Many cyclists consider their greatest moment on the bike to come from winning a certain race or hitting a top speed on an epic Rocky Mountain descent. In Fort Collins, Colorado, however,many riders consider their most memorable moments to come from the local Wednesday night ride dubbed “Wednesday Night World Championships,” or simply, “Worlds.” For local pro Rich Davis, his proudest moment on the bike came after driving the group ride break with the U.S. National Champion Eddy Gragus, Olympic Trials winner and Redlands Bicycle Classic winner Randy Whicker, and fellow local Chris Stockburger. When the break turned West with the finish line approaching, Davis read the north wind and attacked in the gutter of the opposite lane. Gragus and Stockburger were dropped during the first gutter and Whicker held on with his infamous smirk. Whicker had played this same tactic on Davis countless times, but that night Davis was determined to drop him. During the second gutter attempt, Whicker still held on with the same smirk for one minute. Finally, on the third gutter attempt Davis shook Whicker and rode up the Cement Plant hill to the finish solo for the victory.
For roughly 40 years, Worlds has put Northern Colorado cyclists through the ringer. From weekend warriors to Olympic Champions, cyclists of all levels have been shaped by one of the most notorious group rides in the country. Welcome to the Northern Colorado School of Bike Racing.
Spring Creek Velo Club started the ride in 1975 during what were known as the “pot luck” days of racing in town when everyone knew one another. Originally, it was not Worlds, rather an extra midweek training opportunity to give a team member company on his commute home to Windsor with a sprint point at the city limit sign. Over time the ride grew, as World’s became a regular training ride for many who had just enough time after work to throw on their ride shorts and make it to the Bike Broker located near Riverside Avenue and Prospect Road.
When the Bike Broker moved to Old Town Fort Collins, the route shifted to the north. The group would head east out of town on Vine Drive to the Interstate-25 Frontage Road. When the group hit the Frontage Road and turned north, it was game on as soon as the first attack went. The frontage road is where many cyclists have properly learned to echelon as it is mostly pancake flat and a headwind is always present for the 17 miles before the turn west on Buckeye Road. Buckeye Road is where many cyclists have gone into the red in order to hold on to the infamous Randy Whicker’s wheel following his gutters in the opposite lane.
For local rider Scott Queen, one of his proudest moments as a cyclist came when he was the only rider to hold Whicker’s wheel in the gutter as the two made it up the Rawhide Energy Plant Hill and established that evening’s break. The six mile stretch of Buckeye Road is where the ride gained its notoriety to develop riders physically and mentally. During a typical week of the ride’sheyday, Buckeye Road is where a three to four man break was established with the peloton itching for the turn South onto Terry Lake Road. For a long time, the group would finish going all the way south for 16 miles to highway One (See map below). Long time local pro Dwight Hall recalls the finishing 5 miles to never have dropped below 30 miles per hour before the finish line change.
As development began to shift north of Old Townwith the growing Fort Collins Country Club, the route again underwent a change. The 16 mile south-bound section shortened to six miles with another west turn onto Owl Canyon Road. For a short two miles, gutters and attacks would again ensue if the break had been caught or if a chase group needed to be established. For seven miles, the route again enjoyed a tailwind after turning south onto County Road 19 before the finishing mile and a half up the Cement Plant Hill to the west where gutters and attacks would again take place all the way to the finish line. Between the sheer difficulty of the wind on this route and the tactics played out by the strongest riders in attendance, the ride rarely saw the win go to a sprinter, rather the strongest or craziest rider left would take the prize of local bragging rights for the week.
When a sprinter sitson in the break, it’s local law to respect those who have done all the work and not sprint for the win. In 2006, local rider Will Hickey learned this the hard way after sitting on for the final 15 miles then coming around at the end to take the sprint win. As Hickey turned around after winning that evening expecting a congratulations from the fellow breakaway riders, he was met with disappointment from fellow local Evan Ruznaski, who simply put his head down and said, “That’s not okay, not okay.” At Worlds, you work for the win.
During the 1980’s and 1990’s, the ride saw its peak in numbers, eventually with the AC Pinarello Continental Team leading the charge. On any given Wednesday, at least 20 pro or elite riders were in attendance with another 40 strong local riders showing up to earn the respect of the pros during every rotation. At some point during this 20 year run of Fort Collins being the Colorado cycling hub, the old local saying “If you can win Worlds, you can win any Pro/1/2 race around” came to life. The difficulty of Worlds continued into the 2000’s with the Domestic Elite team Legacy, which eventually became Ciclismo, leading the way in numbers. Additionally, continental riders from Jamis and Jelly Belly often joined the paceline. The most well known rider of today’s pro peloton to frequent the echelon was Tejay Van Garderen, who went to high school in Fort Collins and raced for local domestic elite team, Team Rio Grande Racing.
In 2006, Brad Cole moved to Fort Collins on a Monday from Kansas City to further pursue cycling. Cole had long heard rumors of Worlds. Before unpacking his bags, Brad showed up that Wednesday evening to see why this ride had the reputation it did. That night, local riders Forest Newman and Dan Workman crashed at the Buckeye Road turn. Newman injured his head and Workman had to have surgery on his knuckles. This is when the “oh s***” moment hit Cole. Cole spent five seasons racing on the National Race Calendar for Legacy, Ciclismo and the Rio Grande, and he can hardly remember a race that was more intense than this local Wednesday group ride.
Eventually, the numbers at Worlds began to decline and the ride nearly became just a memory for many. One could argue that residential and economic development has drastically shifted further south in town the last ten years thus making the traditional 5:30 start time not as attainable. More likely, the difficulty of the ride is what led to the shift in rider choice of what local Wednesday ride to attend as the “Wednesday Open Ride” or “WOR” began from the south end of town and quickly grew. In addition to the other option of a Wednesday evening group ride, grassroots racing in Fort Collins has grown beyond comparison to anywhere else in Colorado. With the rotation of local circuit races and criteriums on Tuesdays during the summer and a rotation of time trials on Thursdays throughout the Spring and Summer, riders can choose from multiple rides to fit their desired intensity efforts.
In the last five years, there have been consecutive weeks where five or less cyclists have gone out to battle in the Northern Colorado plains. Most recently in May, local pro and two time National Champion Zack Allison went out to the ride on a rainy evening and discovered he was the only rider in attendance. Despite not having anyone to compete against, Allison still rode against the north wind that Wednesday as if there were 20 other pros attacking from every direction.
This draught of riders showing up is a big reason why Dan Porter, a well known local cycling enthusiast, pushed for a route change that would alternate every week, an attempt to put new life back into the dying ride. One week to remain the long route that finishes up the Cement Plant and the following week to cut across west at Owl Canyon Road, rather than continuing North. On the evenings that the route headswest early on Owl Canyon Road, the Cement Plant acts as the midway sprint point before the route continues further west through a gravel road that eventually puts the group northbound onto Highway 287 for half a mile before turning west again to go past the Noosa Yoghurt headquarters, more commonly referred to as the Dairy Loop. In Colorado, race organizers have a fascination with including dirt roads into circuit races;Fort Collins riders usually feel they are more prepared for these races after they have learned the proper ways of riding gravel during Worlds. After the Dairy Loop, the ride heads up the dams of Horsetooth Reservoir where climbers finally have an advantage, if they manage to hang in, as the finish is located on the top of Centennial Hill.
When this alternating route schedule still didn’t bring out the numbers of days past, Porter proposed an A group and a B group in which the B’s started five minutes prior to the A’s. Although a new format was presented, the ride’s personality remained as the B’s became the breakaway and the A’s became the chasing peloton. This change was not met with applause from everyone in the community. Many locals were more concerned with the style of the ride over the numbers in attendance. Despite the difference of today versus ten years ago, riders still show up with the tenacity to go battle in the wind regardless of the group they choose to ride in. Ultimately, if the community wants to return to the days of old, riders will begin to abandon the 5:30 B start time and everyone will wait for the 5:35 start time. Likely a B group will naturally form as it did for thirty years.
So what gave a few years ago and what still gives on some Wednesday nights? After conducting research with long time local riders through phone calls, emails, and Facebook forums, one subject stands out: Coaching styles. Before the ride began to die there were no coaches holding a rider back from going out and riding strong and trying new tactics or from getting dropped and potentially morally defeated. Today, there are a lot of young riders in town who have never been to Worlds yet race every weekend, some on the National Race Calendar. With the risk of moral defeat during a “mere” group ride, burnout can become a real issue. From a coach’s standpoint, it makes sense financially to not include Worlds in the weekly training plan. That coach could potentially lose out on money every month if said burnout is to occur. But what about the other end of that argument? If a rider routinely goes to Worlds and further develops the ability to read a race, these lessons will be applied to an actual race on a weekend. Results will get better with every passing Wednesday just as they did for many riders for thirty years. Could it actually be safe financially for a coach to send a rider out to Worlds?
Coaching styles aside, this Wednesday ritual will continue to regain prominence in the community and again be known as the hardest group ride in the U.S. There are enough riders in town that were in attendance every week for ten to thirty years that still show up on occasion and encourage those that might be newer to the ride to bring the tenacity that was guaranteed for so long. Local rider Don Spence, a frequent attender during the 1990’s, put it best: “I rarely took anything personal at Wednesday Worlds… I simply enjoyed spinning and playing bike chess with the strength that showed up. What I remember is the great respect for your effort, strength, and tenacity.”
Worlds will continue to be the driving force behind road cyclists that call Fort Collins home. No matter the numbers that show up on any given week, the lessons learned in this painful echelon will continue to groom cyclists of all abilities for years to come. Most recently, on the Wednesday of July 22nd, the echelon saw a current stars and stripes winner and former rainbow jersey winner. Currently, it’s not an every week occurrence for riders of this pristine to show up, but the hard work of many involved in the grassroots cycling scene to rebuild Worlds is without doubt taking notice.
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