If you weren’t a cycling fan and you were in Telluride Monday August 19th, chances are that you are one now.

Locals and visitors alike lined Main Street to watch the world’s best cyclists battle 10,000 feet mountain passes, intermittent rain showers and each other over 125.6 miles and a total elevation gain of 9238 vertical feet in Stage 1 of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge from Durango to Telluride.

As the field of riders — including competitors such as last year’s USA Pro Challenge winner Levi Leipheimer; 2011’s USA Pro Challenge second place winner Christian Vande Velde (who only lost by 2 seconds); 2012 Tour De France’s best young rider and 5th place overall finisher Tejay Van Garderen; and 2012 Tour De France 3rd overall finisher Vincenzo Nibali – rode toward Telluride, spectators gathered on Main Street and in Town Park to watch the race unfold over the Jumbo-Tron screens.

Then around 2:45 (almost an hour earlier than they were estimated to arrive) a colorful line of cyclists circled town before sprinting up Main Street for the finish.

It was American Tyler Farrar of Team Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda who crossed the line in a sprint to finish first to the thunderous applause of the spectators.

The Stage, and race, appropriately began in Durango, Colorado, a town that loves cycling as much as Telluride loves skiing. Shawn Hunter, USA Pro Challenge CEO, called the send off from Durango one of the “best overall starts” he has seen and “as good as it gets.”

Spectators lined the streets of Durango to a celebratory send off of the field’s 16 teams and 124 riders, including cycling legends like Levi Leipheimer, Cadel Evans and George Hincapie. But there was one rider who may have just got a few more cheers than the rest.

Tom Danielson, riding for Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda, began his road biking career in Durango as a student at Fort Lewis College—a school that holds 19 national cycling championships.  Danielson currently is based out of Boulder but told attendants of a press conference Saturday in Durango that he was ready to move back to Durango, he just had to convince his mother-in-law.

He was clearly a hometown favorite and took that energy and turned it into confidence. Counting on his familiarity with the route and hill climbs out of Durango, Danielson’s goal was to create chaos and attack early and often.

“I’m pretty familiar with the first part, or actually the whole race today,” Danielson said citing races and training rides he remembered as a resident of Durango. “Our director this morning (Charlie Wegelius) was like, ‘Well guys, let’s take it to the race and try to cause a big split and try to make some chaos’.”

Danielson was a part of a 22-man pack that broke away from the peloton just outside of Durango town limits. Outside of Dolores, about midway into the race, the 22-man breakaway became a 9-man breakaway and included many dominant riders from the field. Approaching the crux climb up Lizard Head Pass (10,222) Danielson and Nibali (Liquigas—Cannondale), broke again. Then it was Danielson out in front by himself.

As fate often has it, or least as bike racing usually goes, Danielson was soon reeled in by Nibali, his teammate Peter Stetina and Eduard Alexander Beltran Suarez (EPM-UNE). Stetina and Danielson worked together to break away and rode alone from Alta Lakes to the Spur. It looked like the two just might have enough pavement to take it all the way to the finish. But about two miles from town, he and Stetina were swallowed by the peloton and the positioning for the sprinters began.

The colorful train raced around town then bent around Willow Street to sprint the five blocks up Main Street and finish in front to the Courthouse with an iconic shot of Bridal Veil in the background. Even long-time locals gasped at the helicopter images of the town and Bridal Veil appeared on the Jumbo Tron.

Although Danielson didn’t win, he clearly understood the spirit of the West and this race.

“It almost worked honestly,” he said of his constant attempts at breaking away. “At least it looked awesome. It was a lot of fun. I haven’t had that much fun in a long time in a bike race.”

He added, “I thought we were going to win, I thought we had it—but I’ll try it again tomorrow.”

And so too, will all of the USA Pro Challenge’s fervent fans as they follow the riders in Stage 2 — from Montrose to Mt. Crested Butte, a total of 99.2 miles and over 8000 feet of vertical gain.

As the cyclists tick away mile after mile across the state and their stories unfold in one small town after the other, the folks, like those in Telluride, might become cycling fans for more than just a day – maybe for the entire week.

Results from stage 1: Overall: Farrar R. (GRS) 4:42:48; Bazzana A. (TT1) 4:42:48; Caruso D. (LIQ) 4:42:48. King of the Mountain: Tom Danielson (GRS). Sprint: Tyler Farrar  (GRS). Best Young Rider: Gavin Mannion (BLS). Most Aggressive: Peter Stetina (GRS).

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