Why Boulder is the home of modern American cycling
Last week, I was asked to sit on the advisory board of the U. S. Cycling Monument — which will be a memorial to the sport in this country. Its goal is to raise funds to build the monument, a futuristic metal-and-stone sculpture, in the Boulder, Colorado, park that is regarded as the spiritual home of modern American cycling.
North Boulder Park is where a young Davis Phinney watched bike racing for the first time, fell in love with the sport, and later became America’s most-winning sprinter ever. It’s where a young Greg LeMond was crowned overall winner of the Coors International Bicycle Classic before he became the first American to win the Tour de France. And it’s in the center of the city where the foundations were laid for today’s major U.S. stage races, including the Amgen Tour of California and Colorado’s U.S. Pro Cycling Challenge.
The story began in the early-1970s when a 19-year-old Mo Siegel founded a small herbal tea company, Celestial Seasonings, to supply local health food stores. Siegel and his hippie friends, who handpicked herbs and wild berries for their teas, were environmentalists, and after their nascent business passed a million dollars in sales, Siegel decided he wanted to generate awareness of cycling’s environmental benefits (and also publicize the company’s best-selling tea, Red Zinger), by organizing a bike race.
The Red Zinger Classic started out as a modest two-day, three-stage event, with a short time trial, a hilly road race through Colorado’s Front Range, and a criterium in North Boulder Park. It had a tiny budget of $50,000 but heaps of enthusiasm from Siegel’s Boulder employees and local volunteers. The inaugural edition, in 1975, was the one that attracted Phinney to the sport. It did the same two years later for Michael Aisner, a journalism student at the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus, who was moonlighting as a DJ for a Denver radio station and stumbled into a career as a promoter. It happened like this….
When Aisner saw a public service ad by the International Fund for Animal Welfare in 1976, asking for signatures to stop the killing of baby seals in Canada, he talked about it on his Denver radio show and garnered some 20,000 names for the petition. Impressed, the IFAW offered him a marketing job, and Aisner organized a trip by French movie-star campaigners Yvette Mimieux and Brigitte Bardot to witness the seal hunt in February 1977.
The subsequent story in Time magazine was read by Siegel, who contacted Aisner and invited him to lunch. “At the end of the lunch,” Aisner recalled, “Mo said, ‘So, you’re obviously good at PR. Would you mind doing PR for the bike race?’ I’d never even seen one before, but … I’m a curious guy, so I said, ‘I may as well do it.’”
Aisner produced documentaries of the race in his three-year stint as PR director, getting the film shown as a B-feature in cinemas all over the West. By 1978, the Zinger had expanded to seven stages, but the higher budget and extra working hours it now demanded became too much for the tea company. As a result, Siegel sold the event for one dollar to Aisner, who obtained the Adolph Coors Company as title sponsor and re-launched it in 1980 as the Coors International Bicycle Classic, adding stages in the Colorado ski resorts of Breckenridge, Vail and Aspen, and eventually extending it to California and even Hawaii over its two-week span.
The Coors, as it became known, had a glorious nine-year run, with the peak coming in the mid-1980s. Discussing those races, two-time Coors winner Dale Stetina told me, “I loved the Coors Classic because often, in the later days, the European pros would come over. They thought, because it was the U.S., they wouldn’t have a problem and it would be a cakewalk. They would come over, confident to race us at altitude on our home turf, and we would usually stomp ’em to pieces.”
That didn’t happen in 1985-86, when five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault came to Colorado with his La Vie Claire team. The French star helped teammate LeMond win the Coors in ’85 and won it himself the following year. Reporting the race as the editor of a European-based cycling magazine, I became so intrigued with the event and enraptured by Boulder that I moved to the city in 1987.
The 1985 race began in San Francisco, with a prologue up Telegraph Hill (which the Amgen Tour adopted two decades later) and a criterium on Fisherman’s Wharf. Everyone was impressed by the size of the California crowds — but they were just as big for the finale in North Boulder Park. That year, the last day’s circuit was extended from a short criterium loop to a hilly circuit of 1.65 miles, and Canadian star Steve Bauer won the stage with a remarkable solo break over the final 11 laps. At the following year’s race, just prior to the ’86 world championships in nearby Colorado Springs, the Boulder stage was again taken in a solo break, this time by local man Ron Kiefel. But my lasting memory of that day was Italian classics star Moreno Argentin making a searing, mid-race attack on the hill up Balsam to Fourth Street. Two weeks later, Argentin won the worlds.
Besides the Boulder-raised Phinney and Denver-born Kiefel, Boulder soon saw other pro cyclists move to the area, attracted by the mountain terrain, 5,430-foot elevation (with local roads climbing to 9,500 feet) and dry weather (with sunshine 300 days a year). The 1988 Giro d’Italia winner Andy Hampsten has a house at the foot of the Flatirons, the iconic rock outcroppings above the city, as does today’s top U.S. climber Tom Danielson. Danielson’s Garmin-Barracuda teammate Peter Stetina was born here after his dad, Dale Stetina, moved to Boulder.
“It was natural to come and settle here as soon as I stopped racing,” Dale Stetina told me. “In fact, when I first came to Boulder and looked up at the Flatirons and the mountains, I said I feel like I’m home. Being able to spend hours riding up in the mountains and down the canyons next to beautiful mountain streams, enjoying good weather, that’s as close to Nirvana, I guess, as I would get as a cycling enthusiast.”
Besides the athletes, some of the people who worked on the Coors Classic have remained in the sport. They include Jim Birrell, managing partner of Medalist Sports, which today organizes U.S. cycling’s major stage races in California, Utah and Colorado.
Over the past four decades, a whole cycling culture has taken root in Boulder. Its bike-race-related reputation and the number of cyclists settling here are the reasons that it now has an indoor velodrome, a custom-built cyclocross /mountain bike park and more than 300 miles of dedicated bike routes. It’s the home of advocacy groups such as Bikes Belong, Growth Cycle and the International Mountain Bicycling Association. And among the business that have settled here are CatEye, Dean Titanium Bicycles, Dual Eyewear, Optibike, Panache Cyclewear, Pearl Izumi, Recofit Compression, Slipstream Sports (owner of UCI ProTeam Garmin-Barracuda), TrainingPeaks, Velo magazine, VeloPress books and Vredestein tires.
A 2011 survey estimated that bike shops and associated business in the city accounted for more than 300 jobs and sales north of $50 million; but Boulder’s influence on American cycling is immeasurable in terms of prestige and legacy. Few would argue about its status as the country’s premier bike-racing community.
The city has donated a site in North Boulder Park for the U. S. Cycling Monument, which to date has raised about 25 percent of the $215,000 needed to build the structure. The symbolic sculpture, designed by local artist Kimmerjae Johnson, will include a 50-foot-long spiraling aluminum ribbon (which represents the racers and the looping course) linking a high, monolithic sandstone archway with a monumental element to be known as the Talking Stone.
Appropriate plantings around the monument will symbolize the waves of spectators that once packed the park’s criterium circuit. Later this year, the Boulder fans should be lining the climb up past the Flatirons for the defining stage of Colorado’s new race, the Pro Challenge. And should the fundraising be successful, Boulder’s grand monument to cycling in America will be in place.
To be part of the U. S. Cycling Monument go here.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Tom Schuler on Team Sponsorship
Tom Schuler has been part of two of the most successful cycling teams of the modern era. He raced for the 7-Eleven team from its inception to its end (1981-1990); started as an amateur and turned pro with the team in 1985, racing the ’85 Giro d’Italia and winning the ’81 National criterium championship and ’87 USPRO road championship along the way. After retiring from competition, he first went to work as an assistant director at the Motorola team before going out on his own. He managed the Saturn Professional Cycling Team with his company Team Sports, from 1994-2003. 7-Eleven was arguably the first outside corporate sponsor to embrace American cycling in what we think of as the modern era. The Saturn team showed both a depth, with a dominating domestic men’s team and dominating international women’s team, and an integrated marketing approach that hadn’t been seen in cycling before or since. If you went to a race where a Saturn member was racing, chances are, representatives from a local Saturn dealership were also present.
Team Sports has also managed several other cycling teams including: Advantage Benefits/Bissell, Colavita, Quarq, TargetTraining, Team Type 1, Volvo/Cannondale. The company began by managing an inline skating team. They currently are managing the Timex Multi-Sport team, now in it’s 12th season, the Zoot Ultra Team, now in it’s sixth season. Team Sports also promotes events, including road racing, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, Xterras, and is the promoter behind the 2012 National Cyclocross Championships in Madison, Wisconsin.
Thanks to his experience, he’s in a great position to discuss the hows and whys of team sponsorship, which is why we sat down with him to better understand his experience and ask him about the current state of sponsorship in bike racing.
JP: Why, in your opinion, do pro cycling teams exist?
TS: Why does bicycle racing exist? The bicycle is a wonderful vehicle and people will always go faster and race each other. There’s both an individual winner, but the team supports that individual. It’s also drafting and help. Teams lend themselves well to sponsorship. The team isn’t called Alberto Contador, but Saxo Bank. You can brand a group of athletes a team and give them a name.
JP: Do sponsors lead with business or love?
TS: We’re going to talk about patrons of the sport, and sponsors. There are always patrons of the sport, people get emotional and they support that. Major league sports have patrons, like George Steinbrenner, but the people would do it regardless of business metrics. Certainly Fred Mengoni comes to mind in the US. I don’t know the patrons in Europe that well. There are patrons that have a brand and promote that brand by using something they’re passionate about. We have corporate teams like Saturn that need to show and justify their return on investment.
JP: Did you initiate the sponsorship program with Saturn?
TS: The start of Saturn started at their agency, Hal Riney Partners, in 1990. They later got absorbed by bigger and bigger agencies. He (Riney) was the voice behind Bartles and Jaymes, among other things. But he was primarily a creative guy. He was Saturn’s initial agency in 1989. They needed an activity that was doable for a new company. They looked at a lot of activities and landed on cycling. It was both youth and family, both male and female, it was affordable, and from their estimation, there wasn’t any auto company that staked a claim on cycling. Being from San Francisco, they hooked up with Warren Gibson. He ran it the first two years. He reported to Hal Riney and Saturn and switched it back to their agency in Detroit, Carlson Marketing Group. They’re a huge group based in Minneapolis, but has a Detroit division.
So, Warren ran into some problems with budgets and the typical thing there. So they looked for a different person to run it. And that’s how I ended up with it.
Simultaneously, were talking to Volvo about the new sport of mountain biking. Two car companies launching. It was a busy time for us. (For the Saturn team) We reported to Saturn and the Carlson Group.
JP: How did you come up with what the team did?
TS: They wanted the team to reflect their customers, their target audience. So, both who they are and who they want to be. Their metrics showed that cycling related to their customer base. It was split pretty evenly between male and female. That’s rare with a car company at that time. They figured cycling was practiced by women and men.
JP: So is this was why you had a strong women’s team?
TS: There was a men’s team for the first two years. They said there was no reason we shouldn’t have a women’s team. We got a women’s team going last minute with three athletes. Jeanne Golay, Julie Young, and Jessica Grieco. Eventually we became the world’s number one women’s team.
It was a great value to have the women’s team; it cost very little.
We always presented the men’s and women’s team as equals, as one team. They don’t get any less budget, any less treatment. We presented them as we presented the men’s team.
Saturn presented themselves about the customer experience. So they wanted to be different. So they wanted one price, they were retailers not dealers. The atmosphere should be welcoming and more comfortable for women.
JP: How did you go about doing metrics?
TS: They used at least a couple of measurements. IEG, International Events Group, were commissioned to look at it. They’re engaged by clients to measure the results of sponsorship. About halfway through, they looked to determine ROI. They were investing in events as well as the team. The team was their main property in cycling. They determined that their best ROI was the team and they decided in the last few years to do it even better.
(Eventually) They wanted to hire an expert in cycling to work at Carlson as a contractor, so they hired Michael Aisner (promoter of the Coors Classic—JP). So they hired him to come up with all sorts of activation strategies, making targeted PR, placed many stories in national publications. So we were racing the same, but we were activating at a much higher level for those last few years.
JP: Did he increase ROI?
TS: Absolutely. It showed robust returns. Me coming up with the metrics myself isn’t fair.
JP: Can you share the numbers?
TS: I don’t know, but it was a multiple of their investment, and it was good to keep us going for many years. When it came time to renew, it had to make sense.
JP: Why did they pull the plug, was it not working anymore?
TS: One of the basic tenets of sponsorship, you’ve addressed the audience for a long time, they know you, so you move on to another group. So they moved on to marathoning.
JP: So success can cost you?
TS: The decision makers were told “everyone in cycling knows you” so address another group, like runners, and make sure they know Saturn.
JP: Was the Volvo sponsorship run with the same kind of vision and support?
TS: Probably not as sophisticated for marketing and activitation. They liked the involvement with Cannondale, they liked the image it produced. It was a high-end car with a high end bike. Activation-wise, they used a number of agencies, but not the same. Metrics-wise was both North American and then Europe. After the team took off in the US, the Europe side decided that it was a way to reach younger customers. And Europe was initially cold on it. They eventually took it over.
JP: How did these programs compare to the Saturn program in terms of what the sponsor wanted and what you gave them?
TS: I think by far Saturn was the most sophisticated in terms of spending on activitation and success at determining return on investment. The Colavita men’s team is now Jamis-Sutter Home, and the women’s team will get sponsorship money but not management from Colavita. TargetTraining, Rick (Spear) was a good patron of the sport. Team Type 1 always had to work for a sponsor and provide ROI. Phil Southerland is not a patron, but a manager, his sponsorship has to have a marketing return. Advantage Benefits/Endeavor/Bissell. Mark Bissell has been a patron, but does work it into their marketing mix. The Quarq team was supposed to be a marking platform for Quarq shoes. The job of the team of promoting sales should always be there, but sometimes the measuring stick is not always used the same way to connect to end sales. Connecting to sales is something sponsors all try to do at various levels.
Image: Alex Steida, Photosport International
RKP isn’t really a news site, so the announcement that Amgen has renewed its contract with AEG Sports to continue its sponsorship of the Amgen Tour of California might seem odd material for a post. The reason it’s here is because this isn’t your garden-variety cycling news. This is big.
I confess, for weeks, more than a month, in fact, I’ve been writing the obituary for the Amgen Tour of California. I thought an announcement notifying cycling fans of the race’s demise was a formality, so the news that the company has renewed isn’t just a pleasant little news brief. This is big.
So why was I so down on the future of the Tour of California? Let me count the reasons.
- In the United States, races have a terrible history of folding after a sponsor’s contract is up. The Coors Classic folded up shop following the 1988 race after the race’s contract with Coors ended. Race director Michael Aisner approached Nuprin and Dodge, both of whom agreed to sponsor the race only to decline involvement at the 11th hour. The Tour de Georgia was notable for the fact that it’s the only major U.S. stage race that managed to sign three different title sponsors—Dodge, Ford and AT&T.
- Losing a race director has had dire consequences for races. When Mike Plant left the Tour DuPont at the end of the 1996 edition, the prospective next sponsor (DuPont’s contract was up) didn’t have much confidence in the new race director and ultimately the race couldn’t secure a new sponsor.
- The 2011 edition of the Amgen Tour of California got off to a rocky start with a stage cancellation and the start of a stage moved. Sponsors don’t like to see their events not happen as planned.
- The 2010 and 2011 editions of the race were upstaged by doping revelations that cast cycling in an unusually negative light. Landis’ and Hamilton’s revelations made much bigger news than the typical positive test. Who wants to spend millions to sponsor an ugly press conference?
- The economy still sucks. It’s why there’s no Tour of Missouri and no Tour de Georgia. Finding sponsorship money is as unlikely as winning the lottery two days in a row.
In the U.S., races come to an end. That’s the unfortunate reality. But these next two years could be key for the event’s longevity; it’s up to AEG to use the time to court (and land) a new sponsor. Make no mistake, this news is huge.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International