Richard DeBernardis remembers the day as though it was yesterday. It was early July 1983 and he was riding around the perimeter of Tucson with a young rider and looked at Tucson’s landscape, took a breath, and decided it was time for him to step up and put on a 100-mile plus bike race.
He was an energetic 38 year old, riding with a then 19 year old taking in the perimeter of Tucson. He looked and saw the majestic views of the Catalina, Santa Rita and Rincon mountains.
It was there the El Tour de Tucson was born. Not conceptually, but in DeBernardis’ head he had a vision of what he wanted.
“I was thinking someday there would be thousands and thousands of people that will ride this event,” he recalled. “Look how beautiful Tucson is. And this is the summer time. Imagine if we did this in the winter time. We’d have people coming from all over the world.”
Ta da! El Tour – as it’s simply known in these parts – has become international. It’s been that way for some as it celebrates its 30th ride in November. DeBernardis expects a record number of participants on Nov. 17, surpassing the event’s 25-year anniversary when 9,122 riders participated.
DeBernadis said a “magical number” of nearly 10,000 riders could take part.
“El Tour has become a landmark event in Tucson, and through it all, it’s been a great ride,” said Dr. Charles Gannon, a board member for Perimeter Bicycling Association of America.
A great ride indeed. El Tour attracts all kinds – from seasoned veterans to novice riders to all economic statuses and cultures. DeBernardis said participants come from at least 16 countries.
“What it’s done is bring bicycling credibility to the community,” said Chuck Huckleberry, Pima County administrator, who has been part of El Tour every step of the way in one capacity of another. “What this event has become – in the long term – is a catalyst in the region.”
More than 137,000 riders later, El Tour de Tucson has been as consistently strong as any event in Tucson – and that includes any sport at the University of Arizona and any other in Southern Arizona. Maybe even the state.
El Tour de Tucson is, well, more like El Tour de Force.
“What Richard has done is create a prototype for others to clone,” Huckleberry said.
Or at least attempt to mimic. Through the years, the event has raised more than $32 million for local charities, helping grow the list of charities from one (in the first year) to what DeBernardis hopes is 30 this year. Entering the summer it was close to 20.
“In the first five to seven years, the help we received from El Tour meant that we existed,” said Liz McCusker, executive director of Tu Nidito Children and Family Services. “That’s how important it was. It enabled us to start our services and expand our programs to all families who need our services.
Since 1997, Tu Nidito has received more than $3 million. It’s a reason why McCusker encourages her staff and families to ride in the event. “We try to make sure everyone understands the importance and rally around it,” she said.
CEO of the University of Arizona Medical Center Karen Mlawsky knows the importance. UAHN is the title sponsor of the event. Mlawsky estimates about 300 employees take part in the event. UAMC sponsors training rides for staff and anyone in the community who wants to take part in preparation for El Tour. There are skills training, safety training and more for inexperienced or veteran riders.
“It’s about our community and the wellness in our community,” said Mlawsky. “Our staff and our patients all rally around the tour. It’s a great showcase of Tucson and shows the importance of being well and being fit. We’re proud to be part of it.”
As is Wendell Long, Casino Del Sol Resort’s CEO. Casino del Sol is the event’s presenting sponsor.
“It’s very important to us because it’s a tradition that is important to Tucson because it brings people from around the world and it impacts our community,” said Long, who like Mlawsky will see employees and PasquaYaqui tribe members all participate in the event.
“We realize that the bicycling industry is very important and an important part of the tourist industry,” Long said. “This is a premier event.”
In simple terms, it’s huge. DeBernardis said an economic study hasn’t been done since 1999-2000. Back then it showed the economic impact on ride weekend was between $1.5 million and $2 million for every 1,000 cyclists. If that were still the case – and he’s well aware that it is not because of inflation – last year’s Tour could have generated between $13.1 million and $17.4 million. DeBernardis estimates that every rider brings 2.5 members with them (family, friends).
It’s also been estimated that El Tour has a year-round economic impact equal between five to 10 times the economic impact on the weekend of the ride. Conservatively that would be $65.5 million to $174 million. In earlier interviews DeBernardis estimated – perhaps optimistically – the economic impact was about half a billion dollars when everything bicycle was included. He’s rethought those numbers to say it’s anywhere from $200 to $300 million a year. The state might be a billion. He said an economic impact study is forthcoming from the Arizona Department of Transportation.
Specific to El Tour, DeBernardis is pleased with the numbers – in part because he estimates 65 to 75 percent of the riders return on a regular basis to ride. He said it’s not uncommon to hear riders – from stories relayed to him – speak of the race while the Tour de France is going on.
“They’re there on the front line and ask each other if they are going to the Tour,” he said, with a chuckle. “Not the Tour they are in – but El Tour.”
Earlier this summer, Outside Magazine listed Tucson as the #1 bike town in the nation.
Not surprisingly, Tucson and the event have attracted some big names through the years. Greg LeMond (three-time winner of the Tour de France), Jeannie Longo (considered the best women’s cyclist of all time), John Howard (one of the fastest sprint riders) have been through and competed. Throw in Paul McCartney, Bill Walton, and Barry Bonds (the latter two participated in 2011) and you never know who you will see on two wheels in mid November in Tucson.
It’s clear others have seen the charm DeBernardis saw nearly 30 years ago while on that bike ride that early July morning.
“Before I moved to Tucson I said, ‘who in the world would ever move to the desert?’ Then I began to see what Tucson really is – an oasis in the winter and the scenery is just gorgeous. And the people are just wonderful.”
And they’ve made El Tour a gem in the desert.