Tour of America: Down but not out?

If one could create a three-week national tour out of thin air, using only unbridled enthusiasm, Frank Arokiasamy might just be the one to pull it off.

If one could create a three-week national tour out of thin air, using only unbridled enthusiasm, Frank Arokiasamy might just be the one to pull it off.

Even after postponing plans for a 23-day, 21-stage, 2200-mile American grand tour for third year in a row, Arokiasamy says he is far from giving up on the “Tour of America.”

Arokiasamy at Interbike in 2007.
Arokiasamy at Interbike in 2007. | Ben Delaney photo

It was an idea that even Arokiasamy admits sounded “crazy” when he first floated it at the Interbike trade show in 2007. Arokiasamy said Thursday that even though the tour is on hold for another year he has not abandoned his hope of promoting something “that could eventually become bigger than the Tour de France.”

Indeed, Arokiasamy is unwilling to concede that his decision really represents a third delay in launching the tour.

“I realize that we had originally said we wanted to put on a race in 2008,” he explained. “When we came to Interbike in 2007, I already knew that it would be a struggle to get it on track for the next year. In a way, we used that target to get the staff motivated, but my sights were already set on 2009.”

“The last few years have been tough,” Arokiasamy told VeloNews Thursday. “I am very committed to this dream, but certain things have made the project more difficult than it should be.”

Chief among those is the current economic downturn, which Arokiasamy said caused potential sponsors to reconsider their support for the effort.

“I had sponsors — big name sponsors — lined up,” he said. “When things began to get difficult in the economy, those companies had to pull back and that’s what caused us to postpone 2009. I held out hope for 2010, but we still don’t have the funding necessary to do it this year.”

But Arokiasamy has also encountered hurdles he didn’t expect, including a somewhat chilly response from the cycling community.

Originally conceived as 27-stage, 4500-mile stage race following a meandering route through the United States, Arokiasamy reworked the idea, shortening stages and the overall length of the race to 2205 miles. Teams, promoters and governing bodies were, to say the least, skeptical of the plan, a reception Arokiasamy says stemmed from his “lack of experience in the sport.”

“I am a businessman,” said Arokiasamy, who earned a PhD in Economics at Southern Illinois University. “I am not a cyclist. I take the blame for (the initial reception). I wanted to create an event that is longer, harder and tougher than anything else in the world. People who knew what they were talking about basically said ‘Frank, this is really pushing it too far.’ I had to concede that they were probably right. I took a lot of heat for that … but I wanted a starting point to get the discussion going.”

However, one idea that Arokiasamy has not abandoned, is that in order to be successful and attract top teams, the Tour of America would have to offer a prize list unmatched in the world of cycling. While the winner of the Tour de France earns around 300,000 Euros, Arokiasamy wanted to offer a $1 million to the winner of his race.

“My idea was to offer a $10 million prize list,” he said. “I still want to do that, but in the first year — if we get this thing off the ground — I may have to cut that back to $5 million. It would still be the biggest payout in cycling.”

But all of those plans are again on hold.

“We do not have the money to do this right,” he said. “I’ve paid for staff, planning, travel and everything pretty much out of my own pocket. On top of that, for much of that time, I’ve put my own work – I am a corporate consultant – on hold and haven’t been bringing in money; just spending it.”

When asked for a “realistic” assessment of his chances to promote the race in 2011, Arokiasamy said “it’s probably 50-50 at this point.”

But even after conceding that his chances of success are limited at best, Arokiasamy begins listing off the ways it could work … and work out in a big way.

“I have the contacts with sponsors, if we get the start-up funding to get things going again, it won’t take much to get it started.”

Arokiasamy said that he has always approached the event as a “profit-making enterprise. The first level of funding – the start-up costs – should only be about 1.5 million. The second level – the full expenses of the race, including the prizelist – should be between $36- and $42-million. I can honestly say that it would generate $50 million in revenues.”

“If I do get the money and support, it’s really just a matter of flipping the switch,” he added. “We have interest from communities, we have interest from hotels and other businesses in those communities … they understand how much revenue an event like this can generate. I’m an economist; it’s not unrealistic to predict that the economic impact could be as much as half-a-billion for those communities along the way.”

One thing Arokiasamy said he’s not prepared to do is pare down his plans and, perhaps, start out by promoting a smaller race that could eventually grow into something resembling his current plans.

“I’ve never wanted to do something smaller,” he said. “I either want to do it big or not do it at all. This could be bigger than the Tour de France and I personally want to see something this size in this country. The United States can and should be where we have the world’s biggest bike race. I want to see that happen.”