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Colorado Classic throws ‘Hail Mary’ for a sponsor as pro bike racing falters in the U.S.

Fans cheer on cyclists at the finish line during Stage 1 of the 2019 Colorado Classic in Steamboat Springs. (Matt Stensland/ Special to The Colorado Sun)
The all-women’s Colorado Classic bike race that debuted in 2019 needs a deep-pocketed investor to stay alive

The investors behind the Colorado Classic women’s bike racing are throwing a Hail Mary.

Unless a title sponsor steps up with $3 million – and a willingness to maybe not see a return on that investment for the next year or two – the Western Hemisphere’s highest profile women’s professional bike race will go away.

“I think there is a Fortune 500 type company out there — like a big financial institution — that can see this race as a proven diversity, equity and inclusion platform and they can see what’s happened with women’s soccer and women’s tennis and they want to do the same with women’s cycling,” said Ken Gart, the Colorado entrepreneur and investor who helped create the Colorado Classic bike race in 2017 and convert it to an all-women’s race in 2019.

“So yes, it’s a Hail Mary. It’s totally a build-it-and-they-will-come scenario,” Gart said. “We need someone who will believe in this mission.”

Gart’s RPM Events Group launched the annual Colorado Classic in 2017 with a men’s and women’s bike race and music festival in downtown Denver. In 2019, they canceled the music and switched over to women’s racing, with the new-to-Colorado VF Corp. signed on as title sponsor and start-to-finish livestreaming replacing a pricey television network contract.

The Colorado Classic replaced the USA Pro Challenge, which had spent five years vying to revive professional bike racing in Colorado. The owners of Colorado’s USA Pro Challenge folded the race in 2017, saying they had lost $20 million after five years without a title sponsor.

The U.S. racing industry has a flat tire

If the Colorado Classic folds, it will be the third high-profile professional bike race in the U.S. to close since 2019.

Anschutz Entertainment Group suspended its 2020 Tour of California bike race in the fall of 2019. AEG, which is owned by Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz, launched the race in 2006 with title sponsor Amgen, a biopharmaceutical company that, incidentally, makes Epogen, a drug used to treat cancer patients that also boosts athletic performance and has haunted cycling for decades. A statement from AEG at the time said “the business fundamentals” of the men’s and women’s race had changed.

In December, the organizers of the Tour of Utah canceled the race for 2022. The pandemic suspended the Tour of Utah in 2020 and 2021. The race, which drew hundreds of the world’s top cyclists for seven stages of UCI professional racing, was created in 2004 and purchased by the Utah-based Larry H. Miller Group of Companies car dealerships in 2007. The weeklong race included noncompetitive public rides that attracted thousands of participants.

Medalist Sports, the sports management company that hosted Colorado’s USA Pro Challenge and took over the Tour of Utah last year, said the event had the support of sponsors and Utah communities. But that was “not strong enough to support a viable effort to meet our collective expectations,” Medalist Sports owner Chris Aronhalt said in a statement announcing the cancellation of the 2022 race. (No major bike race has skipped three years and come back, so it’s likely the Utah race is dead.)

Cyclists cross the Denver finish line in the Colorado Classic in 2019, the first year the race featured only women athletes. (Provided by Colorado Classic)

The USA Pro Challenge, the Tour of California and the Tour of Utah join an ever-growing graveyard of American pro cycling races. Colorado’s Red Zinger Bicycle Classic and Coors Classic are in that cemetery, alongside the Tour DuPont, Tour de Georgia and Tour of Missouri.

There is one international-level UCI race left in the U.S., and it hasn’t even run yet. The inaugural Maryland Cycling Classic, sponsored by UnitedHealthcare and managed by Medalist Sports, was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID restrictions and is now scheduled for Sept. 5. The Maryland Cycling Classic is the only one-day race in the U.S. that is part of the UCI Pro Series, making it the highest-status race in the country.

“No doubt the past few years have been a bit transformative regarding the popularity of road cycling … and hopefully there will be a new chapter soon, as the beauty of the sport deserves it,” Aronhalt said in an email to The Colorado Sun. “Despite two years of pandemic interruptions, we remain committed to being the highest ranked UCI event in the U.S., and fortunate to have UnitedHealthcare as our presenting partner.”

Those title sponsors are key. The Tour of California lasted 14 years thanks to Amgen and Lexus. The Tour of Utah lasted even longer thanks to the Larry Miller car dealerships. But it’s not just about funding, said Kristin Klein, a former president of the Amgen Tour of California and executive vice president of AEG who now is working with Gart as a consultant.

“Amgen didn’t sell bikes,” Klein said “But they knew the race was helping them promote overall health and wellness and they were utilizing cycling as a vehicle to really promote living a healthy lifestyle. The Colorado Classic offers that same opportunity for a sponsor who wants to help create an equitable platform for both men and women.”

Gart has spent the past year trying to find a replacement for VF Corp., which gave the Colorado Classic $1 million for two years of races, but organizers were only able to host one race before the pandemic canceled everything.

“Right now, we have a ‘blue sky’ moment, and with the right partner, we can create something that makes a real and lasting impact on women’s cycling,” Gart wrote in a letter that went to race supporters Tuesday morning. “The Colorado Classic is a game-changer, and without this event, the opportunities for female cyclists, both current and upcoming, are significantly reduced.”

Steve Maxwell, a Boulder journalist and consultant who has spent years researching America’s struggling pro cycling business model, said there is huge international interest in sports right now. Private equity giants are spending billions on Formula One racing, rugby teams, Indian cricket franchises and soccer leagues.

“There seems to be a vast flow of capital into sports,” Maxwell said. “And underrepresented and underutilized women’s sports have a much smaller price of entry.”

But it is difficult to pitch women’s sports to investors. It’s “the chicken or the egg thing,” Maxwell said.

“Everyone agrees it is just as exciting to watch as men’s sports but it is difficult to find on television,” Maxwell said. “You can’t really build interest in a sport if there’s no way to watch it.”

Compelling stories

The Colorado Classic was the only Olympic-qualifying women’s cycling race in the Western Hemisphere. The stories that come out of women’s racing are compelling, with moms, scientists, teachers and corporate executives pedaling in the peloton. The women’s Olympic gold medal cycling champion, for example, has a Ph.D. in mathematics. Most of the top women have jobs and lives off the bike, unlike the men who have spent most of their lives pedaling.

And the races were more exciting, with smaller pelotons on shorter courses, which led to unpredictable breakaways and dynamic sprints crowning winners.

“The U.S. domestic racing scene right now is really, really strong and we’re showcasing women who have careers, have full educations, have come back to racing after starting families,” said Cari Higgins, a Boulder real estate broker who left a corporate career in medical sales to become a 19-time U.S. Elite National Champion road cycling racer. “So it’s easy for fans to get behind these women. And it should be easy for a sponsor to see the value in supporting these women.”

If women’s cycling could get narrative-style television documentaries showing the stories of women in professional cycling, that could spark the interest that would lure investors, Maxwell said.

“In a way you can start from scratch with women’s cycling without all the faults and institutional barriers of men’s cycling and you can do it for a fraction of the price,” Maxwell said. “If anyone is able to come in and invest in women’s professional sports right now I think the payoff down the road could be pretty big.”

Read more at The Colorado Sun

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.