Hunter’s racing insight guiding Pro Cycling Challenge

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Shawn Hunter, CEO and co-chair of the upcoming USA Pro Cycling Challenge, is planning a statewide event that has attracted the world’s top cycling athletes, is bringing 150 media representatives from around the world and is expected to be watched by hundreds of thousands of cycling fans.

Hunter, former president of AEG Sports, helped run the Tour of California in its first years — an event which is now considered one of the best races in the world with 2 million spectators and a $100 million economic impact to host cities.

The inaugural USA Pro Challenge is Aug. 22-28 and kicks off in Colorado Springs with timed trials out of the Garden of the Gods into downtown.

Hunter sat down with the Business Journal recently to talk about the race.

How did you come to be involved in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge?

It was actually an introduction to the race owner via former Denver mayor now Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. They had a big interest in the race. I had been involved with the launch of the Tour of California. I have been friends with the Governor for 16 years. I got to meet (owner) Rick Schaden and got very comfortable with his vision and he asked if I would join as co-chairman back in February.

Twenty two cities bid on the chance to host a leg of the race. What did Colorado Springs do to land the prologue?

It’s a couple of major ingredients. One is the great leadership here with its local organizing committee. This is a city that is very comfortable hosting world-class events. Certainly that is our goal for this race, to someday be considered a world- class event. We thought the ingredients were here in Colorado Springs for success and the leadership has proven that to be true.

What is the cost to put on such a large-scale event?

We don’t disclose our financials — it’s a private enterprise. But, it’s a huge undertaking. It’s in the millions of dollars. There are three key ingredients that you need to have to be successful in this sport: You’ve got to have vision, which I think we have here. You’ve got to have a deep financial commitment, which we have with the race owners. They are passionate about the sport and the event. And, you’ve got to have patience. This is not an event that is going to make money the first year. It’s a long-term build. That is why California is successful. And, I think we have a chance at great success here as well.

The Tour of California had an $80 million economic impact in its host cities in the first year. What will the economic impact be in Colorado?

We won’t know exact figures until after we race. But it will be significant, certainly more than $50 million. There are some differences in our favor here the first year. In 2006, California was not on national television. We are here. We have 25 hours on NBC, which is great for tourism for all of our communities. We also are fortunate that we will have a global distribution and be live in over 100 countries. It’s going to be a post card for the entire state and all the cities that are hosting this. To start, our official traveling party — the athletes, the media, the staff and sponsors — we consume close to 1,000 room nights in each city. It truly will have a measurable impact. And then what it does for tourism — I think the governor said it best when he said, we have no idea what athlete is going to win, but the big winner in 2011 is Colorado.

You are planning a statewide party, are you worried that no one will come?

Based on the buzz that we are starting to see around the state and the great job that each city is doing promoting in their own market, we think we are going to see some really big crowds. The California race is the same size and classification as the USA Pro Challenge, and the first year, we had 1.3 million spectators. We are not making projections here, because that is impossible. You never know if one day you are battling weather, but there are so many passionate outdoor enthusiasts, cyclists who are going to want to be part of that celebration. We’ll have big crowds. And, we’ll have big crowds at every stage.

What are your expectations for the whole event?

We ourselves have an internal report card. At the end of the race, we will be judged by the communities that hosted us, the athletes, the media and our sponsors. Our goal is to get high marks with each of those groups. One measure of success is after the race if every community wants us back and we want to go back, then we’ve done something pretty special.

What about this event excites you personally?

The crowd. It’s hard to describe. It’s inspiring. I went to the Tour de France and being in a team car — to literally be on the course and drive around a million spectators per day, I said, wouldn’t that be great someday if we could do that. I’m excited about race week, its fun. It’s one of the most fun projects I’ve ever worked on. But, I’m also hopeful at the end that the state and the communities look back and say, that’s the best thing we ever did.

What do you expect Colorado Springs’ role to be in the future?

In California, we had a great prologue very similar to what we have here — short, intense, it set the stage for the week in terms of the eventual winner. I like having iconic stages like we have here. Chris Carmichael (Colorado Springs organizing committee chair) has expressed the organizing committee’s intent of having this back multiple years. We said that is our mutual goal. We will assess after the race. If you talk to the athletes there are three days that will define the race: this is one. It’s quick fast, it’s an opportunity for some of these guys who specialize in time trials, they can put a little bit of time on their competitors. The Aspen stage, where they go over 12,000 feet twice — it’s never been done. That’s going to punish those guys. And, the Vail time trial … athletes have circled those three spots and said this is where I have to be on “A” game. Plus, we are on national television and we get to kick it off here.

Why should folks who don’t follow cycling care about this event?

They should care because it is a massive rolling party, it’s a celebration and they get a chance to see the best athletes in the world — the same competitors from the Tour de France here in Colorado — and the event is free. That is pretty hard to find — 132 of the best riders in the world charging through our towns and it’s free.