The Man Behind the Tours Part 1
An interview of Chris Aronhalt,Vice Managing Partner of Medalist
Sports with Dave Shields discussing the Tours of California and Georgia
and growth of stage races in North America.
By Dave Shields
The domestic cycling scene has lately experienced explosive growth. Lance
Armstrong’s success gave things a jump start, but it’s the quality of the race
experiences that really seems to be fueling the fire. From the operational side
of things a four year old company called Medalist Sports has assumed one of the
most prominent roles in driving this growth.
Chris Aronhalt addresses course marshalls in Augusta
I spent a good chunk of the final day of the 2006 Ford Tour de Georgia with
Event Coordinator and Medalist Sports Vice-President of Operations, Chris
Aronhalt. In the three years I’ve attended the race, nearly every person I’ve
spoken to within the event organization has referenced Chris and his vision for
both the Tour de Georgia and for American cycling in general. I’ve been anxious
to hear how he’s become such a key figure in the domestic cycling scene, and
looked forward to learning where he sees the sport going from here.
(Editors note: this interview was done at the conclusion of the Tour of
Shields: In the last three years you guys have literally revolutionized
bicycle racing in America because of the opportunities with Lance Armstrong and
what’s gone on after that. How in the world did you get involved with organizing
Aronhalt: Well, I was involved in the Tour DuPont organization, so
that being my background, in 2002 when the state of Georgia had the vision to
start a professional stage race with the same benefits and excitement as the
Tour de France they kind of put the call out to those who were qualified. I
answered the call. I started in January of 2003. So obviously, with four months
to go, the first year, like all first year events, was challenging. But it’s
been a good, good ride.
Shields: Yeah. It’s been incredible. So essentially they just said, “We
need somebody to run our bicycle race, and you applied for the position.”
Aronhalt: Right. And I became an employee working for the state of
Georgia. Kind of with an outlook and focus solely on the tour.
Lance Armstrong on Brasstown Bald 2004
Photo c. Celia Cole and
Shields: Wow. And then, in only your second year, Lance Armstrong starts
looking for a bicycle race because he wants to do some training in America.
Shields: At one point, from what I recall, it looked like Tour of the Gila
was going to be the race he was going to do.
Aronhalt: Yeah. We got a call… umm… gosh, I think that year it was
around February. No, it was more like March, confirming that he was going to be
in. And then in 2005 it was around December. So, obviously the race has now
provided a great opportunity for the Pro Tour teams and riders as they focus on
the Tour de France and other big races.
Shields: So since Lance didn’t commit to the 2004 race until March, and
you were holding it in April, did all the other Pro Tour teams sign on after
Lance committed or where they….
Aronhalt: No, no. They had already been invited.
Shields: And they’d already accepted the invitations?
Aronhalt: Yeah. Being at that point a 2.1 UCI event you have to have
five international teams. We were fortunate that our five were all Pro Tour,
based on the race organization and reputation.
Shields: You didn’t have any Pro Tour teams your first year, did you?
Aronhalt: No. Well, you know at that time in 2003 there was no Pro
Tour, so we had Division 1 teams. Gosh, first year is hard to remember. We did
have Postal, so we had some international teams.
Shields: What sort of logistical changes did you have to make from the
point that Lance signed on to be part of the event?
Aronhalt: Well, in 2004 there weren’t changes on his behalf but we did
consult with him. Obviously we wanted to make sure that the course was providing
what he needed from a technical standpoint, so we actually changed… added a
mountain stage and lengthened the time trial course so it was more of what he
would be facing in France. It was more input, though. It wasn’t demands.
Aronhalt: So obviously, now we’re on a roll with the race’s reputation
and notoriety. Not only from a competition standpoint with all the top Pro Tour
teams that want to be here, but obviously with the sponsors of those teams like
this year with Quick Step tied in with Mohawk Carpet, so it obviously was a
win/win from that standpoint. But we have big visions for the tour to keep up
the tradition. We want to grow either in number of days, or to continue to grow
geographically. We certainly won’t stop or rest on our laurels.
Shields: So, by geographically do you see it extending into more states
Aronhalt: Yeah, still patterned a little bit after the Tour de France.
I think we had a good experiment, if you will, dipping into Chattanooga,
Tennessee this year, and that was a great city for us. We’ll certainly look at
other states and other cities such as Jacksonville, Charolette, Greenville, and
Birmingham. Obviously the focus will always be on Georgia, but in terms of
expanding the markets and spectators and footprint of the race, we’ve got grand
Saunier Duval's Marco Pinotti and team mate on Brasstown Bald.
Photo c. Peter Ozolins
Shields: Is Brasstown Bald always going to be a signature stage?
Aronhalt: That’s a good question. I was thinking about that this
morning. After this year it certainly has become legendary.
Shields: Yeah, I’d say!
Aronhalt: We always want to change up the course every year, so from
that aspect maybe not always having it within the race itself. You know Brass…
You know… We’ll have to wait and see.
Floyd Landis & Tom Danielson on the "Bald"
Photo c Peter Ozolins
Shields: Maybe a time-trial up Brasstown one year.
Aronhalt: Yeah! (Laughter from both of us. What a stage it would
Shields: So switching gears, the Tour of California was a couple years in
coming and now you’ve got that race in your stable, too.
Aronhalt: Yeah. We’re the operational arm. We managed and produced the
Tour of California. We also have a license to operate the US Pro National
Championships which will be Labor Day Weekend in Greenville, South Carolina.
We’re obviously proud of the hard work and experience that we’ve had throughout
the years with the Tour du Ponte, Tour de Georgia, and now California.
Shields: So literally, in a span of four years, the sport is exploding in
America and you’re involved in all the big new developments.
Aronhalt: Right. All the big tours. There are other big one day races,
but the tours are obviously what we specialize in terms of the production and
Dave Shields is the author of the bestselling and
Benjamin Franklin Award Winning novel, The Race. His recently released sequel,
The Tour, is receiving similar praise. By special arrangements with the
publisher, the Daily Peloton has made copies available
Part 2 will be published later today.