By Colin Bane
Beaver Creek is probably best known for hosting World Cup ski racing events, but it’s a pedigree that also makes it the perfect place to host the finish for Stage 4 of the USA Pro Challenge, says Brad Ludden, who founded the non-profit organization First Descents nearby in the Vail Valley more than a decade ago. We caught up with Ludden for more on his organization, how he plans to spend race day, and what makes Beaver Creek and the Vail Valley special.
Something Independent: What do you think it means for Beaver Creek to have the USA Pro Challenge come through?
Brad Ludden: Beaver Creek, we can all agree – and the entire Vail Valley for that matter – is a world-class destination. It hosts events at a level that very few places in the world can, and so I think it’s really appropriate to have the Pro Cycling Challenge there because the community is so outdoor-minded and the people there ride bikes as hard as they can. They’re avid cyclists and avid outdoorsmen. The energy there for these big events – whether it’s the World Cup races or championship mountain bike races or the Teva Mountain Games or what have you – that is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. I’ve felt it personally competing as a kayak athlete in the Teva Mountain Games at Vail, and I know it will be a great feeling for these cyclists. In the Vail Valley it’s just part of the culture to embrace these sports and these world-class events, and the crowds there are always something special.
I know First Descents is now based in Denver, but can you tell us a bit about your organization’s roots in the Vail Valley?
My background is as a professional kayak athlete, and back in 2000 the town of Vail met with me about becoming the ambassador to their new whitewater park there on Gore Creek. At that point I’d been working for three years to create this non-profit to empower young adult cancer fighters and survivors through outdoor challenges and experiences, which even then was called First Descents. So we made it a package deal and they helped me get this thing off the ground, helped me get my first board of directors and some volunteer power, and helped get the first First Descents program going in 2001. Until two years ago we called the Vail Valley home and the generosity of the people there and their passion for the outdoors and for helping others is really what made First Descents the success that it is today. We’re now in 14 states, in several countries internationally, and we’ve got nearly 50 programs happening this year. We’ve added surfing, climbing, and mountaineering to our roster of experiences, and looking forward we want to continue to be the leader in the young adult cancer space for outdoor adventure therapy.
How are you planning on spending race day?
I’m going to have to juggle my schedule carefully because we have a big fundraiser in Denver on Thursday evening, but I’m definitely going to try to make it up and for anybody going up to check it out I’d say get up there early and enjoy spending the whole day right in Beaver Creek. The entry into Beaver Creek by all the international flags will be an iconic spot to watch from and I think it would be pretty exciting to be right by the finish line, but there are also going to be some great climbs and downhills all along the route down from Leadville and into Beaver Creek.
Do you have any favorite business that you’d recommend people check out while they’re there?
If they’re looking for a bike shop I’d send them to The Kind Cyclist nearby in Edwards: they’ve always been huge supporters of Team First Descents and they’re just the best bike shop in the Valley from my experience. For food I’d say Blue Moose Pizza right there by the ice rink in Beaver Creek is always a good one. Osprey Lounge, right at the base of the Strawberry Park Express lift, is another one of my favorites. I love going into The Dusty Boot for a burger or The Coyote Cafe for a beer, which is the locals’ favorite and is always a good time.
Who are you rooting for in this year’s race?
Anyone local! It’s awesome that Tejay van Garderen’s been doing well. Go Colorado!
What do you make of the significance of having the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado?
I was listening on the radio to some of the numbers, the revenue it brings in, and it’s just staggering. Economically it’s such a huge coup for us to land an event like this, and it’s a great fit: Colorado’s one of the fittest states in the country, and people do move here because they love to go road biking and mountain biking and skiing and kayaking. We really do live these sports, and so to have the best in the world come here and compete in front of us is such a treat, and it makes living in Colorado that much sweeter. This event is really one of the best events that has come to this state that I can think of.
*The young adults you work with clearly respond to having athletes to look up to. It must be great for them to see events like this. *
I think athletes are an inspiration for all of us, and especially for someone who’s looking for that kind of hero figure. The young adults with cancer we serve, they’ll look for any bright light at the end of that tunnel and a lot of times it does come in the form of the triumph of athletes and from cheering for their heroes. We see that in a lot of our participants, and obviously Lance Armstrong is an icon to a lot of people with cancer. It’s a very poignant thing to have something like the USA Pro Challenge coming through the state because it ties in so closely to our mission of using outdoor challenges as forms of therapy. I think all of us who pursue these sports, on some level we find therapy in them.
What’s next for First Descents? I get the sense you’re just getting started.
We want to continue not only doing what we’re doing and doing it better but also serving more and more young adults. 72,000 young adults are diagnosed with cancer each year and we’ve got hundreds of people on our waiting lists right now. We know we’ve got a model that works and now it’s our goal to not only do it better but to do more of it, so that we can use it to reach more and more people. That generosity that started in the Vail Valley needs to keep growing around the state and around the country to make these experiences available to these young adults. I’d invite anybody who’s interested to check out FirstDescents.org, because there are a lot of ways to volunteer, get involved, or donate to our programs.
S|I is pleased to have writer Colin Bane authoring A Local’s Look at each stage of our On the Road with USA Pro Challenge tour. His work has been featured in ESPN.com, Westword, The Washington Post Magazine, Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine, Aviation Business Journal, Washington City Paper, and Bail Skateboard Culture. Colin is a skateboarder, snowboarder, action sports fan, and proud dad.