Throughout its 37 editions, El Tour de Tucson has become an important part of Tucson’s culture and cycling community. Founded in 1983 by former teacher Richard DeBernadis, the event attracted 185 participants in its first year; in subsequent decades the event became one of the biggest cycling events in the country, with participation topping 7,000.
In recent years, however, El Tour de Tucson has endured a bumpy financial road, and the event almost didn’t happen this year. In May, the Arizona Daily Star reported the event lost money in three of its last four editions. And the race’s parent company, Perimeter Bicycling Association of America, owed the local Pima County a $180,000 tab from the 2018 event.
In March, DeBernadis stepped down from his position as CEO, opening the door for new leadership. And that’s when Charlene Grabowski stepped in.
“The founder realized that the business may have gotten bigger than him,” Grabowski told VeloNews. “I’m running the business, and he’s there when I need him. It allowed for 36 years of an amazing ride. My job was to [modernize] it and attract new riders.”
Grabowski took over as CEO on July 24. The 62-year-old has a deep background in business, and was a vice president at General Electric’s multibillion-dollar healthcare business unit, from 2016-2018 after working for more than 30 years with the company.
Grabowski’s job was to view the bike race through the lens of a business, and to turn the event’s insolvent financials around.
The leadership change didn’t alter the event’s role as a fundraiser for local charities. Perimeter Bicycling Association of America, a 501(c)(3), is the non-profit organization that holds El Tour every year, and the company donates funds raised by the event to 37 charities. Over the last 36 years, El Tour has raised over $90 million for charities.
Perimeter’s first task was to repay the $180,000 debt to Pima County, which came after the county fronted the cost of traffic barriers and signage for the 2018 event. The county threatened to sue over the unpaid tab.
In August, the event brought on a new title sponsor in Banner-University Medical Center, which brought in $175,000. Then, Pima County Supervisors approved a new $280,000 contract for the event: $250,000 for traffic control services, and $30,000 for consulting services for the route layout.
“It starts with understanding what my fixed overhead is and what my variable is,” Grabowski said. “Barriers and police are fixed. The event has a variable component to it. The only option was to get more riders.”
Grabowski’s next move was to move the El Tour de Tucson’s start from the indoor Tucson Convention Center to the outdoor Armory Park. The move allowed a greater number of participants to ride. Then, she removed the 75-mile race, streamlining the event to 100, 50, and 25-mile distances, as well as fun rides at 10, 4, and 1-mile distances
For 2019 the event attracted 5,400 riders, including a handful of professionals, retired pros, and up-and-coming talent. But it also includes people of all ages and abilities. On average, people who ride El Tour are between ages 44 and 64. However, this year, there were 23 riders over 80 years old. They also had 157 members of the local Pascua Yaqui tribe riding El Tour. The secret to El Tour de Tucson’s longevity has been its inclusivity. (And its good winter weather.)
Aside from the 5,400 riding the tour, there were about 770 people doing the fun ride. That number includes kids with disabilities.
“This year was really about a brand. We have work on the image to do,” Grabowski said. “We were rewarded with a proclamation from the county. This week has been proclaimed as the El Tour de Tucson Week.”
Inclusion of Pascua Yaqui tribe
The El Tour again welcomed 157 members of the local Pascua Yaqui Tribe to ride the event; the Pascua Yaqui Trib’s pueblo is located 10 miles southwest of downtown. The group rode alongside Nicola Cranmer, manager of the Sho-Air Twenty20 team, and Sho-Air rider Shayna Powless.
Powless is of Native American descent, and has close ties to the Oneida and Stockbridge reservations through her father. Powless led a 100 children from the tribe in a 10-mile fun ride. After the ride, she spoke about her life as an elite athlete, and how proper nutrition contributes to her performance.
The tribe’s Team Yaqui has participated in the El Tour since 2013. Team Yaqui was launched with a grant from the Special Diabetes Program for Indians, a fund to help combat diabetes in Native American tribes. It includes Pascua Yaqui people from Tempe, Marana, Eloy, Old Pascua, and New Pascua.
Each week, tribe member Iris Coronado leads “Rez rides” on Tuesday evenings with about 165 riders, and then larger community rides on weekends. Participants range from ages 4 to over 65 in the weekend rides. And on Sundays, the group rides 30 miles.
Coronado teaches bike safety and signals to riders, but she says that making it to the weekly rides also teaches commitment. It’s an effort to become healthier overall.
“We need to fight diabetes,” Coronado said. “Everyone’s getting sick. We were farmers, used to corn, squash, and beans. Now when we’re tired, we get fast food. But we have a lot of programs in Pascua teaching us how to eat.”
Iris got her sister, Olga Coronado, to start riding, too. Olga Coronado said the rides are inclusive and fun.
“We ride altogether as a family,” said Olga. “We encourage each other. We made it as a family to the finish line. It makes me emotional. We ride together, we die together.”
Iris encourages everyone on the rides.
“I’m really proud,” she said. “They were little soldiers, like warriors. I’d yell, ‘What team are we?’ They’d yell back, ‘Team Yaqui! Team Yaqui!’”