Gearing up for El Tour

November 23, 2013 |

Photo: El Grupo crosses the finish line at the 2011 El Tour de Tucson.

The whirring of bike gears and the clicking of toe clips is a staple sound on the streets of Tucson, one of the nation’s most bike-friendly communities. We all know it – morning drives to work where you could easily spot dozens of cyclists enjoying the clear, desert air. But the true testament to Tucson’s cyclist appeal reveals itself every November when thousands of cyclists convene for El Tour de Tucson.

The unique biking event is celebrating its thirty-first year in Tucson and invites cyclists to ride the perimeter of Tucson – tough thoroughfares, serpentine streets and broad byways – and even through water crossings, where participants must pick up their bike, yes pick it up, and walk it through dry washes.

But the event represents much more than a grueling competition for the cyclists. El Tour draws more than $18 million in economic impact and 42 charitable agencies benefit from the event.

“One of the most important things about El Tour is that it is a fundraising event,” said Richard DeBernardis, founder of El Tour de Tucson and president of Perimeter Bicycling Association of America (PBAA). “For some it’s a race. Some of us think it’s a ride, and for most of us, we want to raise money for something worthwhile.”

It is this idea – giving back and benefiting the community – that lent itself to become the inspiration for this year’s theme of the Tour: Better Together Through Cycling.

“Pretty much through cycling, we’ve connected volunteers to charitable agencies, charitable agencies to fundraising, businesses to economic impact,” DeBernardis explained. “They’re all working together and what they’re doing is making it better for the community and it’s all related around a cycling event, so it really is better together through cycling! I’ve always felt that you could probably solve all of the world’s problems through cycling.”

One of the largest beneficiaries of El Tour is the nonprofit TuNidito which works with Tucson families whose lives have been impacted by a serious medical condition or death.

“We’re better through cycling because we’ve been able to grow our services,” said Liz McCuster, director of TuNidito Children and Family Services at an El Tour press conference last month. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without all of you at PBAA (Perimeter Bicycling Association of America).”

Perimeter Bicycling of America, Inc. is the nonprofit organization responsible for the El Tour de Tucson and several other major cycling events in Arizona. According to, the organization has been a model for bicycling events in Japan, which are also aimed at concept of cycling in the pursuit of wellness.

Another integral aspect of the ride are the volunteers. Ironically, or more perfectly, the day of El Tour, Nov. 23, also marks National Family Volunteer day. Two dedicated El Tour volunteers have been helping the event for about 28 years.

“The staff down at El Tour is just so wonderful and so friendly. It’s enjoyable work,” said Leila Warfield. Warfield and her husband, Totten, will be celebrating their sixty-sixth wedding anniversary, and will be at the finish line checking in participants on the day of the event.

It all sounds great, but the event struggled to find a title sponsor earlier this year, which almost left it short of hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding. The Tour needs about $650,000 in corporate funding to help pay the $1.8 million price tag, Richard DeBernardis said last month at the El Tour press conference. The University of Arizona Medical Center sponsored the event for the past six years, but their contract with the event expired. UMC continues to support the El Tour and is sponsoring the Tour’s “Fun Ride” this year. But it wasn’t long before Casino Del Sol took up the mantel as title sponsor.

“We’re honored to be the presenting sponsor of the El Tour de Tucson in 2013,” Jim Burns, CEO of Casino Del Sol Resort said at the October El Tour press conference. “Our involvement with the race goes beyond the sponsorship. Our tribal members, our team members, and our families will be participating and we are proud to support them in their journey.”

Burns reiterated the importance of El Tour for the local economies, but also added that the event’s health benefits are massive as it inspires people to be active. He shared that the event itself is an opportunity to bring together people from all different walks of life from around the Tucson area and beyond.

“We’re happy to be partners in this Tucson tradition,” Raymond Buelna, Pasqua Yaqui tribe council member said at last month’s press conference. “I’d like to wish everyone well in their training and on that day, be safe out there on the roads.”

Another event much like El Tour de Tucson was devastated earlier this year when two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, killing three people. To show continued support and remembrance for those lives lost and affected by the Boston bombings, Diamond Ventures will set up memorial signs along the Tour race course – 26.2 miles from the staring line, and 26.2 miles to the finish line.

“When we heard the theme, ‘Better Together Through Cycling’ we all agreed that no better theme could have been chosen,” Nathan Levy from Diamond Ventures said at the El Tour press conference. “We’re touched by the El Tour’s desire to honor those killed and injured in the Boston Marathon bombings.”

The event in of itself is a spectacle, but there is nothing quite like seeing the moving, contorting form of the peloton – hundreds of individual cyclists moving as one massive body.

“There’s nothing more exciting for me than riding my bike with a group of other fast cyclists,” said avid cyclist John Carruth. “To me the El Tour is just one of those iconic Tucson events. It helps define who we are as a community.”

Carruth is riding in support of the Greater Vail Community Services. His hope is to raise $1,000 to $1,500 in pledges for the charity while he rides the 85-mile race. Carruth, who competed in his first El Tour in 1988, also aims to finish in the top 20 riders.

“It’s a real tangible example of what cycling can do for our community both from the charitable side, and an economic side,” said Carruth about El Tour. “And I get to ride my bike! I love it.”

El Tour is expected to draw 8,000 to 9,000 national participants in its 111, 85, 60 and 42-mile races. It also has three shorter routes in their “Fun Ride” – 10, 5 and quarter-mile courses for mountain bikes, tandems, wheelchairs and children. There’s also the indoor El Tour in which participants can ride their own stationary bikes for minutes rather than miles, from anywhere in the world starting a week prior to the El Tour.

The day of El Tour offers activities for non-riders too. The El Tour Downtown Fiesta at Amory Park, 221 S. Sixth Ave., will allow cyclists and spectators alike to enjoy a day of outdoor music, food and family fun while being able to watch riders cross the finish line.

The El Tour de Tucson is Nov. 23. For more information about El Tour routes, start times and registration, visit

Category: Community, DOWNTOWN / UNIVERSITY / 4TH AVE, Events