Story by Britain Eakin
Ten days before El Tour de Tucson, Richard DeBernardis slept on the comfortable, beige couch in his office at Perimeter Bicycling Association of America. That close to race day, he often sleeps there, he said.
The week before the race, some of the association's staff members don’t sleep at all, he added.
DeBernardis started El Tour de Tucson 31 years ago. Ever since, it's been a bicycling race around the city happening the Saturday before Thanksgiving every year. Now, he is president of Perimeter Bicycling, which organizes El Tour.
Looking back, he said, he couldn’t have imagined he would still be running the bicycling event today.
“I never intended to go into bicycle event production," DeBernardis said. "It was just a fun thing. I wanted to see if I could do it."
He’s currently trying to figure out how to keep the event going. For the second year in a row, he said he feared the ride might not happen.
Last year’s race was nearly canceled because of 11th-hour problems with the road barricade contractor. His organization had to hire five other barricade companies instead, which drove the cost up nearly $60,000, DeBernardis said.
On top of the debt that occurrence created, University of Arizona Medical Center’s six-year title sponsorship contract expired, leaving this year’s event budget with a $250,000 hole.
“I went to the county manager and just said, 'this is amazing. After thirty years, I don’t think I can go on. We just don’t have the money,'” DeBernardis said.
Pima County and the city of Tucson both doubled their contributions this year, giving about $50,000 each. El Tour also got some brand new sponsors, and some existing sponsors gave more money.
“We went to some of our sponsors, who couldn’t afford the title sponsorship level, but who said 'why don’t we give you an extra $10,000 or an extra $20,000,” he added.
Ten days before the race, the event was only $15,000 short, he said.
His Love of Cycling
DeBernardis discovered bicycling when he worked for the University of Alaska, where he said he snow skied between Eskimos villages for work. However, he said he never thought about bicycling until a friend suggested it.
He was convinced.
“May 22, 1976 I bought my first bicycle and headed from Alaska to Mexico, and I didn’t know anything about bicycling. Nothing about it,” DeBernardis said.
That time of year, there’s nearly 24 hours of daylight in Alaska, so he said he kept cycling until he collapsed from exhaustion.
“I didn’t wanna camp because I was afraid the (grizzly bears) were going to come after me,” he said.
DeBernardis finished his journey in 40 days. Then in 1979, he rode his bike around the perimeter of the U.S., and in 1981, he rode more than 6,ooo miles on four Japanese islands in 77 days.
He described the experiences he had on his bicycle as profound.
“On that bicycle, you deal with all your issues from financial to physical, to mental and everything,” he said.
DeBernardis came to Arizona to train and when he returned from Japan, he said decided to make Tucson his home.
As president of the Greater Arizona Bicycle Association, he was asked to put together a small local bike ride, he said.
But his vision was bigger than that, he added. He wanted to put together a ride that would give people some of the same benefits he said he got from cycling.
“Not everyone’s going to be able to bicycle the edge of the United States, that’s a big commitment giving up six months of your life," DeBernardis said. "But, if I can give people some of the feelings and experiences that I had on the edge of the United States in a smaller ride of 110 or 111 miles, then I feel I could do something good for somebody."
And that is how El Tour de Tucson was born.
Gearing Up For the Ride
For the last five years, he said he’s led the team on the hundred-mile ride. The team’s focus isn’t competition, he added.
“This year, I’ve got 25 kids riding, and I’ve got three different groups so I’ve got a group riding the 100, a group riding the 80, and a group riding the 60,” said Ignacio Rivera de Rosales, head coach at El Grupo.
The team’s only job is to ride the entire race together as a unit, he said.
Rivera de Rosales was among a steady trickle of local cyclists that streamed in to the shop with their bikes four days before the race. But the shop also assembles bikes shipped in from out of town cyclists.
“We got 5 in yesterday, so they’ll kind of flock in throughout the week,” said Alex Strickland, bicycle mechanic at Fairwheel Bikes.
The bikes take less than half an hour to put together, Strickland said.
“You just kinda throw it all together, make sure the bolts are torqued…and just adjust everything that needs adjusting,” he added.
What Next For El Tour?
DeBernardis contemplated Tucson without El Tour de Tucson.
“This ride makes people happy,” he said.
“I mean the stories that come from El Tour, you know the people that come up to me and say Oh my gosh you can’t lose the tour! I got married on the tour. I met my wife or I met my husband,” he added.
DeBernardis said he’s optimistic his organization will find a way to keep El tour going, but he’s unsure of funding and logistics for future years.
His organization might have to raise entry fees going forward, or mimic this year’s model of raising money without a title sponsor, he said.
“That’s the next battle right now,” DeBernardis said. “How are we going to do it next year?”