Some thought it couldn't be done. You couldn't convince world class Tour de France caliber cyclists to come from Europe to race in Colorado at 8,000 to 12,000-ft. elevations. You couldn't get thousands and thousands of spectators to watch such an event in Bronco/Rockies/Avalanche/Nuggets territory. And an upscale burger chain to be a founding sponsor? Right.
Yet the third annual USA ProCycling Challenge is set to kick off Monday, Aug. 19 in Aspen, with 16 top international teams fielding dozens of the world's top cyclists. And founding partner Smashburger -- itself growing and expanding in tough, demanding conditions -- will again fly its banner over the start/finish lines.
When we attended and researched the inaugural 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge, Smashburger's founder Tom Ryan saw a natural connection between the world's fastest and most durable cyclists and a company devoted to serving better burgers. Cycling is an physical activity, something that makes people feel better having accomplished it. Smashburger's building burgers to make folks a meal they feel great about. After all, great food and the great (mountain) outdoors is part of a great life.
This year, the Challenge's route is again beautiful but brutal for the cyclists, as the route goes from Aspen to Snowmass to Breckenridge to Steamboat Springs to Beaver Creek, Vail, Loveland, Fort Collins to Denver. That would be a spectacular but wearing seven-day trip by car. By bicycle, it boggles the mind. But the cyclists themselves have found the challenge tough but doable. We get to see the riders we see on television crossing the fields and scaling the mountains of Europe tackle the mighty Rockies.
Levi Leipheimer, a racer famous for his key performances on the U.S. Postal Service and Radio Shack teams with Lance Armstrong, won the first Challenge. Leipheimer is a Montanan by birth but lives in California. Nearing 40 years old, he has retired.
Christian Vande Velde, an Illinois native, who also raced with U.S. Postal, won the 2012 Challenge. Vande Velde crashed twice in this year's Tour de France but he will be on hand to defend his title. Vande Velde not only told the Denver Post he's rounding back into form but feels his Colorado-based team, Team Garmin-Sharp will be the top contenders this year. Teammate Tom Danielson is coming off a win at the Tour of Utah and Andrew Talansky finished 10th in France. Vande Velde said coming to Colorado to race is "a blast" compared to racing in France ("Defending Champ Christian Vande Velde says `I'm feeling better' as Pro Challenge nears," Denver Post, 8/18/13).
Obviously, these guys don't recognize pain and adversity when they see it. We are in awe of our friend John Pierce from England, who (just!) rides the race on the back of a motorcycle shooting photos. Our imagination is unequal to imagining cycling these mountains at speed. Speaking of crashes, the descent alone would kill most of us, let alone getting to the top without horsepower.
As for moving right along, Smashburger has continued to add locations during the recession/"recovery," to number around 250 by year's end, with franchise agreements and corporate plans to top 300 perhaps next year. The restaurants make their own burger balls out of 5-lb. batches of 80/20 CAB ground beef. When the meat balls hit the grill, they are smashed, seared and seasoned to order. Smashburger has lots of options for buns, cheeses, toppings and condiments so a diner can customize at will. If you're decision-making challenged, they have suggested combinations, too. For sides, we like the garlic and rosemary fries and the Haagen-Dazs shakes go down well. Beer and wine are available, too.
Smashburger had been contemplating an IPO but a private equity firm got in front of the line and pumped $35 million into the company this summer.
Of course, a large part of the beef industry's success are the thousands of folks out there hustling to please their customers using beef. You may be familiar with the term "fast casual." There's no exact definition, but for the beef industry, think of something in between the quality hamburger chains we go to when time is at a premium, like Burger King and McDonald's -- we're omitting the chain who's name we dare not repeat after their LFTB bad behavior -- and going for a steak at your favorite steakhouse. Think a bigger, thicker burger cooked to your order with fancier sides, a little quieter atmosphere and maybe an adult beverage on the side.
That's the slot chains like Smashburger, Red Robin, Fatburger and other regional chains are filling. During the last five years, when food budgets have been tight for many Americans, keeping beef on their palate without spending a fortune has proven to be a surprisingly ripe opportunity for fast casual burger chains. Smashburger has grown from one restaurant in 2007 to over 200 now in some of the toughest economic environments since Jimmy Carter.
NBC Sports Group channels will be carrying coverage of the race on television.