Bookwalter journal: Origins of the Bookwalter Binge
What does it take to put on a gran fondo event, and why do it? Brent Bookwalter explains the motivation behind his Bookwalter Binge.
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Why create a mass-participant cycling event?
My wife Jamie gets credit for coming up with the idea for the Bookwalter Binge and for getting the project off the ground. In 2013, Jamie had just finished her master’s degree and was about to start work on her Ph.D. In true fashion, she decided to tackle yet another project, one that might use up all 24 hours of the day.
I wanted to hold an event in our hometown of Asheville, North Carolina as a way to connect with and give back to the community. Professional cycling can be a selfish job. Jamie and I wanted to continue to grow our roots in this community, even though we live abroad for much of the year.
At first, we didn’t know what we wanted our event to look and feel like. After seeing other pro riders have quick success with their respective grand fondos and big rides, we thought, “Why not us?”
We thought about the name for a long time, and I think I came up with the idea of using the word “Binge.” I often feel like life as a pro cyclist consists of nothing in moderation, one extreme to the next, so the idea of bingeing out on some riding with big climbs, beautiful roads, fall colors, great friends, food, beers, and stories felt like a nice way to describe it. Not to mention the alliteration with the B made it feel like the perfect choice. We wanted the Bookwalter Binge to have a distinct identity. We drew inspiration from a few other events, most notably George Hincapie’s Hincapie Gran Fondo, the Dempsey Challenge (organized by TV star Patrick Dempsey), and the Crush Challenge. We saw these events as inspiration, yet we wanted to make sure our event stayed true to who we are and our home.
We launched the Binge in 2014, and the first edition was a struggle. We pulled it off largely due to Jamie’s persistence and our dedicated group of friends and family. Prior to the Binge, the largest event we had organized was our wedding (I was not that involved in the nitty-gritty details of that).
That first year gave me an appreciation for startup businesses. To an outsider, the details sound silly. Let me tell you, they add up:
– The entire permit process, which included three counties and a controlled-access national forest road that is never open to cars.
– Determining a legit safety plan that consisted of more than calling 9-1-1. We had to learn what a safety plan was and how to implement and communicate it.
– Creating value for our partners and sponsors so the Binge would be sustainable.
– Establishing the extreme weather contingency. Insane!
– Figuring out the party timeline.
– Running a raffle.
– Organizing, corralling, and educating volunteers.
– Marking a course without getting hit by a car or arrested.
– Getting 501c3 status.
All of those tasks determine an event’s success or failure, and they also bring sizable costs that quickly suck up your startup investment. By the time we realized we had overcommitted ourselves from a time perspective, it was too late. Yet we refused to give up.
A critical part of our success since year one has been Jen Billstrom, a veteran event promoter at Velo Girl Rides. Jen directs the event and handles all those details that we were drowning in that first year. This includes dozens of spreadsheets, knowing the movement of the event, and organizing the time and place of every volunteer. Essentially, she knows how every piece of the event — from registration, sponsor fulfillment, maps, marketing strategy, venue design, managing timed segments, event insurance, and permitting — comes together on the big day.
Jen’s work for each upcoming Binge starts the day after the event ends; she works year-round on our race. Her husband David is our safety director, and he designs and implements a detailed, 60-page plan on how to anticipate and handle anything that arises while out on the road. He develops relationships with law enforcement, first responders, and fire departments (25 agencies) along the route. Those blue lights, red lights, and yellow lights each have a different purpose, and they all keep us safe so everyone can enjoy the day.
Both Jen and David are a critical part of why the Binge has survived. Their work allows Jamie and me to really immerse ourselves in the event and interact with our participants.
Attracting pro riders
Every year the Binge attracts a smattering of pro riders. The 2018 lineup included Joey Roskopf, Ben King, Megan Guarnier, Thomas Revard, George Hincapie, Christian VandeVelde, Jonny Clarke, John Murphy, Courtney Lowe, Laura Jorgensen, and TJ Eisenhart.
I want these guys and gals to check out my community. We include them from the beginning to the end and give them plenty of time to explore Asheville, spend time with Jamie and myself, and of course eat, drink, and laugh. We aim to spend time together with the pros leading up to the Binge, which typically includes dinner at our place or meeting for coffee — the normal things you would do when your friends come into town to visit. The first Binge “event” is Tune UP Friday, which includes a morning ride and lunch. There isn’t a super formal sit-down autograph signing because we don’t want to make access to the pros feel limited. We want them to come across as approachable so people don’t need to wait in line to get an autograph. This also allows the pros to promote themselves and share who they are in a way that isn’t confined to an hour at a dinner table or an autograph booth.
Here’s the thing: Getting pro riders to show up isn’t easy. Pro riders must give up one of their cherished off-season weekends to attend yet another cycling event. Personally, I covet the rare off-season weekend at home after a long year on the road. Asking a teammate or friend to show up is a tall order.
Showing off Asheville
Both Jamie and I have our own connections to the roads and trails of western North Carolina. Jamie grew up in this region and I went to Lees McRae College. This area is home.
The mountains invigorate us. I still get psyched to explore new roads here. I’ve ridden all over the world, and there is something special about this place. I’m inspired to put in big days on the bike here. It is truly my favorite place in the world.
The climbs range from tame-but-long to beastly, with gradients approaching the high teens. There’s the iconic Blue Ridge Parkway, a true cycling heaven. The weather can be stunningly beautiful or cool. It’s the perfect place for off-season training.
Plus, Asheville is such a great place to do outdoor activities. We have southern hospitality mixed with progressiveness. Craft beer, great food, and the fall colors.
But what happens when the weather is bad?
Some readers may know that I’m wary of racing in dangerous weather. It should be no surprise, then, that we’ve had to enforce our own bad weather protocol at the Binge. It’s given me a totally new perspective on what goes into event organization.
After months of so much hard work, love, and investment for our modest event, it’s very hard to consider changing or canceling it, tough decisions we’ve been forced to face.
During our inaugural Binge, a freak snowstorm blew in and we were forced to cancel the riding portion of the event. I’m from Michigan and grew up riding in some intense conditions and maybe some people could have ridden, but we felt it was a very unnecessary risk. Everyone’s safety is our top priority and the riding event wouldn’t have been fun if people were hurt or frozen. With the race season done, it was time to celebrate, not push the limits. So with people already in town and a brewery reserved, we headed over and started the party early. Bingers from that first year often joke that it was the best party.
Our top priority is keeping our participants safe and happy, and I feel a heavy duty to make this the obligation. People plan for months to attend our event and travel long distances. But at the end of the day, we’re not a pro race.
And we’ve learned that people attend the Binge for reasons other than just riding. I think pro race organizers can learn a lesson from this. Nobody wants to cancel, but I think people that show up are looking for something other than a spectacle. Adding an accessible human component to the Binge in that first year cemented our belief that our event is more than just a Gran Fondo.
At this year’s Binge we noticed that, for the first time, the event no longer felt like just our event. After five editions it has its own community, and has evolved into an event that is sustained by a dedicated group of people. There are reasons for this. We raise money for vital causes like the Southern Appalachian Highland Conservancy, one of our charitable partners.
The Binge is definitely a financial and personal investment for me and Jamie, but we feel honored to devote ourselves to this cause.
Do we want to grow? Perhaps. In year three I launched the Binge TuneUp ride, a small, easy ride that finishes with a gourmet lunch on the Friday before the main event. We may add other elements going forward. But our growth plan is slow and sustainable. Last year, we sold out at 300 riders. We want to keep the Binge at this size going forward. In our opinion, the Binge is small enough for people to create real connections with each other and feel like they are part of a community. There’s enough turnover to bring in new faces. And I still feel happy to show Bingers my favorite roads and mountains and turn them onto my favorite causes.
Every year during those final hectic weeks before the Binge, Jamie and I ask ourselves why we decided to add another level of crazy to our lives. The WorldTour racing season is already so insane, and by the time the fall rolls around, we sometimes just want a quiet weekend at home.
The Binge is anything but quiet. Yet after five years, we can’t imagine our lives without the Binge, the fall in Asheville, and our riders enjoying it with us.