On the Double Armstrong weekend—when “Giant Step” Neil passed away after 82 unblemished years on this planet (minus one day on the moon) and Tour de France Lance fell a long way from grace after deciding to no longer fight to protect his dope-tinged reputation—the 600-mile Pro Challenge came down to a 9.5-mile dash through downtown Denver.

As predicted.

The giant banners over Larimer Square proclaimed it so: It All Comes Down to Denver.

The timed race on a sun-splashed late August day drew the curious and the devoted to watch the riders fly past. Cowbells rang amid the sharp whack of those inflatable and noisy plastic hand clappers. In Larimer Square, “fans” ranged from hard-core enthusiasts glued to the barricades who followed every second on mobile apps to champagne-sipping observers who didn’t need to move from their al fresco dining spots to catch the roar and a blurry blink of a rider going past.

Christian Vande Velde

Christian Vande Velde, after a week of rolling across Colorado, took the final yellow jersey—the one that counts. His team, the Boulder-based Garmin-Sharp, won the race. Boulder’s Taylor Phinney won the stage—in 17 minutes and 25 seconds.

“I’m over the moon,” Vande Velde told the ever-cheery Bob Roll on NBC-TV, no doubt Christian’s sneaky way of referencing the passing of astronaut Neil.  And of course former bike racer and the very likable Bob Roll did not ask, “what will the drug tests show?” That question is likely not considered de rigueur in the land of derailleurs.

Tejay van Garderen, 2d Overall

Is there any sport that is scandal free?  Maybe to enjoy sport, it’s best to not question. Despite Lance’s Page One declaration that he was tired of fighting for his reputation, you wipe the slate clean, give the athletes the benefit of the doubt and hope that it’s just the right mix of milk and spinach and pasta (and absolutely no other performance-enhancing substance) that is fueling those legs and making it possible to zip up two 12,000-foot passes on the same day in a few jaw-dropping hours of speed and scenery, Gunnison to Aspen.

Levi Leipheimer, 2011 Winner, 3d Overall

King Lance’s decision to let the doping charges stand had no apparent effect on fan enthusiasm for Stage 7 in Denver. Did you feel the collective yawn from Lance’s announcement? Does the hundreds of millions of dollars he has raised for charity help balance the moral scale? Most likely.

There were plenty of wide open spots along the barricades in Larimer Square—plenty of wide-open patches that provided an easy view everywhere—but City Park was home to cheering fans and the start and finish lines near the State Capitol were sufficiently jammed, if not packed to the gills.

Jens Voigt, 2012 King of the Mountain

This was a party and like all the other 2012 Pro Challenge towns—Durango, Telluride, Montrose, Crested Butte, Gunnison, Aspen, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Colorado Springs, Golden, Lyons and Boulder—Denver is always ready to turn out for a chance to whoop it up, especially if you get the additional chance to don your gorilla suit or your tutu or your helmet, the one with the giant set of elk antlers and, perhaps, share a cold beverage or something stronger.

The fans can get rowdy but we want our athletes clean, at least to uphold the notion that it’s a fair race or a fair fight. Never mind that the Colombian bike racers on Sunday couldn’t afford to bring their time-trial bikes with them and wound around downtown Denver on road bikes, being passed by their better-financed competitors despite the 1-minute and 2-minute intervals between start times. Drugs might help but money provides the biggest boost of all.

I chatted with many fans about Lance and his fall, but couldn’t get a real rise out of one. Most were there to enjoy the color, the action, to be amazed at the sheer speed these guys could reach, even when they were rounding a sharp corner, pedaling hard.  Nobody seemed too concerned about the legacies.

One fan watched Sunday in a bike jersey with the grim “Skull and Roses” logo from the Grateful Dead, not a band known for clean living.

And a bi-plane circled overhead, tugging a giant banner promoting accessories and more, one assumes, from the budding marijuana industry: “Grow Your Own / Way to Grow.”

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