ‘ole gal but she typically has good pickup. This is insane, I thought, as my car chugged up to the rise. “Yeah, most of them did it in just over twenty minutes,” I heard Steve say in my mind.
My arrival in Denver at The Oxford Hotel was marked by gracious greetings from the bellmen, the front desk staff and a chilled bottle of white wine in my air conditioned room. I scanned my grand corner accommodations and noted all the glorious details that you find in fine old establishments including rich curtains that pool at the bottom, plush, upholstered furnishings and beddings, high ceilings, antiques, passementeries galore and an array of other elegant embellishments. I set out snapping photos and then flopped on my bed. It seemed incongruous that I was here for a bike race. It felt like I should instead be headed out in a carriage on a little promenade around Denver with a parasol in hand to protect me from the hot, Colorado sun. I pondered this as I remembered that The Oxford, a divine establishment I had the pleasure of experiencing twice before, is the oldest hotel in Denver, a property dating back to 1891.
It was indeed blazing hot the next day, the final day of the race. The guys were doing laps around Denver and the crowds at this USA Pro Challenge finale were twenty deep along most viewing areas. Between the heat and the crowds, I decided that the mountains are the best place to view this bike race, especially if your goal is to get up close and personal. I met up with an old buddy, Mark Eversman, a fellow Francophile that had published Paris Notes, a reputable newsletter on Paris for almost two decades. We trolled the Village until we both had had our fill of power bars, energy drinks, goo, sport beans, dehydrated fruit nuggets and various other highly-concentrated blasts of cardboard-tasting, carbo-protein elixirs and chews, all of which were being offered for free in spaceship-sized volume. I distributed more flyers then braved the roar of the plastic thunder sticks and worked my way toward the award podium. Mark faded into the background. By the time I realized he was gone and that this was a stupid move—with my near heat exhaustion and thirst for a plain drink (such as water)—there was no backing out. I was wedged in like an amateur cyclist caught up in the middle of a Tour de France peloton.
And so my USA Pro Challenge ended rather anticlimatically. I was grateful to pad off to the coolness of my luxurious room at The Oxford where I was once again greeted cheerily by the staff. I phone-tagged and texted with John (from The Denver Post) who had wanted me to accompany him to the closing bash. That didn’t work out, however, I was more than pleased to dine out with my old friend, Mark.
The bike tour was over although the book tour was not. I had to be bright and on deck for one more publicity event—this time an appearance on Colorado & Company—and one more book signing on Monday. The TV spot felt like a breeze, mostly due to the warm welcome by all involved, especially the day’s host, Tanya Rush and Dreux DeMack, the show’s producer, an all around swell guy as well as a big cycling enthusiast. People always make all the difference in the world. The welcome at The Lark, a fabulous home decor store and gift boutique in Cherry Creek where I was to do my signing, soothed my tired spirit, too. I had been a week on the road touring and touting and I was ready to head home. I made one last stop—down the street from The Lark—to have a pedicure, and then pointed Misty out of town. What else is a reformed Parisian princess to do?
How to Attend the USA Pro Challenge
As you can discern from the above, there are many ways in which you can attend this great Colorado bike race. At many of the stages such as in Aspen, you can actually ride the race circuit before the riders go through. I reserved all of my viewing for in and around the race arrivals and departures, however, for some added excitement, consider camping out around one of the major climbs to take in the fun-filled ambiance there. During this year’s race, many likened the hoopla at Hoosier Pass (outside of Breckenridge) to the craziness that goes on at Alpe d’Huez in France. For the stage routes and other information, go to USA Pro Challenge. Start pondering your trip for next August now.
My book is available at many bookstore and non bookstore venues across the country. If you don’t find it readily on the shelf, ask the bookseller to order it for you. It’s also sold on amazon as a paperback and an eBook. There you’ll also find many fine reviews. (For the UK: click here for the paperback and here for the eBook.) You can also find out more about A Tour of the Heart at my ATH page on my blog. Like my ATH Facebook page for more on the book as well as tips and tidbits on travel to France, cycling, food and wine and much more. The photos there are quite beautiful, too.
Fall, of course, is an excellent time for cycling in France and Colorado and also a good season for planning such adventures for the upcoming year!
For more on Redstone Inn, read Redstone Rendez-Vous.
For more on The Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa at Beaver Creek, click here.
For more on The Oxford Hotel, read Spa Going: The Perfect Antidote to the Winter Blues and More LoDo Love.
Thank you to Bert R. Carollo for the magnificent photos of the Vail Time Trial featured in this story. Most of the rest of the images were snapped on the fly with my iPhone.