BOISE, Idaho (VN) — A crowd gathered Wednesday in Boise’s Grove Plaza to celebrate the upcoming London Olympic Games and cycling. And not just any kind of cycling, but women’s cycling in particular. The Exergy Tour, which starts today with a downtown prologue, aims to bring the world’s attention to the sport. Banners line the Boise streets proclaiming the teams and their countries that will race in the upcoming days, but is this new energy around the sport sustainable?
The Exergy Development Group has supported women’s cycling in a big way with the creation of the new Exergy Tour. The race is one of the biggest, most exciting women’s races in the country, said Steve Johnson, President and CEO of USA Cycling, and is the first five-day women’s stage race ever to offer a $100,000 prize purse. The Exergy Tour is also the first women’s race to offer live TourTracker coverage for each of the stages, and the first to have Patrick Dempsey as a podium boy.
James Carkulis, President and CEO of the Exergy Development Group, is the kind of sponsor the cycling world dreams about. Dedicated and passionate about women’s cycling, he hopes that the Exergy Tour will help narrow the gap between the men’s and women’s pro pelotons.
“Our end goal is to put [the Exergy Tour] on par with the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, the Tour of Utah and the Tour of California as the fourth major in North America,” said Carkulis at Wednesday night’s team presentation. “Female athletes are a unique brand, and female cyclists even more so.”
Cycling is a unique sport in that it depends on title sponsors with cash to spare. Without companies like the Exergy Development Group, big-time races like the Amgen Tour of California and marquee teams like Radioshack-Nissan wouldn’t exist. And when the economy stutters, so does the world of professional cycling. When this happens, the women’s peloton is often hit hardest. This past year alone has seen some powerful women’s teams fold, including HTC-Highroad and Garmin-Cervélo.
Yet 2012 has also seen some phoenixes rise with the arrival of Specialized-lululemon and two programs tied to men’s WorldTour teams in Rabobank and GreenEdge-AIS. Specialized is a new team this year, but with a roster that includes multiple-time Olympic medalist Clara Hughes and current U.S. time trial champion Evelyn Stevens, it has already established itself as a force to be reckoned with. According to Stevens, energy around women’s cycling is rising.
“The momentum is definitely on the up. Our team was a little bit in flux the last year. It was just so exciting that these two amazing title sponsors came in and didn’t just save the team but really created this powerful team,” said Stevens.
Stevens, who will race this weekend in Idaho with teammates Hughes, Amber Neben and Ina-Yoko Teutenberg among others, hopes that the Exergy Tour will become a base on which to build other U.S. stage races for women.
“We arrived here from Canada, and are just amazed already by the level of professionalism, how well organized it is. The women here aren’t going to disappoint, it’s a big year and everyone is on form. I just think that hopefully this is an example in the United States of what women’s racing can and should be like,” said Stevens.
The racers are excited, and Carkulis’ Exergy Development Group is a renewable energy company that makes sustainability its business. The Exergy Tour is a huge step forward in women’s cycling, but so was the Ore-Ida/PowerBar/HP Women’s Challenge when that event folded in 2003, months away from its 20th anniversary edition, because the new title sponsorship deal fell through. The Women’s Challenge, like the new Exergy Tour, was the largest women’s stage race in the U.S. and drew top caliber talent from around the world.
So what’s the answer to sustainability? Maybe there isn’t just one.