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Pedaling at the Tour de Everywhere

After Lance Armstrong, cycling shifts into a new gear with more state races
By REED ALBERGOTTI
April 22, 2006

Over the past week, a bicycle race has put some of the world's top competitors to the test, with its long, winding climbs and high-speed sprints. But the race itself faces a big challenge, too -- the absence of the man who once dominated it: Lance Armstrong.

It's not the Tour de France. Rather, it's the Tour de Georgia, a 600-mile course that wraps up this weekend in Alpharetta outside Atlanta.

As cycling plots its next act, a big question is how the absence of the sport's legendary name will affect its chances for growth. Some say the answer lies in an unlikely intersection between the sport of bike racing and states looking to draw more attention to their small towns. After seeing thousands of people attend races in Georgia and California, other states, from Missouri to Michigan, are increasingly catching on to the potential tourism benefits of cycling. In Utah, officials have secured roughly $1 million in sponsorships to put on this summer's six-day Tour of Utah.

It's a substantial bet on a sport that is far from being a mass-market phenomenon in the U.S. For a recent broadcast of the Tour of California on ESPN2, race promoters had to pay the network to air it. The race was shown at 1 a.m. and averaged a 0.1 rating, compared with 0.8 for regular-season bowling on ESPN. Fans tend to be cyclists themselves, and only 56,000 people are registered to race with USA Cycling, the governing body of the sport, up 28% from last year.

But as a tourism draw, states say the sport has promise. Last year's Tour de Georgia brought in $36.2 million and attracted 800,000 spectators, including 44,000 to the town of Dahlonega alone. The former gold rush town has seen its overall hotel occupancy jump because of the race. "It means much more to that kind of a community, which only has that happen once in a blue moon," says Charlie Gatlin, chief of staff for the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

In Missouri, officials recently organized a steering committee that includes members of the highway patrol and the department of transportation to work toward starting a multistage pro bike race next year like the one in Georgia. "We're aggressively pursuing it," says Ben Jones, chief of staff to the lieutenant governor of Missouri. Though Missouri's southern mountains don't have inclines as steep as those in the Pyrenees or the Alps, where the Tour de France is held, they do match the ones in Georgia, says Mr. Jones, and could make for some challenging mountain stages.

Started three years ago for amateurs, the Tour of Utah is shifting to an all-professional race this year. At 600 miles, Utah's race is still far shorter than the 2,000-mile-plus Tour de France, but it has at least one advantage: high-altitude mountain stages that rival those in Europe.

During long stages like the ones in the Tour de France or Georgia, racers only pass by once. But part of the fun for cycling fans is just waiting around. In Europe, they've been known to camp overnight to reserve a good spot, writing notes to their favorite stars in chalk on the road. When the race does pass by, spectators occasionally give riders a push when they're struggling up a big climb or douse them in water. Races in the U.S. are typically less rowdy, so organizers put on "rolling festivals," with everything from fitness expos to kiddie races.

When the Tour of California came through San Jose in February, 50,000 people came out to watch on a weekday. The city spent just $140,000 on the race, for things like police overtime and road closures, and estimates that the overall economic impact was about $4.7 million, accounting for revenue from hotels to restaurants. "It's a pretty remarkable return on our investment," says Kim Walesh, assistant director of economic development for San Jose. In comparison, putting on the San Jose Grand Prix costs about $600,000 and brings in $23 million. The city also is spending $1.4 million in each of the next two years on race-related infrastructure improvements.

It's not all downhill. The Tour of Connecticut, a three-year-old stage race that stretches from New Haven to Canaan, near the Massachusetts border, lost its major sponsorship and may not happen this year. The race's promoter, John Eustice, a former pro cyclist and now a coach, says he could probably get by on a $250,000 budget. "We scrimp and scrape," he says.

Terrain can pose obstacles, too. Organizers trying to inaugurate the first Tour of Michigan in the next year or two say they are trying to pitch it as a race for sprinters -- cyclists who excel on flat, high-speed courses -- and time trialists, who race against the clock instead of in a pack. That's because the state has "rolling hills at best," says Jamie Smith, an amateur racer and public-information director for the Detroit suburb of Rochester Hills. "Just because they're not grinding up an 11% grade in the mountains, I don't think it'll detract from the race."

When the town of Chickamauga was chosen to host the start of this year's time trial in Georgia, John Culpepper, the city manager, said he was told by the race's organizers to expect 5,000 to 15,000 people to show up -- possibly the most people to congregate there since the famous Civil War battle in 1863, he says. But yesterday, the count was about 2,000, says Mr. Culpepper. "Maybe we misread it," he says, adding that the free publicity was worth it. "We want to become the Gettysburg of the South. I think this is a major stepping stone."

And then there's the "de" in Tour de Georgia. Chris Aronhalt, vice president of operations for Medalist Sports, the race's promoter, says he sometimes gets emails and phone calls from angry fans saying "this is America, use the English language." Says Mr. Aaronhalt: "The French language and cycling -- they're certainly synonymous. We stay true to that."
 

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Thanks for posting. I guess Saturday's WSJ is still in my mailbox...I was in Georgia watching the Tour !

Is the guy from Missouri on crack? I just whipped out the atlas, highest peek in Mo, 1700 feet. Brasstown Bald 4700.
 

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scruffy nerf herder
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as a missouri guy, I would agree, even though the general starting elevation of missouri I would estimate at 600-800 feet is lower than the base of brasstown... even climbing to the highest point of in missouri would be what... 1000 feet? Yes, the guy is confused. However, some of the hills around here are short, but stupid severe, especially in some of the older river towns. Would it make for a very good race... good question. We have good racers, but I think it would be a peculiar event. Where would they have it? Im guessing St. Louis or KC, more than likely St. Louis, but litespeed chick, you are right... no climbs anywhere close to that.
 

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funk - glad you weren't offended. I know what you mean about where the foot of the mountain starts. That's the excuse we use in Pisgah as to why we think our climbs up to 5500 are as tough as many of the western climbs that go over 10,000 (except for that whole no-oxygen thing).

I wonder if the guy quoted knew as little about the mountains of N. Georgia as I did before we went to the TdG for the first time in '04. Even living next door on the border of SC and NC, I had NO IDEA! I knew there were mountains, but I assumed they were hills, paleing in comparison to the mountains around Asheville. Well, they aren't quite like around Asheville, but they don't seem far off...and they're "pointy" as all hell. This was our third trip to the TdG and we've really enjoyed all of them. Beautiful lakes, the fog burning off the valleys, dogwoods every 20 ft., people are super-friendly, unbelievable number of spectators on bikes. Only it hails alot and the food kinda sucks. I over heard some of the camera-bike guys who were behind us in this awful restaurant talking about how much better they liked Tour of California. Oh well.
 

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scruffy nerf herder
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well, if they had the "PRO RACE" in Missouri anywhere close to the "MOUNTAINS" in southurn missouri... they might have a pretty tough time finding decent grub thats not from a convenience store too. St. Louis has some nice digs, but there ain't no mountains around there... although the locals might disagree.

Plus, who cares about hail, we are the 2006 leader in tornados!

Southern Missouri has some of those long straight as an arrow gradual climbs, especially near Springfield Plateau (SW missouri) that are some nasty power suckers, but one thing I should say is that Missouri does have a lot of variety in terrain, but consider it basically "hillier than Kansas, Iowa, or Michigan".
 
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