El Tour de Tucson Endures Bumps in the Road

By Romi Carrell Wittman

Event Rides on for 37th Year

El Tour de Tucson has become as much a part of Tucson’s Thanksgiving holiday as turkey and pumpkin pie. The internationally acclaimed annual biking event celebrates its 37th year on Nov. 23 and its roughly 9,000 participants – representing some 20 countries – will notice some changes, most notably the elimination of the 75-mile race. 

Behind the scenes, a new CEO, Charlene Grabowski, will be at the helm. And the event also got a huge boost in August when Banner-University Medicine stepped up with a $175,000 title sponsorship. Diamond Children’s Medical Center will be this year’s primary beneficiary. Rio Nuevo also is a major sponsor.

Tucson lawyer and El Tour Board Chair Pat Lopez said the race changes were needed to make the event more economically sustainable and more enjoyable for riders. 

“We want to make it more of a celebration, a community-wide event,” said Lopez. The elimination of the 75-mile ride will help streamline race logistics. Lopez added that, in 2020, event organizers hope to introduce a 62-mile ride in place of the 50-mile ride. The 62 miles – 100 kilometers – is known as a “metric century” in cycling circles. All rides will still end downtown at Armory Park. 

These small changes reflect some bigger administrative changes that have taken place over the last year. El Tour and its parent organization, the Perimeter Bicycling Association of America, found itself at the center of a financial controversy last spring when it could not pay its $180,000 debt to Pima County for barricades and traffic signs used during the November 2018 race. The organization has since paid Pima County. 

Realizing that El Tour needed a new vision, event founder and CEO Richard DeBernardis stepped down from his position to allow the board to focus on securing the organization’s financial footing. He will continue to assist the organization in an advisory capacity through the end of the year.

The PBAA selected Grabowski as his replacement. She is a retired GE Healthcare executive with 30 years’ experience. Since retiring to Tucson, she’s worked as an executive leadership consultant. 

Lopez said, “Charlene has the commitment and business acumen to help Perimeter move into the future. Perimeter, El Tour de Tucson and the community will benefit from her ideas, enthusiasm and leadership.”

Grabowski said she’s up to the challenge. “I’m excited to be working with El Tour and the Perimeter organization.This is an important part of Tucson’s identity, one that brings together cyclists, the community and out-of-town guests.”

Lopez gives great credit to DeBernardis for creating the event and cultivating it all these years. “Richard is a wonderful guy who created a small local ride that became international in its reach.”

DeBernardis looks back fondly on his years with El Tour and the community phenomenon it’s become. DeBernardis got the idea for the race back in the summer of 1983 during a ride of Tucson’s perimeter where he saw cyclists enjoying Tucson’s unique desert beauty. “I knew I had to find way to turn this vision into reality,” he said. 

He’s pleased to have been the catalyst for an event that’s helped raise millions for nonprofit organizations and raised the global profile of Tucson in the cycling community. “Never did I ever realize that 36 years later El Tour would become one of America’s largest bicycling events for cyclists of all ages and abilities, raising $96 million for over 100 nonprofits, attracting more than 250,000 cyclists from around the world … and that I would be here to see this day,” he said.

Moving forward, Lopez said the board has been expanded and includes five new members, all of them cyclists. They are Tucson businessman Yoram Levy, accountant Charmaine Lang, attorney Natasha Wrae, Bicycle Ranch Tucson owner Steve Morganstern and software development manager Lee Walker. 

As for the event itself, the board has brought in outside assistance to manage it. Tim Escobedo, who has managed operations for two other large community events, Taste of Tucson and Tucson Meet Yourself, and who has provided support to El Tour in the past, has been contracted. In addition, Medalist Sports, a national event management firm, has been retained to help organize the rides.  

El Tour has been a boon to the local economy over the years, though there has been some disagreement as to just how much revenue the event brings to the region. An economic impact study conducted about 20 years ago by University of Arizona graduate students concluded that the event impacts the local economy by as much as $20 million. However, some in the community were critical of the study’s methodology and questioned that figure. A recent economic study sponsored by Rio Nuevo and conducted by an economist concluded El Tour has a roughly $5.3 million impact on the region’s economy.

As DeBernardis pointed out, since 1996 El Tour has offered itself to local nonprofits as a fundraising platform. This year’s supporting beneficiaries include the Easterseals Blake Foundation, ADHD America, the Arizona Justice Project, Beads of Courage, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Cakes for Causes, Children’s Clinics, Friends of PACC, Into Africa, Tu Nidito, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern Arizona, Tucson Riders 4 the Cure and Uphill into the Wind. 

The 2019 Banner-University Medicine El Tour de Tucson event will have 100-, 50- and 25-mile rides as well as a Fun Ride. The finish line for all races is located at Armory Park, where a Downtown El Tour Celebration is planned. The focus will be on the community as a whole and the tone will be one of celebration. 

“El Tour is a nonprofit with a mission to promote health and assist other charitable organizations, and it’s done a great job of accomplishing that mission,” Lopez said. He added that El Tour has helped put Tucson on the cycling map as well.

“If you start looking at bicycle rides and cycling publications, El Tour has been ranked among the best rides in the world,” Lopez said. “It’s because of the flavor of the ride and the uniqueness of Tucson. El Tour is a Tucson community event – whether you ride or not.”

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