FORT COLLINS — After a predawn recon, Southern California cycling fans Tiberio and Suzanna Esparza anchored their camp chairs on the front row of the finish line of the USA Pro Challenge in Fort Collins.
"We've seen the Tour de France and the Tour of California. We know you have to get here early," said Tiberio, who scheduled a Colorado vacation around the northern Colorado stage of the 3-year-old race.
Saturday was Fort Collins' first dance with the Pro Challenge. The city joined Loveland, Windsor, Estes Park and Larimer County in hosting the penultimate stage of the 600-mile race across Colorado. The two-year effort to land a coveted stage in the race revealed a unique collaboration of diverse towns and regions.
"We came together with a communal mission," said Eric Thompson, co-chair of the local organizing committee, showing a phone picture of Loveland, Windsor and Larimer County officials celebrating together at the downtown Loveland start of the stage. "Individual agendas were put aside. It was all a collective vision. There is hope we can take this same collaborative approach to other issues."
Northern Colorado braced for crowds that could reach 200,000 or more, Thompson said, mirroring the expected crowds from last year's final two stages on the Front Range that stretched from Golden to Boulder with a final stage in downtown Denver. The hosting cities needed 650 volunteers — and more than 700 enlisted to help manage the race.
"This is the biggest event this region has seen in terms of spectators," Thompson said.
In Fort Collins, Saturday's stage of the race landed two days before classes start at Colorado State University. It's typically a busy weekend as students move into town, often joined by their parents.
Fort Collins stores and restaurants were uncertain what to expect from the Pro Challenge. Would the road closures keep people away? Would thousands flock to the city's downtown to shop and dine before the racers arrived?
"They were talking big numbers, like thousands of people," Cesar Lopez said as he chopped steak at his Taco Stop cart in downtown a half hour before the peloton arrived. "That hasn't happened yet. I think I can make more money on a regular day."
Still, the city's downtown plaza was wall-to-wall people, with thousands mingling in the bike village festival. The finish line sprint into downtown was lined with cowbell-clanging spectators stacked a dozen deep. A couple of blocks away, families lounged in the shade of a park with un- obstructed views of the race course.
Fort Collins was prepared for 70,000 spectators, said Officer Dawn Johnsen, as she corralled traffic minutes before the race arrived.
"I don't think this is anywhere near as big as they thought," Johnsen said.