VAIL — When the USA Pro Challenge peloton rolled into the Front Range last year, the cycling circus had stopped in eight different host cities.
This year, as the race cruises into the Front Range, the party has started and finished in only four communities, delivering a more concentrated impact on host cities Aspen, Breckenridge, Steamboat Springs and Vail.
"We are learning. We learn something new each year. The ability to start and finish in one city is something that is working well for us. The economic impact for that city is better, and it allows fans to plan mini-vacations. It's good for the local community, and I think we will see its success evidenced in bigger crowds," said race chief Shawn Hunter.
Organizers and businesses in the four high-country host cities are heralding the new model. Lodging occupancy has climbed. Businesses are reporting heavy traffic.
The previous two races saw some hosts preparing for unpredictable crowds. Start hosts such as Durango, Salida and Montrose saw crowds evaporate with the riders. Finish hosts sometimes saw spectators bolting for the next day's start city. This year, lodging occupancy numbers show that spectators tended to stay overnight after a finish.
That delivered a healthy dose of midweek business to mountain communities that see most late-summer visitation trickle down to just weekends.
"We are seeing a better impact," said Tom Kern, chief of the Steamboat Springs Resort Association. "The first time we hosted the race, in 2011, once the race was over, downtown just vacated. That didn't happen this year. Downtown was packed, and it stayed packed."
Aspen enjoyed a huge spike in lodging occupancy, thanks largely to the first stage racing between Aspen and Snowmass, a spread that included Snowmass in the scene for the first time since Aspen began hosting the race in 2011.
Last year, Aspen's rooms nearly sold out, with occupancy near 95 percent for the Wednesday night finish of Stage 3, while Snowmass saw only 36 percent occupancy. This year, Aspen saw equal lodging occupancy for the start of the race, while lodging occupancy in Snowmass doubled to about 74 percent for the weekend preceding the Monday start.
"There's no question now that, in total, there were a lot more folks in town for this year's race than either of the two previous years," said Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, the reservation outfit that handles lodging in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Breckenridge raged the night it hosted the Tuesday night finish of Stage 2. Bars and restaurants had lines snaking out their doors and the town bustled like a busy winter weekend. Lodging reservations were pacing 30 percent higher than the night last August before the start of Stage 5, with capacity forecast at 55 percent.
The Vail Valley saw occupancy climb over last year, with hoteliers reporting reservations for nearly 90 percent occupancy. That compares to 80 percent last year, when the valley hosted a stage finish atop Beaver Creek and a time trial the next day up Vail Pass. Typically, the valley would see 50 percent occupancy during the week in late August.
"We obviously like the finish-start format," said John Dakin, spokesman for the Vail Valley Foundation.
Delivering a finish and start to hosts is a new model for the three-year-old race, and it's one that will continue, said Hunter.
"I think we are getting closer and closer to a model where we can create a route that is compelling not only for the riders but for the fans and communities, where it has a deeper impact," Hunter said. "We are getting better and making our way."