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Spectators not required: Why Tour of Utah opts for scenery

While most pro bike races target spectators, the Tour of Utah reaches out to tiny towns.

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TORREY, Utah (VN) — In the United States, professional bicycle races live and die by a simple mantra: More spectators equal more cash. When race promoters pitch potential sponsors, they boast the number of fans lining the road.

The need for big, cheering crowds often steers the events toward larger urban areas for stage starts and finishes. Larger cities also ante up cash and free services to the race — yet another reason to choose cities.

That’s not the case with the Tour of Utah. Since 2013 the race has actively sought out tiny, postage-stamp sized towns and rural roads in the state’s largely uninhabited southern half. Management has done this knowing that its overall spectator count — and bottom line — will suffer.

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“We know when we’re planning the budget, when we come to rural communities we may take a hit,” said Jenn Andrs, executive director for the Tour of Utah. “We choose these [small] towns knowing that our spectator numbers will be small. It allows us to paint a better picture of the state.”

During Monday’s stage 1, the race started in Springdale (pop. 548), passed through Mt. Carmel Junction (pop. 435), Orderville (pop. 575), and Glendale (pop. 377) before finishing in Cedar City, which boasts a comparatively large population of 29,000. On Tuesday, the second stage began in Escalante (pop. 779), passed through Boulder (pop. 222) before finishing in Torrey (pop. 179).

By contrast, the rural stage of this year’s Amgen Tour of California, stage 5, began in the town of Lodi, which itself has a population greater than all of the previously mentioned cities combined (63,000).

At Tuesday’s finish line in Torrey, the population of the race’s VIP tent was larger than that of the town. A handful of locals cheered on the race from the porch of Austin’s Chuck Wagon, the town’s only restaurant.

In lieu of the crowds, small towns and rural routes do offer advantages. Race management has fewer roads to close, which trims the overhead costs.

“You have fewer man hours from county perspective — we don’t have any controlled intersections [in Torrey] or in Escalante,” said Jim Birrell, managing partner of Medalist Sports, which operates the race. “There’s less bureaucracy to deal with than in the bigger cities.”

The small towns often throw grand gestures for the race as well, Birrell said. The night before stage 2, the town of Escalante held a barbecue to honor the race staff. For the start of stage 2, the town gifted a cowboy hat emblazoned with “Escalante” to ever rider in the peloton.

“They rolled out the red carpet for us,” Birrell said.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com
The tiny town of Escalante gave out cowboy hats to the riders for the start of stage 2. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

More importantly, the rural routes also skirt the state’s impressive scenery. Stage 1 passed through Zion National Park before skirting Cedar Breaks National Monument. Stage 2 started near Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and finished at the western entrance to Capitol Reef National Park.

Vicki Varela, the director of tourism for the state of Utah, said the race’s ability to show off the parklands outweighs the lack of spectators in the rural areas. The Utah Office of Tourism is one of the state’s largest sponsors.

“For us, it’s all about the TV time, the exposure,” Varela said. “We’re trying to inspire people to come to Utah.”

Other North American stage races have tried the rural route. This year the Tour of Alberta’s second stage begins in Kananaskis, a community of fewer than 300.

The Tour of Utah did not always reach out to the state’s uninhabited hinterlands. From 2004-2012 the Tour of Utah frequented Ogden, Salt Lake City, and other towns along the Wasatch mountains. In 2013, race management first branched out toward the state’s southern half.

“We decided we needed to actually be the Tour of Utah and not just the Tour of the Wasatch front,” Andrs said.

Andrs said the smaller cities do create a challenge with sponsors, which are drawn to crowds. In previous editions, the race struggled to find a title sponsor for the rural stages, Andrs said.

This year, the race sold title sponsorship of stages 2 and 3 to the Ogden-based America First Credit Union.

John Lund, president and CEO of the company, said his company is targeting the smaller communities. Several days before the race kicked off, America First Credit Union opened a branch in Cedar City.

“[The sponsorship] gives us the ability to reach out to customers in these communities,” Lund said. “We get to meet some wonderful people.’