Thursday, March 25, 2010

Tour of the Battenkill repost interview

Maybe you’re holding onto sanity while spinning away in front of the tv, or logging some sloppy miles and at the same time discovering exactly how “waterproof” you really aren’t. Or maybe you’re “recovering” on the couch reading bike magazines cover to cover, with a plan involving something along the lines of “not peaking too early in the season”. Despite what you see out your window, the season is, ummmm, forty days away!

Today we have a special interview with Dieter Drake. For those of you that know exactly who Dieter is, what he has done, and what he is currently doing, still read along. For the rest of you, please meet

Dieter Drake!

Your family and neighbors know you, but for those not familiar, help us understand who you are.

Hi Bob, thanks for the opportunity. Well, it’s pretty simple I suppose. I grew up near Altamont and went to Guilderland HS (’89). I ended up at NC State University in Raleigh, NC with degrees in Wildlife Biology and…Mechanical Engineering (don’t ask…!). I met my wife Amy of 16 years (Colonie HS ‘89) between degrees and we bounced around the country a little and ended up in Greenville, SC in 1999. Then we decided Upstate NY was home and moved back in 2001. 5 kids later we now call Cambridge home! I started my own specialized commercial air conditioning rep firm in 2005, but race promotion has taken over somewhat…

Give us a day (or a week) in your life right now.

Oooh boy. ‘Lots going on these days. The Tour of the Battenkill is a 24/7/365 project with lots of people involved. From the technical committee that includes race staff, law enforcement, EMS, DPW, and DOT folks to a media & marketing team, to race expo people, to the race officials it’s occupying lots of people’s time these days. I have my hands in all of it but thankfully there are some really enthusiastic people helping out. There are about 5 other major regional races I am working on too that always require attention.

How would you describe The Tour of the Battenkill to a non-cyclist?

Well, it’s not your average cycling race of course. Designed for spectators and racers alike, it’s an event that has gone way beyond everyone’s expectations, including mine. It’s a real departure from most events, let alone cycling races, in the USA. I think the word ‘epic’ gets overused somewhat in the cycling world but I think it’s fair to say that the Tour of the Battenkill is indeed epic. It’s an event that racers and spectators can enjoy equally (well, maybe the spectators a little more than the racers…!). For the amateurs it’s 62 miles of great countryside & scenery on April 10, 15 miles of dirt roads, small villages, and great people cheering you on throughout. Double that for the Pros on April 18 to 124 miles (2 laps of the 62 mile course). Cambridge is the epicenter with the start & finish, expo, and other activities going on all weekend, both weekends.

How did the tour originally start? What was the inspiration?

It was really an add-on to the success of the first race I organized in 2004 – the Balloon Festival Classic in Cambridge. I figured after that race that there might be interest in a real, ‘Spring Classic’ style race with some unconventional elements like dirt roads, etc. like you see over in northern France and Europe during the early spring. Races like the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix are the real standard for bicycle racing there that time of the year. These are enormously popular races for both racers and spectators because they really test a rider’s mettle with ancient cobble stone roads and fans lining the courses the whole way. The Tour of the Battenkill takes some of that but certainly injects its own, American flavor with dirt roads and covered bridges.

How has this event changed over the years?

We started in 2005, like I mentioned, just up the road in Salem with about 220 racers as the “Battenkill-Roubaix”. It more or less doubled every year in participation and scope since then. It was a somewhat different course up there, but the current course is similar, now starting & finishing in Cambridge as the “Tour of the Battenkill”, of course. We moved to Cambridge in 2009 to create another buzz about the event with a new course and slightly different venue. The name change occurred after 2008’s event with an international goal in mind; I didn’t want the race to be directly tied to a big pro race in France any longer (Paris-Roubaix) because I felt it had achieved its own level of notoriety and success. The race now has its own following internationally now, so I think it was the right move. We’ve also been able to secure one of 5 spots on the North American Pro Tour this year so we’re attracting interest now at the highest levels of the sport. We added a Pro Men’s race on a separate day last year that was well-received among the pros – so much so that they are all angling for invitations for this year. Next year should be another step forward, I am sure.

Even more so, how has promoting this event changed with all of the growth? In other words,HOW DO YOU DO IT? What are the logistics of such an event?

The level of detail is unreal. The people directly involved have really invested their lives in this thing and they deserve a lot of the credit. We calculate & consider every possible detail from the progression of each of the 25 different races on the road during the Pro/Am, the who/where/when for each of the 500+ volunteers, the details for the Pro race caravan of team vehicles, road signage, the live video we are going to provide this year to the race expos and online, media and graphics, registration, compliance with the international rules for the Pro race, etc. It’s a giant machine with lots of moving parts that have to work right and together for this thing to be measured a success.

On the most stressful of days, what keeps you motivated?

That lots of people are invested in this race and they are counting on me to craft an event that they can be proud of being a part.

Besides promoting what many consider the hottest event State side, what else are you doing with cycling events?

The Tour of the Catskills is the next big race in the USA. It’s showing the same growth rate as the Battenkill. We’ve moved it to late July this year after 2 years in September. No dirt roads (yet!), but it’s very popular. It’s a stage race over 3 days in and around Hunter & Windham with the support of the ski areas and communities there. The folks in Greene County have really started to recognize the event as a powerful tourism-related event, like the folks here in Washington County have with the Battenkill. We’re expecting more than 500 racers this year down there, and I expect it to double again in 2011.

Lots of other small events like the Marshall & Sterling Saratoga Downtown Criterium in May, the Balloon Festival Classic in June, maybe a few others this year through the fall. I’m working on a few other high-profile projects that I expect to be able to announce in November.

Besides a great event like Battenkill, you’re also laying a strong foundation for years to come. Tell us about FARM TEAM CYCLING.

It’s really the heartbeat of what I do. Founded at or about the same time as the first Tour of the Battenkill it’s grown to about 20 kids age 10-18 from all over the area racing all year round. We now ride 4-5 times per week together, here in Cambridge mostly, and race on the weekends all over the Northeast and beyond. In fact, we’re headed to SC next week for an early-season race weekend. We now have multi-time NYS Champions, kids who have raced & done well at Nationals, etc. The parents are really involved in helping out on the rides, races too and that takes much of the pressure off of me as I prepare for races like the Tour of the Battenkill.

What was your original vision years ago? Was this planned, or an evolution of sorts?

Not at all. I knew I wanted to do something different and significant, but I had no idea at the time that it would grow so quickly.

Where do you see yourself and cycling in the upstate NY area over the next four years?

Upstate NY is really a gem for road cycling. There are so many unique areas to ride and race. It’s really untapped when you consider all the historic and cultural things we have going on here. It’s a really unique place and that’s why we moved back here years ago. I’ve learned with the Tour of the Battenkill that you can’t predict the future, but I would really like New York State to play a major role in competitive cycling going forward. There are opportunities right now for a major expansion as tourism plays an increasing role in regional economies. Other than that, I am keeping what I am personally working on a secret for now…

Any thoughts or observations on cycling in the US right now?

Cycling is one of those sports that suffered through the 90’s with the advent of personal computers, video games, and American Idol. Kids weren’t riding their bikes nearly as much as we all did as kids. The bicycle industry started to shift to toward a purely technology-based approach at the same time. They started to distinguish themselves with composite materials like carbon, titanium, molded frames, ultra-light & intricate components – all of which are enormously expensive materials and processes. For better or worse, that raised the price of an average bicycle. At the very least it created a culture of retail competition for bicycle owners. That is, everyone – especially the racing crowd – was for a time wrapped up in a cycle of ‘who’s got the best, most expensive bike on the road’. That’s settled down somewhat now, but the mission of Farm Team, for example, is to get back to basics with physical exercise & competition. Forget the bike and the snazzy wheels & shiny components. Just get out there and ride, be competitive, and learn something about life along the way. Sure, you have to have a decent level of equipment to race – and this is where the Tour of the Battenkill comes in as a funding source for the team – but adding 80% to the cost of a bike typically adds a negligible performance gain overall that most families can’t afford these days anyway.

On the racing side, there has been growth in the number of racing cyclists each year for the last decade or so. The number of races has increased similarly, especially in the Northeast. Even with the cancellation of major pro races like the Tour de Georgia and others, there is growth. The difficulty that big pro races like Georgia, the Amgen Tour of California, Missouri, and now even the Tour of the Battenkill (to a limited extent) have is that they are highly sponsor dependent. This is true for the Battenkill Pro race, anyway. You can’t sell tickets to a road cycling race in the way that the NFL or baseball can. That’s a major disadvantage the sport has in terms of generating revenue in order to support professional races. I think it’s the principal reason that major pro races like Georgia typically go away after just a few years; they get so top-heavy with sponsorship that they can disappear overnight. The one mistake they all make, however, is to ignore the amateur component in one form or another. The Tour of the Battenkill will endure because the it’s so popular among the amateurs. It’s the races that have both components that seem to have lasted and will be around for many years – races like the Fitchburg Longsjo Classic in Massachusetts now in its 51st year, the Green Mountain Stage Race, and others. I count the Tour of the Battenkill among them.

For the Tour of the Battenkill, what will April 10th and April 18th look like for spectators?

Wow, lots to do. A race expo – cycling stuff, food, live music – in Cambridge both weekends at the start/finish. A satellite expo up the road in Greenwich at mile 40 or so. Lots of bikes on the road on April 10 for sure – more than 2000 in total. The Pro weekend is something special – the Ride2Recovery CycleFest is a new component this year on the 17th. It’s a benefit for wounded & disabled Veterans that I am very proud to be able to do this year. We’re expecting more than 500 riders for that alone. The Pro race the next day on the 18th is going to be huge: 25 teams from all over the world coming to Cambridge, NY! Teams from Great Britain, Australia, etc.

With all of the possibilities, do you want to give some tips for viewing vantage points or key parts of the course?

All the villages along the course are really great spots – Cambridge, Shushan, Salem, and Greenwich. Lots of culture going on in each of them that people can enjoy. Meeting House Road in the Town of Easton has to be one of the most popular locations to watch the races. It’s a wide-open, Washington County landscape with a really difficult section of dirt road. That’s now a world-famous road where I expect hundreds, if not thousands of spectators this year.

Can you drop any names for the Pro race? Or confirm any teams and riders?

Hmm, U23 Trek-LIVESTRONG for sure. Rapha Condor (GB), Team Type 1, Kenda. We’ll announce them all in late March at our press conference.

What will be your personal highlight over the two weekends?

2 things: Seeing the Farm Team kids mingle with pros they see usually on television, and the Ride2Recovery.

With an event this large, how dependant are you on volunteers?

Our volunteer needs are enormous. We need more than 500 this year over 2 weekends.

Is there still a need for volunteers? Yes!

Are there specific needs, or can anyone help? Yep, anyone.

How can they get involved?

contact or just sign up on the website at and we’ll put you to work! Lots of perks associated with volunteering! Inquire within!

As the days quickly pass, what remains on your ‘To Do’ list?

There’s not enough space on this blog for that….

With everything you do to promote cycling, and only 24 hours in a day, is there any chance that you will be doing any other races? Or is that physically possible?

Yep, lots including Catskills, and others.

Lastly, with your experience, what advice would you offer to someone thinking about organizing a race?

The rules are changing somewhat with road cycling – especially in NYS. There are requirements and standards in place that really didn’t exist even back in 2004 when I started organizing races. The standard for road signage alone is a major undertaking that should really be adhered to if you’re going to host a race on public roads normally designed for auto traffic. So, the best I can say is that be ready to pay attention to the details if you’re going to be responsible for the overall optimization of safety for an event like a road cycling race. If you are committed to that and to making the event successful for the communities in which the race resides, then all will be well. You can’t organize a road cycling race in a vacuum for it to endure, though.

Thank you so much for taking time to answer questions, and for hosting such a great event.

Anything else that you would like to add?

I’m going for a ride.

I’ld really like to thank Dieter and all of the many volunteers that make such an impressive event like the Tour of the Battenkill happen. Everyone should have both weekends marked on the calendar. AND, if you’re going up there, and not racing, then volunteer and be part of something great (and support our cycling scene). Along with my usual winter/commuting drudgery posts, there will be a few more Battenkill posts with the pro/am recap on Moday April 12th, and the UCI event on April 25th. Now go ride!

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