For many cyclists in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, Wednesday night is race night. That’s when riders of all levels—from professionals like Tour de France overall contender Tejay van Garderen to 82-year-old Jacques “Frenchie” Houot or mother-of-three Rachel Beck—take to the dirt trails and paved roads near Aspen to put their skills and endurance to the test.
On a Wednesday evening in May, more than 80 cyclists gathered near an open space off Highway 82, the four-lane road that follows 40 miles of the Roaring Fork River from Aspen to Glenwood Springs, for the Aspen Cycling Club’s season kickoff. The cyclists were a diverse bunch. Ranging in age from 10 to 80, some wore Spandex kits sporting sponsor names while others donned baggy mountain bike shorts and tank tops. After they completed a tailgate check-in near the starting line, they attached number plates to their bars, checked tire pressure and chatted about new bikes, kids and summer plans. The crowd was bigger than usual; everyone was eager to ride the buff, purpose-built, low-grade trails of Sky Mountain Park, which had been closed since December for elk calving.
The Aspen Cycling Club was founded by a group of cyclists in 1988 with the goal of providing affordable weekly racing to their community, according to Tyler Newton, ACC president. Since then, the ACC offers 18 to 20 races each summer, alternating between mountain and road rides from Aspen to Glenwood Springs. The format varies from 10-minute mountain bike time trials to 50-mile road races. And the cost is affordable: The first race is free—as is every race for those under 18—and then costs $20 per race or $125 for the season. Every ability level is welcome, and the valley’s fastest cyclists always find steep, yet friendly, competition.
“Aspen draws a unique brand of people to live here,” said Tejay van Garderen, a professional cyclist who finished fifth overall at the Tour de France in 2012 and 2014. He lives in the Roaring Fork Valley and supports ACC through the Van Garderen Foundation. “It’s outdoor people with a competitive edge,” van Garderen said. “ACC is a social opportunity, as well as a racing outlet. It keeps people active and involved and striving to be better through healthy competition.”
Former ACC president Mike Maple, 59, also attributes his bike fitness to the club. “When I have a race to do once a week, it motivates me to get out and ride my bike, not just on race night, but all week,” he said. “Without the race series, I wouldn’t ride my bike as much.”
In America, and abroad, cycling clubs are the backbone of grassroots cycling. Clubs help members navigate the cycling world, improve their skills and fitness, find like-minded riding partners and grow community. USA Cycling, the national governing body for bicycle racing in the United States, recognizes clubs annually based on community involvement, dedication to growing the sport and supporting the at-large cycling community near them. Last year’s winners included a mountain bike club in Park City, Utah; a women’s club in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and a college club in Indianapolis, Indiana. In the antisocial era of fitness apps, where users compete without actually riding together, weekly race series seem more important for camaraderie than ever before.
Bike co-ops and clubs stretch from Seattle to Sarasota, but Colorado remains the hotbed of mountain bike racing. About 100 miles from Aspen, Vail hosts the longest-running mountain bike town series in the state—2018 marked its 35th season of racing.
In Aspen, most of the $40,000 budget—funded by title sponsor The North Face, the Van Garderen Foundation, local donations, in-kind sponsorships and membership fees—goes to permitting, signs and safety, said Newton. At the end of the year, the nonprofit puts any proceeds back into the community through donations and scholarships.
But not every community has the same resources or terrain as Colorado’s clubs. In less cycling-centric locales, like New Orleans, Louisiana, clubs also serve as ambassadors for the sport within the city. For five years, the New Orleans Metro Area Mountain Bike Association (NOMAMBO) hosted races every Tuesday from February to October, drawing around 30 people. For $10 per race (money which directly supported the club), participants competed with paper-plate numbers for goofy prizes, like bacon for first place and imitation bacon bits for last. But, three years ago, increased rainfall started flooding the trail, which forced the club to close it for months at a time. The club has since had to downsize, and now they only run one cross-country race per year and a blowout Halloween event.
In many communities, a weekly race also serves as a launch pad for youth cycling. At the Over the Hump race series in Orange County, California, kids ages 6 to 11 race every Tuesday evening with the mantra: “Be nice, have fun, be safe.”
In Aspen, the level of competition on any given Wednesday night race is high, said Levi Gavett, a recent high-school grad from Carbondale, who started racing with the ACC his sophomore year of high school. “At the same time, it is a light, no-pressure atmosphere that allows everyone to enjoy the racing and spend time with the bike community,” he said. “A lot of the guys are older than I am, and I like the opportunity to branch outside of my normal high-school bubble and meet another community.”
Beck, a mother of three, has used ACC to gain fitness after having children, and to recover from injuries. But it’s the consistent camaraderie that lures her each week.
“Everyone has busy lives,” said Beck. “But I know that every Wednesday night in the valley, I have a group of like-minded people to ride with, compete against and usually have a beer with afterward.” With that, she pedaled up to the start with the goal of beating her 15-year-old son, ready to ride into another season of Wednesday nights on two wheels.
To find a cycling club near you, start with USA Cycling’s Club Search.