By Loni Nannini
On Nov. 18, the Banner-University Medicine El Tour de Tucson race will welcome some 7,500 riders to race, celebrating 40 years of cycling excellence.
But El Tour is more than a race. The event has long been at the forefront of a movement, one with significant economic, social and philanthropic ramifications for Tucson, the state of Arizona, and beyond. The iconic road cycling event has enabled Tucson—and the region—to stake a share in the global bicycle market, which is currently valued at more than $110 billion; Fortune Business Insights projects that figure to reach more than $228 billion by 2030.
Over the past 40 years, El Tour has grown from a mostly local event to one that attracts cyclists from all over the world. In fact, readers of USA Today recently ranked the event No. 1 among “10 Best Road Cycling Events for 2023.” Today, the event is also ranked among the largest road cycling events in the United States.
In short, El Tour has evolved into a culture, according to TJ Juskiewicz, executive director of Perimeter Bicycling Association, the nonprofit that produces the El Tour event.
“El Tour showcases the amazing cycling community and the incredible support from private and public partnerships and individuals that separate our event from other great cycling events around the country,” Juskiewicz said. “Tucson stands alone with perfect weather, one-of-a-kind scenery, an unbelievable food scene as a City of Gastronomy, and a welcoming community that loves to host people from around the world.”
In addition to all of that, there is the race’s charitable component: El Tour has raised more than $110 million for nonprofits over the last four decades, Juskiewicz said.
Charities are not the sole beneficiaries of El Tour. Visit Tucson estimates that, in 2022, El Tour brought $1.25 million in spending over a two-day period. The figure doesn’t account for the revenue generated by participants from Arizona or vendors from the affiliated Expo & Fiesta. Juskiewicz estimated the total economic impact at $3-to-$5 million.
Edmund Marquez, principal of Edmund Marquez Allstate Agencies, board member of Rio Nuevo and member of the Jim Click Racing Team, said the event brings in substantial tourism dollars each year. “El Tour is an economic juggernaut,” he said. “It fills hotel rooms and restaurants, brings in revenue for businesses and generates sales tax from locals and people visiting Tucson. It’s a huge boost for our economy.”
With El Tour’s worldwide appeal, Southern Arizona is promoted to new audiences. Nick Pazzi, director of Visit Tucson Sports, said, “El Tour brings in additional spending that Tucson wouldn’t otherwise see, which benefits the entire community in the long run. We like to think that riders who come for the race will return with their families to visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Old Tucson, Pima Air and Space Museum, Colossal Cave and other attractions in our region.”
In addition to tourism, El Tour attracts potential residents and businesses. In 2022, Liveability.com ranked Tucson No. 2 for Most Bicycle-Friendly Cities in the nation. The League of American Bicyclists named Tucson a ‘Gold Level” community for its “bikeability.” Laura Shaw, senior VP of Sun Corridor, Inc., said these kinds of rankings draw people to the community. “Highly visible lifestyle rankings catch the attention of talent looking to possibly relocate,” she said. “Our new “Thrive in Tucson” Talent Attraction Campaign is capitalizing on these types of rankings so Tucson gets to the top of the list of communities offering amenities that talent wants.”
El Tour in the Making: Emergence of an Epic Ride
In November 1983, local cycling enthusiasts gathered to ride 100 miles around the city, beginning and ending at Sabino Canyon Recreation Area.
The ride embraced the dual concepts of “perimeter rides”—in which participants learn about an area by cycling around it—and the “Century Challenge,” a 100-mile ride widely recognized by cyclists as a benchmark of personal and physical accomplishment.
Spearheaded by Richard De Bernardis, the event collected registration fees from 197 riders to benefit the American Diabetes Association. The ADA was succeeded by the Arthritis Foundation Southern Arizona Chapter, Tucson Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Tu Nidito, and other nonprofits. This year, some 60 nonprofits will benefit from El Tour.
“El Tour was created to raise funds for nonprofits, to promote camaraderie and to help people obtain and maintain healthier lifestyles,” said Barbara Franklin, a volunteer and registration coordinator for El Tour since its inception. “It is great way for people to be part of something that brings the community together—individuals, teams, beneficiaries, sponsors and businesses. It is all about people coming together for others while also benefiting themselves.”
Over the years, the event has experimented with different routes, varied start and finish locations, and added distances to accommodate different ability levels. Today, El Tour has several races for participants to choose from: Century (102 miles); Metric Century (63 miles); Metric Half-Century (32 miles); and the FUN rides (three miles and one mile). The event also features a Platinum ride for elite cyclists.
Routes and starting locations have varied. Downtown Tucson and Oro Valley have served as starting locations, and routes have gone through South Tucson, East Tucson, the Catalina Foothills and Oro Valley. In 2021, the Tucson Convention Center was made the permanent start and finish line for every race. The Century route traverses south to Sahuarita and Green Valley and circles east toward Corona de Tucson and Vail prior to returning to downtown. The shorter rides have adopted a smaller footprint in the same general area. The route is the result of collaboration with officials, law enforcement and engineers and was designed to allow El Tour to function with optimal efficiency and safety for riders and the community.
“It is scenic and challenging and has become a very fast course, which some riders have really enjoyed. It is also low-traffic and has less impact as far as tying up roads. It is a win-win for riders and for the community,” said Juskiewicz, who spent 16-plus years as director of the renowned RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) prior to taking the helm of El Tour in 2020.
The Tucson Convention Center also serves as the hub for the three-day Expo & Fiesta that accompanies El Tour. The party-like atmosphere features packet pick-up and safety briefings; food trucks; live music and entertainment; merchandise and cyclist-related vendors; information about sponsors and participating nonprofits, and much more.
Marquez says the downtown location highlights Tucson’s unique culture as well as its cultural renaissance. “Rio Nuevo has invested $100 million in modernizing and upgrading the TCC and it is a great front porch to welcome everyone visiting Tucson,” he said.
Cycling Meets Commerce, Community Spirit and Fundraising
Banner-University Medicine has been El Tour’s title sponsor since 2019. Sarah Frost, CEO of Banner-University Medical Center Tucson and Banner-University Medical Center South, said El Tour is an important part of the city’s culture.
“As a nonprofit hospital, each year Banner-University Medicine contributes more than $800 million to the Tucson community,” she said. “The partnership with El Tour enables more than 60 community nonprofits to raise more than $5 million each year. Our investment in El Tour is an extension of our commitment as a nonprofit hospital system to give back to the communities we serve.”
As title sponsor, Banner has named Pima Joint Technical Education District as the El Tour primary beneficiary for the second consecutive year. In 2022, this resulted in a $50,000 donation to the Pima JTED Mel and Enid Zuckerman Center for Health and Medical Careers. Slated for completion in 2024, the 50,000-square-foot facility will offer a range of programs including certifications for registered medical assistants, certified nursing assistants, comprehensive health care technicians, emergency medical technicians, social and mental health technicians, pharmacy technicians, veterinary assistants, and more.
“We know that partnerships with JTED support health education and that will impact the health and wellness of the community for years to come,” said Frost.
Another cornerstone of El Tour community spirit is the force of volunteers recruited to assist with everything from set-up and break-down to manning aid stations along the route. Trained volunteers known as the “Bike Patrol” also assist riders when they encounter mechanical or physical issues on the route.
“Volunteers are the heart of El Tour de Tucson, and all the people who ride to raise money for charities are the soul,” said Greg Yares, longtime volunteer and former co-director with Bill Sarnack of the Bike Patrol.
Select volunteers and cycling supporters are honored each year at the annual dedication, which reads like a “Who’s Who” of community leaders and cycling mavens. The list includes Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly; Dr. Richard Carmona, the 17th Surgeon General of the United States, and Andy Clarke, a former president of the League of American Bicyclists. Other recipients are Jeannette Maré, founder of Ben’s Bells, and former Pima County Commissioner Chuck Huckleberry, who spearheaded “The Loop”—a 131-mile network of paved, shared-use paths in and around Tucson that are a key asset for residents and visiting cyclists.
The continued focus on philanthropy has enabled El Tour to remain true to its vision of giving back while supporting individual accomplishment for cyclists of all levels.
“The volunteers and people who have been honored personify the spirit of El Tour: Setting a goal and working toward it. It is about inspiring each other and inspiring the community,” said longtime volunteer Barbara Franklin.
That inspiration extends to the elite national and international cyclists who have participated over the years. This year’s roster is headlined by Bob Roll, Nelson Vails, Rahsaan Bahati, Greg LeMond, and Denise Mueller-Korenek. These elite cyclists and the Platinum ride have contributed to the popularity of the event among amateur and professional cyclists, other athletes, and sports enthusiasts.
“El Tour is one of the big reasons that Tucson has become such a cycling mecca,” said Franklin.
Sprinting into the Future
As El Tour seeks to expand its appeal and cement Tucson’s place as a premier destination for cyclists and outdoor enthusiasts, strategic partnerships are critical. Event organizers seek continued partnerships with local businesses and nonprofits, economic development organizations and public-private entities, as well as local and national cycling organizations such as USA Cycling and the League of American Cyclists.
“These collaborations help all of us to meet and achieve our mutual goal, which is to shine a spotlight on Tucson and show all we can achieve together,” said Shawna Ruboyianes, chairman of the board of directors for Perimeter Bicycling Association and president of Stewart Title & Trust of Tucson.
For the 40th Anniversary, several new events will take place. The El Tour de Tucson 5K Run/Walk, made possible through a partnership with Run Tucson, the first-ever El Tour Women’s Bicycle Clinic and the opening of the 32-mile ride to e-bikes are all new this year.
Another new venture is the Prologue Camp, which debuted last year. The five-day inclusive camp allows riders to train alongside professionals such as Bob Roll, George Hincapie, Kristin Armstrong, and other elite cyclists leading up to the event. Shawna Ruboyianes added, “The elite cyclists associated with the Prologue give us more exposure and bring in riders from Europe, Canada and every state in the nation.”
Each El Tour participant will a receive a medal and a commemorative pin created by local artist Joe Pagac. El Tour has also worked with the Pima County Board of Supervisors and the City of Tucson to create murals throughout Tucson and to dedicate an interactive art sculpture for The Loop in honor of the 40th Anniversary.
“We are bringing the community together and bringing art outdoors where everyone in the city can enjoy it,” Ruboyianes said. “El Tour has far-reaching tentacles.”
Moving forward, supporters believe the sky is the limit for El Tour and the Perimeter Cycling Association, which has expanded beyond Tucson with El Tour De Zona. The multi-day ride and festival showcases Southern Arizona with a route through Tombstone, Bisbee, Benson, and Sierra Vista. There is also talk of an expansion to the Phoenix area in 2024.
Marquez said El Tour has shined a spotlight on Tucson and he credits Juskiewicz. “TJ is a visionary who dreams big,” he said. “They are growing El Tour into a ride with a national and international presence: It has really put Tucson on the map.”
Please register to ride El Tour today at: https://eltourdetucson.org