Twenty years ago, one might say the state of Georgia was in the middle of a professional sports boom. The Atlanta Thrashers and Hawks hosted fans at Philips Arena. The Braves were rolling, winners of nine-straight division titles. The Falcons were, well, the Falcons.
And, of course, there was the newest professional road race in North America – the Tour de Georgia.
Held for the first time in 2003, the Tour de Georgia created a lifetime of memories for professional cyclists, native Georgians, race organizers and other members of the event’s fringe who were involved during its short tenure. Although most of the professional cyclists who raced in the event are now retired, stories and memories are still shared in cycling’s most elite circles.
Chris Aronhalt had a big role in making that happen.
Aronhalt, the now-owner and president of Medalist Sports, developed the skills necessary to scale such an event through his time with the company. He started as an intern before he was hired full-time, where he worked with the six-state cycling race Tour DuPont and a similar event in China. The success of these events led him to manage the Goodwill Games in the 1980s and 1990s, an Olympic-style event hosted in several U.S. cities by Ted Turner and Turner Sports.
A few years later, he received a phone call from a particularly powerful figure in Georgia.
“Governor Roy Barnes was watching the Tour de France and literally said, ‘I want to do that — for Georgia,’” Aronhalt said. “At the time there wasn’t a professional cycling event in the US.”
Although Barnes would lose the 2002 election, the idea still came to fruition under Gov. Sonny Perdue’s administration. Aronhalt was hired by the state tourism office under the Georgia Department of Economic Development. The race was set up as a 501c(6) non-profit entity, with a goal to develop the Tour as an economic and marketing property for the state and benefit the Georgia Cancer Coalition.
In the initial stages, his main focus was on logistics and safety for the race, determining host cities, stages and other factors.
“It was a learning experience the first year for sure,” Aronhalt said. “The first day – I think we started in Savannah – it was a pretty monumental day just to launch the Tour de Georgia.”
In April 2003, Chris Horner won the inaugural 606-mile, six-stage race that stopped in Rome, Dalton, Gainesville, Augusta, Macon, Savannah, Columbus and Pine Mountain before a big-city Atlanta finish. Georgia had its race, and the cycling world – as well as rural and urban Georgians alike – wanted it to continue. The next year came with a new goal – to find a climb.
“One of the highlights in the early days was signing out one of the state vehicles, a Crown Victoria, and going to find the highest point in Georgia,” Aronhalt said. “We wondered what is the highest point? What is that mountain climb that we can incorporate in the Tour de Georgia – and that was Brasstown Bald. Brasstown became that legendary stage every year, up near Hiawassee and Young Harris, and it was just a legendary climb. It was a very cool day of signing out a car, getting a map, driving through Georgia and eventually finding that.”
The race grew in popularity thanks to the presence of several high-profile racers and a genuinely pleasant experience during the event. Lance Armstrong competed and won the event in 2004, using the Tour de Georgia as a tune up for the Tour de France, and Aaronhalt said his presence was a “game changer that sent the race into international prominence.” Floyd Landis, a teammate of Armstrong’s and figure of the sport, took home the yellow jersey in 2006.
“One, [Lance and other professionals] proved and it showed that it was a quality event,” Aronhalt said. “It also showed on our behalf that it was a well-executed event. Two, its convenience, [to] the Atlanta airport, and everything we did making sure the teams had a good experience was important, especially for a new event. Certainly after 2004, its reputation became part of the circuit for some of the top teams and top riders.”
People showed out – the 2004 finish line attracted more than 50,000 fans. And cities across the state bought into the race. Aronhalt and his team gathered a list of cities who wanted to host a stage, and his team had to tell some municipalities to wait for later races.
The event generated $121 million of economic impact for the state of Georgia from 2003-07 alone, attracting 2.3 million spectators in the same span. The race’s success culminated in its expansion to a seven-day event in 2007, where 15 professional cycling teams received invitations and 12 cities were selected as hosts. By that time, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) ranked the Tour de Georgia as an Hors Classe (2.HC) stage race event – one of three American events to achieve the status of the top-ranked stage races in the world.
Aronhalt noted that vision, support and leadership were the driving forces for the event’s success. Those factors could be seen not only from local and state government officials, but also from private corporations that bought into a statewide showcase.
“The leadership wasn’t only from the governor’s office, but also all of the head corporations of Georgia got involved,” Aronhalt said, citing companies like Waffle House, Georgia Power, AT&T and others. “All of those great companies got behind it because it was a great way to highlight many parts of Georgia, not just downtown, like where the Falcons and Braves play.”
And through the years, the whole state was included. The race parked in Chickamauga, Blairsville, Fayetteville, Columbus and more, stopping in all areas of the state. Thousands of volunteers helped keep riders safe and enjoying the Peach State.
But the fun only lasted for six races, as 2008 saw the final iteration of the Tour de Georgia. Kanstantin Siutsou took home the final trophy, as the race was canceled in 2009 and 2010, due to a lack of funding. Still reeling from the Great Recession, the race couldn’t find a sponsor for 2011 and 2012 and hasn’t been picked up since.
Though the professional race lies dormant, Aronhalt still looks back at his times with the Tour. Many of his memories come from the people he crossed paths with during the race’s life.
“It’s the relationship and friendships and bonds formed with literally small town business owners, city leaders, mayors,” Aronhalt said. “Again, the relationship that’s built when putting on an event like this, still to this day I am close to a lot of individuals, whether they are in Georgia or not, because of this event.
“It’s pretty cool to be a part of the experience and memories. It had a great run. It was really special to a lot of people.”
A new look
15 years ago, the state hosted its final Tour de Georgia. Today, a new race shares part of the course and namesake but caters to a slightly different crowd.
Reuben Kline, a former professional cyclist with a background in mountain biking, triathlons and running, first hosted the Tour of Georgia Gran Fondo in 2013. With a cycling-heavy background, he wanted to recreate one of his favorite races as a rider.
“I would say it was one of the top three most amazing road races in the U.S.,” Kline said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t last.”
Kline founded the Gran Fondo National Series in 2012, a bike series that combines aspects of competitive cycling and social rides to create events that are fun, challenging, competitive, and inclusive. What started as a single race in 2012 has grown into an organization that has produced more than 75 gran fondo races and is recognized by the America’s governing body of Olympic cycling – along with the distinction of the official USA Cycling Gran Fondo National Championships.
The Gran Fondo National Series, which includes the Tour of Georgia Gran Fondo, is a bit different from cycling as most Americans know it. Rather than being a traditional start-to-finish race, the series utilizes a time section format where riders can race through designated timed sections of the route that count towards a riders competition time. This format allows cyclists to socialize, and take in the scenery when not being timed, and then amp up their speed for those specific segments; it shares the sport with everyone in a different way.
“This allows people to enter cycling at their ability and compete in their ability,” Kline said. “If they are an elite, top-level or even pro racer, they can push themselves to the highest limit. If they are a recreational rider – you can train – guarantee within a month you can compete in our event. I wanted to build something that brought people into cycling in an experiential way and to take part in an amazing bicycling race.”
Centered around Helen, the race routes take cyclists through the Northeast Georgia mountains, and like most of the organization’s races, The Tour of Georgia Gran Fondo is offered in 25- (Piccolo), 66- (Medio) and 90-mile (Gran) Routes, allowing riders to choose the distance right for them.
“How many people enter a marathon thinking they are going to win,” Kline said. “Hardly anybody, right? But having that competitive atmosphere is an important part of that experience – to push oneself, see how you do and to reach your own personal goals. We’re there to help you be successful, take you around some of the most beautiful cycling locations in the US, and that’s why we’re in North Georgia.”
Folks take Kline up on the offer for the views. The race attracts between 400 to 500 people per year from across the United States, with 80 individuals racing at the pro level. Some participants come for the race, but many stay for the experience surrounding it. A hot meal from a local Mexican restaurant and locally-brewed beer are two of the amenities to finishers.
“We have an expo finish-line party,” Kline said. “We do a full awards ceremony. All of those age groups for each distance, we call them up to the podium. All of the riders receive a finishers award when they cross the finish line.
“In pro cycling, there’s first place and no one else matters. We make sure everyone receives a finishers award for their accomplishments from the day.”
There are t-shirts and other swag given to finishers, who often hang around for the post-race events. Traditionally, cycling isn’t the most social-friendly or social-promoting sport, according to Kline, as racers on different teams – or teammates in different places in a peloton – aren’t encouraged to engage. His series looks to change that, both with post-race programming and a format that allows friendships to be made on the course.
“In between those timed segments, you chill out,” Kline said. “You stop at the feed stations, you talk with the people you’re riding with. You say, ‘Hey, did you see that over there, look at that lake, look at that river.’ You talk about the experience and communicate more.”
The experience has kept amateurs and professionals coming back for 10 years, with another Tour of Georgia Gran Fondo scheduled for April 21, 2024. As he continues planning for next year’s event, there’s a soft spot in his heart for the Peach State stop.
“It’s a gorgeous place,” Kline said. “The support, the people, the welcoming environment – it’s sensational.”
What will it take?
While the Gran Fando series meets the needs for Georgia’s amateur and semi-pro riders along with participants across the country, the question still arises in certain circles: will the Tour de Georgia – in a purely-professional form – ever return?
“People still talk about it – there isn’t an event that goes by where people don’t ask, ‘is Georgia coming back,’” Aronhalt said.
A board hangs on Aronholt’s office wall, a list where he jots down ideas and opportunities for events or business ventures in the future. One idea is situated on top of the others – Tour de Georgia 2.0.
“From the popularity and the terrain, and Georgia has always been a hotbed for cycling and training, obviously Athens is,” Aronhalt said, referencing The Classic City’s Athens Twilight Criterium and growing cycling community. “I really do think it wouldn’t take much for a return to be successful.”
He cites two main barriers to a return – lack of a strategic vision and, more importantly, funding.
“The big races are about a million dollars a day,” Aronhalt said. “That’s with live TV and the top cycling teams. Back then, it was about a $3.5 million project; these days, if it was a six-day event, probably $4-5 million. It would take leadership and certainly seed money, in this case, definitely from the state, plus corporate partners who have the same vision again.”
When it comes to vision, Aronhalt noted the energy and foresight that both state and local officials possessed during the tour’s first run, a vision that brought professional cycling to Georgia’s largest and smallest communities. It will take that same innovation to resurrect the state’s largest cycling project, one that gave Aronhalt memories to last a lifetime.
“Every day was a joy,” Aronhalt said. “Bringing people together from around the world takes a lot of collaboration and cooperation and teamwork, and just to be a part of a group like that was something special.”