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Almost history

When the host city for the 2016 Summer Games was being decided, Chicago’s bid hung on a matter of hills. Or rather, on a lack thereof. To crown the Olympic Champion, the IOC required a road course with significant elevation change. And for all the great riding Chicago offers, the region simply doesn’t have the kind of climbs that would satisfy this requirement. So Robbie Ventura, lead course designer and former professional racer with US Postal, came up with a solution.

2009 was, by all accounts, an up and down year. The global economy was mired while the US continued its slow navigation through recession, our friends' FarmVille requests stalked our Facebook feeds on our new iPhone 3Gs, Jay Z released his final studio album, and, despite all of his promises, Kanye West wouldn't let Taylor Swift finish.

2009 was also the year the location for the 2016 Summer Games was to be decided. Chicago had been selected as the potential host for the US, but each sport must have a venue plan approved by the IOC as part of the bid. And although Chicago had met all of the logistical requirements and had the funding capacity necessary for such an event, the surrounding topography of Illinois left the cycling courses…uninspired.

The committee overseeing submissions would not approve Chicago's proposed cycling courses.

The lead course designer on the project was Robbie Ventura, a former professional racer with US Postal and owner of a Trek store in the greater Chicago area. Facing down the reality of the stalled bid, Robbie did what any cyclist in this predicament would do: he dug out the maps and searched for the kind of geography that would make up a legendary ride, eventually discovering a region outside of Madison called Blue Mounds.

The area may not be familiar to many Chicagoans, but Blue Mounds is renowned among employees of Trek HQ. After all, it’s the backyard playground for those among us who seek out Wisconsin’s more challenging riding terrain. Recognizing the proximity to Trek’s Waterloo headquarters, Robbie reached out for input on his new design. The result? The course that could have been—hilly, difficult, classic, dramatic, and a mere 2.5-hour drive north of Chicago.

In the end, as we all know, Chicago lost the bid to Rio, despite the decidedly awe-inspiring road course. But we're no less proud of this little contribution to almost making history. And that's exactly what this course is: almost history. Those of us familiar with the story couldn't accept that the course that could have been would be buried along with the failed bid, so we submit it here hoping that it may move you to ride and consider how the things we never know are almost the way everything eventually happens.

The course that could have been

The proposed parcours was to begin at the Wisconsin State Capitol building at the center of Madison. From the capitol, the race would head west along a relatively flat route—a warm up of sorts—towards an area known as Blue Mounds. 25,000 years before the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Games is scheduled to occur, the last North American glacier, the same that left Illinois wanting of any undulation, missed Southwestern Wisconsin. The hills were not flattened by vertical miles of ice, so they still stand today. These hills, locally famous for their steep grades and magnitude, are some of the most notorious cycling routes in the Midwest, testing the lactic thresholds of thousands of cyclists throughout the region’s warmer seasons.

From the short run-up from Madison, past the classic Wisconsin towns of Fitchburg, Verona, and Mount Horeb, the road turns sharply north onto the circuit that would start to break up the peloton.

The most challenging part of the course—the 22-mile circuit surrounding Blue Mounds with over 2000 feet of climbing per lap—was to be ridden seven times for a total of 14,000 feet of climbing before the grueling final climb to the finish at the top of the park, which tacked on another 1000 feet to the total. It was just enough continuous climbing that both a pure climber or anyone strong enough to endure could have won.

To the local riders, these roads hold a mythical status. Pinnacle. Mounds Park Road. Ridgeview. Zweitler. They are known in the local cycling community because they’re hard. They go up. And down. Sharply. They deliver the exact qualities that make a bike race interesting. On the whole, the course resembles the hilly classics like Liege-Bastogne-Liege, but with more trees—giant oaks, with a canopy often casting a shadow over the road. The organizers were worried that the TV helicopter would lose visual contact. They were right.

Roads would have been repaved, shoulders fixed. The Wisconsin Governor was all in. Property on the Olympic course would have been sold, test races run. Farmers would have been inconvenienced. Cows wouldn’t have cared.

On a warm day in August of 2016, every inch of the course would have been lined with spectators, visitors, and natives of the cycling-crazed Southern Wisconsin, Chicago, and the United States. Blue Mounds would have swelled in size, and the crowds lining the final kilometer to the top of the park would have been five deep.

We have no idea how the 2016 race for gold will play out, but we know the course we constructed would have shined. The hills would have been known to more than locals. They would have become legendary around the world.

The course that is to be

Let’s just say the day Rio won the bid was a difficult one. We mourned with Chicagoans, whose disbelieving expressions after the announcement were plastered above the fold of every major newspaper in the region. After riding the course that could have been, we were just as astonished to know the KOMs of local legends, including those owned by more than a few Trek employees, would not be contested and surely broken by the world’s best.

Call it regional pride, but we were hard-pressed to believe any other city could deliver a course that so perfectly encapsulated the emotion and energy of our sport. So we set out in search of understanding. We sent our photographer to visit Trek Brazil, our office in the host country of the Summer Games, to tour the course and ride the roads that had been chosen over ours.

Nestled into the southern coastline of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro is a city with its own heartbeat. The coastline is the great unifier for locals and visitors alike. Day and night, the famous calçada portuguesa sidewalks teem with beachgoers. Skateboarders, cyclists, and joggers coast the pedestrian lanes leisurely with a kind of contagious coolness.

The 253-kilometer course, which delivers an astounding 17,000 feet of total change in elevation, begins at the famous Copacabana Beach and hugs the coastline past the sands of Ipanema—yes, the one from the song—for the first of two primary circuits. From the flat, wide open beach roads, the circuit narrows into a pair of punchy, tree-covered climbs, one of which has a maximum gradient of 13%, and a two-kilometer sector of cobblestones. This circuit is repeated four times before the course turns back toward Ipanema.

The race will surely be decided on the three laps of the second circuit. Inland from the coastal air, the National Park Serra da Tijuca delivers long, steep climbs, winding descents, and extraordinary views of Rio. From the high lookout Vista Chinesa, where monkeys rustle overhead in tree canopies, the famous Cristo Redentor is visible in the distance, arms stretched in blessing.

In the end, there probably couldn’t be two more distinctive courses than the course that could have been and the course that will be. And though we will always hold that ours is worthy of the greatest, we’re also now more excited than ever to watch the drama unfold in Rio. It is certainly a worthy stage.

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