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For three glorious days in July, Gerber Plumbing Fixtures and Danze Inc.’s President and CEO Michael Werner led a group of almost 70 seriously dedicated cyclists — most from the plumbing industry — on Team Danze as they tackled extreme elevations and inclines in the Colorado Rockies as part of the 25th Annual Courage Classic. And I was thrilled to literally “go along for the ride” to chronicle the event as part of the SAG van crew!
This year, the Courage Classic raised more than $2.9 million for Children’s Hospital Colorado, one of the nation’s leading pediatric healthcare organizations that serves a nine-state region in the West. Over its 25-year history, the ride has raised $32 million for the hospital.
The Courage Classic drew 2,200 cyclists who pedaled for distances ranging from 40 to 100 miles a day. (The official routes offered options of 21 to 80 miles each day, but leave it to some of those crazy cyclists who, after six-plus hours in the saddle actually elected to ride 100 so they could claim “the Century”!) Copper Mountain served as the start/finish line and routes wound through towns including Vail, Leadville, Breckenridge, Frisco and Keystone. Riders conquered six mountain passes including Vail, Ute, Fremont, Tennessee, Battle and Hoosier — with elevations as high as 11,542 feet. The inclines range from flat to a 12% grade going up and down. Each serious climb up is between a mile and eight miles. One of the picturesque pit stops was Climax, Colo., on the Continental Divide, home of a molybdenum mine and the highest-elevation railroad stop in the country.
And you’ve heard that old saying of “What goes up must come down.” Well, in this case, they come down in a tight tuck and often hit speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour.
All roads lead to Colorado
Team Danze is comprised of cyclists from all parts of the country — from Maryland and Pennsylvania all the way to California and Utah. Most are involved in the plumbing industry, and seriously train to take part in this race.
Avid cyclist Werner initially got involved in the Courage Classic about six years ago after hearing his sister Bev talk about her experiences riding in it. And with his niece serving as a nurse practioner in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Children's, it fueled his desire even further. Werner is known for his commitment to giving back and philosophy of being a positive force in the world. And he uses the platform of Team Danze to help further those goals.
“Every study I’ve ever read about happy people identifies two main characteristics:
“Those are my core personal values, and it’s the same with our company. Team Danze embodies those two things. It’s about the connectivity and camaraderie we build while doing something good in this world. When you add that cycling is an activity I love to do, and Colorado is a place I love to be, it’s become one of the things I look most forward to doing every year.”
Bev Werner Needham has ridden in the Courage Classic for over 20 years, and got involved because one of her friends has a child who was treated at Childrens Hospital. She formed a team to ride in support, and hasn’t missed a year since. Her team, the HW Home Girls, are always easily recognizable in their bright pink jerseys, while Team Danze draws plenty of attention with their flamingo faucet design on the front and a toilet on the back. Together, the teams are affectionately known as the “Hotties” and the “Potties.”
As Werner described, “The first couple of years we had a basic jersey and it looked like every other teams’ jerseys. We wanted to stand out, and there’s no denying that we do. Our jerseys are playful and grab a lot of attention and comments along the way.”
The Werners' connection to the hospital was strengthened even more in recent years, as Bev’s daughter joined the staff and is now a nurse practitioner in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
“I’m so impressed with the amount of responsibility she carries on her shoulders,” Werner praised. “She is the person between life and death for many of her patients and the role she plays is incredible. In the six years Team Danze has been involved, we’ve raised $150,000 for the hospital, and have been able to earmark those funds for her unit. The nurses then have an opportunity to direct how the funds are used — including things like equipment, training and research projects.”
Reminders of those who have been treated by Children’s are prominent everywhere during the Courage Classic —which, as some riders describe, provides even more motivation to make it up some of the steep grades they face. Everyone’s favorite group of riders is always “Team Courage,” which is comprised of former patients, their families and medical staff. Current and former patients, living and deceased, are also recognized in a number of ways:
“The first year I did the ride, I was at the finish line when Team Courage came in,” Werner recalled. “There were about 80 people riding with them at the time, and it literally gave me chills. Some were in carts being pulled, some rode themselves, some obviously still bore the scars of their heath issues. The looks on their faces of utter joy and accomplishment stick with you. And among all those cheering them on, there’s not a dry eye.”
Werner recognized that value of a personal touch, and so the following year he made arrangements with Children’s Philanthrophy Director Les Lee to tour the hospital prior to the ride. Because of the impact it had, each year Werner encourages everyone on Team Danze to do the same. It is always the first stop for the group’s caravan on their five-day Colorado adventure.
“Seeing the hospital first-hand was overwhelming,” Werner commented. “It’s such an integrated facility, and interesting to see how all the areas of medicine work together. It’s also so uplifting to see their focus on the whole family — and not just the sick child. Neonatal Unit children are there an average of 28 days, and so the hospital does everything possible to make it a family friendly, home-like environment for them.”
During the ride, it was evident right away the tremendous camaraderie among cyclists, and the support they receive from volunteers and spectators.
Gerber/Danze Senior Vice President Jeff Pratt rode with Werner the first few years, and now leads the SAG crew that supports Team Danze.
“Until you actually experience being part of the Courage Classic, you can’t imagine how hard this is,” Pratt said. “They’re putting in six to eight hours a day on a grueling route. One of my favorite things is to see the newbies’ reactions along the course and for them to cross the finish each afternoon. Seeing the look of accomplishment on their faces is priceless. The camaraderie and bonding are the best part of the event for me. These relationships supersede any kind of business relationship, and now we’re lifelong friends. It takes it to a whole other level of trust.
“And we’re all doing something for a good cause, so everyone really supports each other. Along the way, there are literally hundreds of volunteers who prepare meals and snacks, dispense meds for sore muscles and altitude issues, repair bikes, and are prepared for any medical emergencies. And that’s not to mention the crowds that gather in each town and at the start/finish in Copper Mountain to ring cowbells and cheer riders on.”
Werner added, “The crazy thing about being a cyclist is that you put yourself in situations where you know you’re going to suffer. Vail Pass is a 2,600-foot climb with a huge grade over 10 miles up and it’s 103° on the black asphalt. You literally scream at yourself to keep moving. But you do it because it’s a challenge and you love it. And then you’ve got the SAG wagon crews and people along the way who cheer for you and hearing them yell “Go Potties” always adds some fuel to our fire.”
A smooth ride
Pulling together logistics for a team this large from around the country takes a lot of attention to detail. And ensuring the proper handling of all their gear and equipment, and that the cyclists are well fed and rested for their ride, is crucial.
Reservations for condos takes place for the next year at the conclusion of each ride so Team Danze will have a comfortable, home-like setting in which to stay. Groups of two to six team members share each condo, and having kitchens allows them to keep their favorite energy-boosting foods and beverages on hand since their bodies are so depleted each day. In fact, after the visit to Children’s Hospital upon everyone’s arrival in Denver, the caravan stops at a local grocery store in Copper Mountain so everyone can stock up their condos for the four-day stay.
Team Danze staffs two SAG — Support And Gear — vans that patrol the routes each day and meet up with riders at all the pit stops, which are typically every 25 to 30 miles. The vans are loaded with extra water, protein bars, nuts, granola, BenGay, sunscreen and more. They also provide storage for the cyclists’ layers that they shed along the way, as temperatures are hovering in the 30s when the ride starts around 6:30 a.m. and typically reach 80 by midday. And, from personal experience, one of the most fun parts of being on the SAG crew is the horn-tooting and cat-calling for all the members of the Hotties and Potties as we made our way along the route.
“After six years of doing this, we’ve got it down to a science,” Pratt said. “We want it to be a smooth, memorable experience so providing comfort and support is critical. Each night, we host a team dinner at local restaurants, which gives everyone a chance to relax, have some good food and socialize before hitting their beds early. It’s a lot of work, but our Christine Snyder does a great job handling all the details for the event and making sure everything is ready and in place when we get there. These bikes are finely-tuned machines that can cost as much at $20,000. Some of our team likes to ship their bikes to Colorado, while others rent from local shop that has a premium selection. We handle all of those arrangements for them.
“One of the challenging things for us on the SAG crew is that we have a wide range of skill levels on Team Danze — and we need to be there for everyone. There are the ‘Alpha Dogs, who take off fast and furious and are literally almost pro-level. Then you have the ‘Hobbyists’ who are experienced riders but who ride in the middle of the pack. And we always have some slower riders affectionately known as the ‘Happy Turtles’ who want to challenge themselves and see if they can do it. The SAG vans continually do sweeps along the route so if anyone gets stuck between points, we’ll pick them up and get them what they need. It can be a dangerous sport. A lot of things can happen out there on the road — blown tire, an accident at high speed or injury — so it gives them peace of mind to know we’ve got their backs. And they love it when we hoot and holler at them!”
There is a distinctly social aspect to the event as well.
The day prior to the start of the ride, Team Danze participates in a group activity. In years past, it’s included things like whitewater rafting and ziplining. This year, everyone gathered for a GPS-guided Amazing Race type of adventure through the Village of Copper Mountain — and then took a ski lift into the mountains for even more challenges.
While partly designed as a team-building activity, it’s also a chance for people who live in other parts of the country to become more accustomed to the altitude in preparation for the ride. Even talking while walking in the Village at that altitude is a challenge the first day. The group event is a physical, fun and bonding experience for everyone. And it’s amazingly competitive, as everyone gives their all to win. We were divided into groups of six to eight people, and given a list of challenges to complete, each worth varying numbers of points. This allowed teams to really get to know each other and work together — you couldn’t complete each level of the challenge unless you were all together. And it wasn’t easy finding a group of six strangers that we could convince to do the “Chicken Dance!”
Following that, we took a ski lift to the top of Copper Mountain, hiked some of the trails, and participated in a couple more challenges — including having members of each team try to balance on and walk a tightrope suspended two feet above the ground with only ski poles to steady themselves.
During the Courage Classic, the Village of Copper Mountain is literally awash with live music and a festival atmosphere as the riders cross the finish line each day. Hundreds of people — from toddlers to seniors — line last few blocks of the route and the central park to cheer them on with cowbells.
The Team Danze post-race headquarters is the Incline Bar & Grille, conveniently located right at the finish line. The first members of the group who arrive claim the patio area, and then continually cheer on the remainder of the Hotties and Potties as they cross the finish. It’s here that they can recharge a bit and enjoy their endorphin high after completing one of the toughest rides most of them have ever done. After the entire team gets in, the riders all head back to their condos to snag a quick nap before dinner.
Each evening Team Danze gathers for dinner, alternating among local restaurants in Copper Mountain. There is always plenty of food with lots of appetizers and typically three pre-selected choices from each menu to make the process smoother. After expending upwards of 6,000 calories during each day’s ride, they are a hungry — and tired — group. So dinner is a short but fun opportunity to talk about the day before getting an early lights out!
On the last evening, before the final leg of the ride, it’s time for Team Danze to hand out the Brass Potty Awards! Snyder came up with the idea of using a potty design on the awards, and they are truly a fun keepsake for the winners to take home.
“We determine the various awards, and winners, onsite,” said Pratt. “Some of the awards are the same every year, like Fastest Downhill (Chris Norman of Dynamic Plumbing) and Rookie of the Year (Brent Anderson of Mountainland Supply). But then we have others that we hand out based on unique circumstances — including yours, as our Social Media Queen since you were literally providing non-stop coverage of everything that happened. It’s really a fun way to personalize the experience and give a shout out to people for their accomplishments. And, let’s be honest, we poke a bit of fun sometimes, too. They love to get those potty trophies! It’s a real badge of honor to these guys!”
Werner’s goal is to build Team Danze to about 100 people in the future. “It’s such a fun event, and perfectly suited for our brand,” he said. “We develop lifelong bonds. There are just three little rules: