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A Look at Another Tour - Southern Style
 
By Cathy Mehl
Date: 3/1/2005
A Look at Another Tour - Southern Style
 

With America’s premier cycling event rapidly approaching, the Daily Peloton caught up last week with the Executive Director of the Dodge Tour de Georgia, Stan Holm. We got Stan’s reaction to Lance Armstrong’s announcement that he would ride again, the long-term plans for the race, and who we’ll be watching on those southern roadways come April.

Daily Peloton: So how’s it going?!

Stan Holm: Well, it could not be going better.

You had kind of a big week, huh?

Oh, it was a huge week for us. I mean, we’ve got a great event already, but obviously Lance coming back to defend his title is, like I like to say, icing on an already great cake.

So tell me Stan, how did you receive the news that Lance was coming back?

Dan Osipow and Mark Higgins were talking to our race director, and they informed us Lance had changed his schedule and would be coming back to defend his Dodge Tour de Georgia title. Actually the way they put it was kind of cool. They called to say that they would be announcing that Lance had decided to defend his Tour de France title and oh, by the way, he’s coming back to defend his Dodge Tour de Georgia title as well.

That’s great! Was it always your understanding that Lance would come back to race in Georgia if he decided to do the Tour? Had that been discussed?

No, it hadn’t been discussed.


Lance Armstrong on Hines Gap, Stage 2, 2004 Dodge Tour de Georgia. Photo by Bob Badalucco/www.bbactionphoto.com.
 

Dodge signed on earlier this year as your title sponsor. Is your contract with them year to year?

Yes, it’s year to year, but quite frankly we’re happy to have them sign on year by year. As you know, they’re big NASCAR people and this is a bit of a change for them. But they are thrilled to be here and we’re educating them as we go as to why cycling and the demographics of cycling are a great opportunity for Dodge.

It seemed to be a good fit last year.

A wonderful fit. Not only because they supported the event to the extent that they did, but also an opportunity to showcase their cars. How often do you get a chance to have Mario Cipollini and Sheryl Crow in Dodge’s cars?


Mario checking out a Dodge Magnum. Courtesy Dodge Tour de Georgia.

Can you give me some history on the Dodge Tour de Georgia? Were you a founding member of this race?

Absolutely. The idea was conceived by the Commissioner of Industry Trade and Tourism for the State of Georgia, a gentleman by the name of R.K. Sehgal. He literally came to the office the day after Lance’s 2000 win in the Tour. He said to us, “Why can’t we do that in Georgia?” meaning a stage race. At the time I was the Chief of Staff for the Department. We thought about the potential for doing that type of race and the fact that a stage race covers so many miles and touches so many communities. Here in Georgia we are blessed with a great state and blessed with a great city in Atlanta, but unfortunately if you take Atlanta out of the economic mix for Georgia, the state is relatively poor and therefore this is a very appealing way to create an event that could potentially attract a lot of tourists to a lot of other parts of Georgia.

Atlanta doesn’t really need your help, but a lot of these outlying areas really do.

That is exactly right. At the time we were sitting there having a cup of coffee and talking over this idea, we all laughed about it.

But just by pure luck, we decided to look at cycling as a business and the demographics of cycling and that’s when we were absolutely amazed. Eighty-plus million cyclists in the U.S. The second fastest growing sport in the U.S. Bigger than golf, skiing and tennis combined. And of that 80 million, which obviously includes everyone who owns a bike, even kids, 12-plus million are what I lovingly call “Grateful Dead” level professional cycling fans. Their demographics are unbelievable from the market prospective. They are highly educated, active lifestyle, and 90-plus thousand dollar medium family income. In other words, they make great tourists.

So we then took a look at who was in the race business, and found out that since Tour du Pont ended in 1996 there had not been a major, major stage race in the United States. And of course since 1996 all of this interest has been created in cycling to the novices in America because of Lance Armstrong and all he’s doing. So we saw this as a unique opportunity to do some thing. We set out to approach it as a business, and we decided to be a not for profit, we wanted it to be about a cause. We want to work to create North America’s premiere event in cycling. In essence to be just like the Master’s golf tournament.

When people think of stage racing in North America, we want them to think of the Dodge Tour de Georgia.


Cesar Grajales, eventual winner of Stage 6 of the 2004 edition. Photo by Celia Cole, sportsshooter.com/celiacole.

So we set out to do that, and unfortunately our business model called for us to raise a lot of sponsorship dollars. As a true public-private partnership the State is vested as a major sponsor but the rest of the money comes from our good friends in corporate America. And it comes in the form of a sports marketing perspective or a good corporate citizenship perspective, or a good cause in our cancer perspective. Or a lot of companies just participate because they want to use the event to celebrate their employees and give something back to their employees. But at the end of the day, Sept 11th, 2001 struck, so that slowed us down a year and we didn’t get out of the box until 2003 with the first event. With literally no marketing or promotion we got 250,000 people to attend, which was right on target for growing economic impact for Georgia. And by the way, we had by then partnered with the Georgia Cancer Coalition as our cause and that’s all about educating people. So we were adhering to our business model of helping Georgia’s economy and Georgia Cancer Coalition.

In 2003 without much marketing we were successful. My benchmark for success is that we started attracting great European teams for 2004, and of course US Postal Service came and they brought Lance Armstrong.

I remember talking to you and your wife at the race in 2004 and you commenting that your model had been accelerated a bit with the arrival of the Lance-factor.

As good businessmen figuring out the financing we set our goal to be “North America’s Premiere Cycling Event” at five years, but we sort of arrived there at our second year!

Were you at all concerned how this year would play out when you thought Lance was not coming to Georgia?

No, we weren’t worried and I’ll tell you why. Remember that the demographic of cycling is well wired and they knew what was going on and those people would come to the event whether Lance was there or not. In fact, there are so many other popular cyclists that people follow. So the cycling community was set. The one thing I would have worried about was getting the non-cycling fans to come out and be introduced to cycling as a sport and become a fan.

There is no question that Lance brings that and he will bring that this year. People come out just to see him. And then that’s our opportunity to capture them. Even if he weren’t coming this year we would’ve still been in great shape because our host communities have just embraced the event and so they are marketing it as an all-day festival. Ya know, it’s almost a Tail Gate, and oh yeah, there’s also going to be a bike race. We will get those fans and the schools to come out.


Photo by Dave Shields.

That was so awesome last year when entire schools were lined out on the roads.

In our first two years we’ve actually had four communities close their schools during the week.

It’s important that you know that part of making this business plan a success was that we knew that cycling fans would come and that they would be thrilled to see the cyclist go by and you only see them for two seconds. The rest of the people in Georgia and in the rest of America won’t come back a second time to see those two seconds so we wanted our host cities to create a major festival in their cities that is a celebration of the Dodge Tour de Georgia. When you as a fan can come out and enjoy all these festivities and bring your families and have a great day, it’s a successful event. It gives us the opportunity to educate people in our Healthy Georgia Expos, to encourage people to quit smoking, eat right, get a check-up and those important things.

Is this a year-around job for you?

Yes, this is a fun-fun year around job.

And you have a huge volunteer staff that ramps up closer to race time?

You can look at it this way: the race ends, and for about a month we pay the bills and clean things up. Then we go right back into the fund raising mode. It is an expensive event to run. It’s about a four-million dollar event and we do want to grow it from six days, which is what it has been from the beginning. We want to grow it eventually to something like a fourteen or fifteen day event, which allows us to cover a lot more of Georgia and to get to a lot more communities. This year we had 22 communities wanting to host stages. There is tremendous impact for these cities, as they get to showcase their cities and they have a lot of fun doing it. It’s good Georgian, Southern hospitality.

I wrote an article last year after the race was over called “The Faces of Georgia” and it was all about Southern hospitality, about how helpful people were, how well we were treated. It was a great experience to travel in the South.

I heard these same types of comments from the cyclists. They just could not believe how great everyone was at these team dinners, all the people turning out for the events. Talking to them, patting them on their backs.

I’d like to talk a little bit about the size of the race. I know you have 15 teams that participate. I’m wondering what happens as more and more Division 1 teams start coming to your race; what will happen to the Divison 3 spots? Will they go away, or will you make the race bigger?

Well, that’s a good question and probably one I can’t answer as thoroughly as you and your readers would like because they are more in tune with these things than I am. But let me say this, the number of teams is more a function of financial issues than it is anything else. You want to balance the quality level of any given team entering. It does us no good and it does the team no good for them to not be able to make the time cuts and be dropped after a few days. This year we have USA Cycling’s Under 23 team. We had them last year, too. We include them on purpose as part of the development of the sport. Going to sixteen or seventeen teams adds to our expenses, but we’ll do it and we can do it but it’s always going to be a trade off with what makes the best sense for the logistics of the event, the expense of the event and the competition of the race.


Lance and Mario on Stage 7 of last year's edition. Courtesy Dodge Tour de Georgia.

Did you have any trouble attracting teams this year?

We have a full time guy in Europe, Kevin Livingston, and he’s our recruiter. You probably know who he is. He knows all the team managers and a dialogue begins in late fall, looking at schedules. Our guys at Medalist Sports all deal with the teams and make sure there’s interest and then we strike a bargain that makes sense for all of us.

Do any of your sponsors express concern about filling the race with European based teams?

No, because there are only five European teams out of fifteen. We aren’t limited to that, but for financial concerns that’s a good number for us. But almost invariably these corporate sponsors have a vested interest in this country and in Europe.

Last year you and your wife Mimi told me you had traveled to the Tour de France to get a European flavor for the race. Can you tell me what you were looking for and what elements you added to the race to achieve this?

If you look at Georgia geographically, look at all of the small towns, the “villages,” and the small towns hosting… If you look at the geography from coastal to the plains to the mountains, there are a lot of parallels to the Tour de France and other European races. We knew in the cycling world that European-style stage races are racing at the top of the line in the world. It just fit naturally with what we do in Georgia, how we look in Georgia, and how our communities host events. So we set out to do it that way, to give it that flavor. A little bit of it was that there was not a lot of that in the U.S. so it makes us different. If you want to advertise yourself in a European sport with a lot of international cyclists, then the best way to do it is to mimic their events.


Jens Voigt. Photo by Marianne Werz O'Brien.

Do you have names of teams you can confirm for us now?

Team confirmations are: Credit Agricole with Saul Raisin. He is from Dalton, Georgia. The Saunier Duval/Podir team with Chris Horner, and Andrea Tafi will be here as his sort of swan song. CSC with Bobby Julich will be here. Phonak with one Floyd Landis will be here. Discovery Channel will be here. We’re still talking to several international teams to fill a fifth slot. A number of domestic teams are ready to sign on the dotted line, namely Jittery Joes/Kahlahari, which is a local team here in Georgia. We have a number of other domestic teams, we’re just waiting for them to sign on, so those will be announced soon.

How about Roberto Heras with Liberty Seguros? Is he still a maybe?

No, they are definitely out. I believe they have signed up for an event in Europe and they won’t be coming.

And how about our friend Mario?

Mario, well, we might be able to talk to you about Mario real soon. He might be getting a little long in the tooth, but we love him!


Cipo and Miss Columbus, Tour de Georgia 2004. Photo by Celia Cole, sportsshooter.com/celiacole.

Yeah, I think he made some new fans and created an entirely new fan base in America last year.

And there is not a more personable guy when it comes to accommodating our needs as the race organizers.

I heard a few complaints last year about the long transfer between stages, that the distances were hard on the athletes.

Well, that’s putting it nicely!

It actually looks like the race is tightened up this year. Was this a major issue you addressed?

Last year, that was strictly a function of Dodge not signing up as the title sponsor until 88 days before the event. So by then the hotels that we would have used were taken. We ended up taking any and everything we could. So this year we’ve taken care of those things and cleared up those problems. Yeah, I didn’t enjoy having Johan telling me how long the transfers were!

(Laughs) Amazingly, Lance told me it was a great experience all the way around, including the logistics!

I did notice you eliminated the double stage day this time. Did you have complaints about that?

We might have had some complaints. But really at the end of the day it gives us a better chance to showcase the city of Rome and the Time Trial course, and to celebrate all the other things surrounding the race.

Is the Time Trial course the same as last year? Starting outside the city and finishing downtown?

Yes. It might not be completely the same exact course, but it’s basically the same.

Any last words?

What’s most important to me is that as we begin to grow this event to introduce more and more folks to cycling and to educate them about cycling so they can enjoy and appreciate what a fabulous sport it is and how much fun it is to watch. So having Lance Armstrong come is very key to that because he will bring a lot of folks out that might not come out otherwise. Also, this event is about defeating cancer, not only in Georgia but all across this country. And this event is a wonderful public-private partnership. On the private side we are always here to entertain anybody who wants to get involved from the corporate sponsorship point of view.

And are you still looking for volunteers?

Oh, yes, anybody who is interested should go right to the website and sign up.

Stan, thanks for your time today and we’ll see you in Augusta!

 
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