If there is one thing that almost everyone around the world learns how to do as a child it’s how to ride a bike. Bikes are, and have been since their invention in the 1860s, something that crosses cultural boundaries and even economic boundaries. On the other hand, bicycle racing is something that not many people know a lot about. Most people see a cyclist training on the side of the road and think about how they are going to get around them on the road without hitting them. Yet bike racing is a very large, worldwide sport that affects many people. Many bike races take place in rural communities due to the ease of shutting down roads as well as the small amount of road traffic. Bringing bike racing to rural communities is not just to the advantage of the racers and race planners, it is also to the advantage of the communities as well. Bike races bring in large amounts of people, spectators and racers, providing the communities with a lot of tourism income. Bigger races also bring large amounts of publicity to areas that wouldn’t normally have that opportunity. Bike racing allows for many people and communities to come together to put on a large social event and bring in large amounts of people to bolster the economy.
The Tour de France is just one of many races around the world that takes place in or around rural communities. To understand bike races like the Tour de France one has to take a look at its history. In 1903 in France, Comte Jules-Albert de Dion, Adolphe Clément and Édouard Michelin set up the sports newspaper L’Auto to rival Le Velo, the most prominent sports newspaper in all of France (Wheatcroft 2013). These three men appointed Henri Desgrange as the editor and Desgrange came up with the idea of a multi-day bike race staged from July 1st to July 19th that covered the country of France (Wheatcroft 2013). Desgrange’s goal was to get the word out about the new newspaper, L’Auto, to the people of France. “His race had succeeded far beyond his…expectations, with great numbers turning out to watch, even when their enthusiasm had been tested by the absurdity of a race passing through their own town or village in the small hours” (Wheatcroft 2013, 27). This race, originally staged to publicize a newspaper, became one of the biggest bike races in the world today. To this day the Tour de France travels throughout France, going through large cities like Paris and small rural communities, with the end goal being to bring publicity to the country of France and all of it’s people. The first stage of the race this year, 2016, ends in Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, Manche, a small community of just 740 people. (2016 Route 2016).
The Tour de France isn’t the only bike race that brings publicity to small towns. While the Tour de France takes place mostly in France, there are many other bike races that take place throughout Europe like the Giro de Italia and the Vuelta a Espana. In the United States there are also many big races that take place. Some travel throughout a specific state like the Tour of California and the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. Others take place in a specific area, basing in a small town, like the Tour of the Gila in Silver City, New Mexico or Cascade Cycling Classic in Bend, Oregon.
Social Impacts of Bike Racing
Even from the first Tour de France, bike racing had a huge cultural meaning behind it. “Although the representation of specific trades and occupations depended on local employment patterns, the members of cycling clubs were generally petty bourgeois and skilled artisan’s intent on providing activities and an opportunity for male sociability for their town, neighborhood, or profession (Thompson 2006, 14). From the first cycling clubs one can see the coming together of the men of the community to create opportunities for their towns and neighborhoods. The Tour de France itself had the goal of bringing the country together and it did that, even when times were at their worst during WWI and WWII. The race went from being just a bike race to a race that brought the people of France together as well as publicized some of the hardest hit areas of France. By doing this the people could see other towns that needed help rebuilding and providing it. And all of this was done just through the pictures of newspapers and magazines published after the races. Today, with TV and the amount of publicity that surrounds the race many areas of France get a full day’s coverage of their beautiful cities and landmarks and the commentators of the race make a point of talking about it too. 3.5 billion people worldwide tune in to watch the Tour in 190 countries (Pietrasik 2014).
While the Tour de France is the highest level of bike racing out there, there are many other races that take place throughout the world that provide the same effects. There are big world tour races like the Tour de France that go through Italy, Spain, and Switzerland but there are also smaller races, yet still big name that provide local communities with huge amounts of publicity. In Europe cycling is a huge event, if anything it is the equivalent of football or baseball in the United States. Because of this large amount of fandom that comes from cycling it is fairly well received by most communities and the people throughout Europe. Many cities in France compete to host stages of this big race. “Sport events are more than only entertainment, they are social events that allow for the addition of a social value to the event” (BALDUCK, MAES and BUELENS 2011, 93). While many cities vie to host races, many of the citizens have differing opinions. The thing is that measuring social impact isn’t as simple as measuring something like economic impact. Often times social impact is defined as: ‘‘the manner in which tourism and travel effect changes in the collective and individual value systems, behavior patterns, community structures, lifestyle and quality of life” (BALDUCK, MAES and BUELENS 2011, 94). A study done by Bull and Lovell found that 40% of the people interviewed in the city of Canterbury, which was planned to host a stage of the Tour de France, were aware of road closures and the negative effects of the race, but a majority of the residents were excited to host the race (2007). Most people interviewed also didn’t see the race as a social positive for their town but for more an economic positive (Bull and Lovell 2007). Another study which interviewed the residence of Ghent found that 69.64% of the residents surveyed prior to the race and 78.02% surveyed after the race supported the idea of having the race come to their town again. And both cities saw the race as a great way to promote their cities (BALDUCK, MAES and BUELENS 2011). Both of these studies indicate that most people don’t see or notice the social impacts of having the races come through their towns.
Despite these findings it is easy to see that there is indeed a social impact to having tourism events like these come to through rural towns. Many people go out to watch the race as it makes its way through the town and will even take the day off to do so. Because races only spend a short time in the towns themselves, as they are riding through or sometimes half a day if a stage starts or finishes there, many people will still end up staying out after the event is over. In the words of Anthropologist Catherine Palmer:
In keeping with this commercial carnival, pubs and clubs offer Tour promotions such as cheap drinks and half-priced entry passes. After dark, the usual activities include street parties, fireworks displays and concerts by prominent French and international artists such as Jean-Michel Jarre, Roch Voisine and D:REAM. The restructuring of a ville-etape to accommodate not only vast numbers of personnel, but also the sound systems, lighting rigs, stage scaffolding and fireworks detonators that they bring, underscores the heterogeneity of the resources that the Tour annually introduces to France. It is a nomadic spectacle of commodified athletic performance which offers a repertoire of symbolic goods which consumers routinely appropriate and interpret to make meaningful their encounter with the Tour de France. (Palmer 1998).
Based off of this description the towns themselves become a big party area. Even after the event is over the parties continue through the evening and one would imagine that even if they wanted to the towns people couldn’t avoid the reverie. One study done on the impact of tourism on rural places found that the social impact was “perceived as higher than the economic impacts, as both residents (tavern owners) and suppliers agree that the [tourism] has a greater social than economic impact in the local community. The residents (taverns owners) and the suppliers also note that the greater impact is on “building community pride” and on “enhanced community image” (Alves, Cerro and Martins 2010, 33).
While Europeans tend to welcome bike racing with open arms, it isn’t quite the same in the United States. The following of bike racing in the US is much more limited and not as widely accepted like it is in Europe. There are people, without a doubt, that love to watch the bike races but there are many cases where people resent when bike races come through their towns. Studies done in the United States on the social impacts are much more limited. One study done on residents near Banff National Park and the sports fans that visit the area for mountain biking events found that there was a gulf between the views of the events. While the avid sports fans found the event to be perfect the non-sports fans found it to be bothersome and inconvenient (Halpenny and Kulczycki 2012). These findings are significantly different than the findings and views of those in Europe. The social impact of bike racing in the United States is much less significant than in Europe.
Economic Impacts of Bike Racing
While studies and information on the social impacts of bike racing in the United States is limited there is a lot of information on the economic impacts. Many bike races bring in large sums of money for the local areas and rural communities in particular benefit greatly from this. Despite this, many people within rural communities don’t welcome bike racing with open arms. For example, when the Tour of California, the biggest bike race in the United States, came through Santa Barbara a few years ago a few local shops boycotted it because the race finished in front of their stores. They assumed that by this happening it would hinder their local in flow of costumers and mess with their income. While the findings are quite the opposite it is easy to see, just from this, how much locals don’t like the bike races. This idea can be seen from a race recently in Silver City, New Mexico that caused a large section of main street to be shut down for the whole day. When one local shop owner was asked if it affected the business that they normally get on Saturdays she explained that they always warned the people of the town ahead of time and even then it never really affected their business. Despite the bike racing blocking the main roads and parking they still had as much or more business during the race (Shop Owner in Silver City 2016). From this it is easy to see that from this alone bike racing can actually have a lot of benefits for business owners and the communities that they take place.
This particular race in Silver City, New Mexico indeed has a huge economic impact on this rural town. In a town were the poverty rate in 2010 was 11.7% and “in Silver City, 23.1 percent of families with children, 4.1 percent of married- couple families and 31.5 percent of single, divorced or separated women were below the poverty level” anything to help these numbers rise is beneficial (Owen 2012). In 2012, according to Steve Chavez of Western New Mexico University, the race had an economic impact of $561,531. This event is very important to the community and that amount of money brought in is very significant. The total spending for lodging alone due to the races was estimated at $ 314,600 (Silver City Daily Press 2013).
Another race of similar size to the Tour of the Gila is the Nature Valley Bike Festival that takes place in Minnesota. There was a recent study done on one day of the 5-day race to find its economic impact on Stage 5 in Menomonie, WI. “The combined direct impact of the Menomonie Road Race by expenses of race and by the spectators is $65,453” (Kashian and Kasper 2010, 11). This is just one day of this 5 day race, so that amount of income is a huge number. Kashian and Kasper mention that this number can be increased if the needs of the spectators of the events were addressed better, including better spectating areas (2010).
While these numbers may seem small the Tour of the Gila and the Nature Valley Bike Festival are fairly small races compared to some of the races that are statewide races. The Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah has a huge economic impact on the state. “A quantitative research study completed… reveal[ed] that out-of-state spectators contributed as much as $14 million in direct economic impact for the state of Utah” (Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah 2012). The Tour de France alone brought in 88 million Euro to Yorkshire when they hosted one stage of the race (Tour de Yorkshire 2013). These numbers are astronomical compared to the economic impacts of the smaller races in the United States. In Europe it is more common for races to bring in larger amounts like the Tour de France because of the fact that Europeans are more inclined to accept bike racing in their communities, as was discussed above.
Bike Races Helping Rural Communities
Over the years many rural communities have diminished in population and many have succumbed to economic hardships and fallen in to becoming poverty stricken areas. Within the United States this has becoming exceedingly so and many communities have struggled to find ways to bolster their shrinking communities. Many communities have tried bringing in things like big box stores to help their communities. Yet “with the arrival of big-box stores in rural communities, rural retail has been restructured and with it the main street atmosphere that formed the cultural backbone of rural life” (Sumner 2005, 56). So in their efforts to bring in something they feel that will help they are loosing a huge piece of what makes rural communities so unique, the culture and the lifestyle. Woods describes this culture perfectly in Performing the Rural as he describes how close knit the communities are (Woods 2011). He explains the significance of the local bar or the festivals that are held in the towns. These festivals are hugely important because they allow the community members to come together for some fun and games and to interact in a setting that isn’t work or in passing at the grocery story.
These festivals are very similar to the description that Palmer had of the communities that hosted the Tour de France. The communities in Europe have already embraced this idea, they recognize that these races coming through their towns not only brings in economic bolstering but also allows the community to celebrate and enjoy themselves. If more rural communities, especially in the United States, looked at bike racing this way it could do wonders for their communities. As discussed above, bike races bring in huge economic impacts to the communities that host them. Between lodging for racers and bike race spectators, people needing places to dine while there, and just the general influx of visitors to the town, this brings a large amount of money to the towns. It also brings more people to the areas who might come back in the future for their own personal reasons or just general publicity to the area which could lead to people coming to visit as general tourist.
While many of those interviewed didn’t necessarily see it up front, the social impact of bike races is huge on rural communities. In towns that are starting to fall apart bike races will allow them to come together and re-light that community pride that is needed to help convince people to better their communities. Bike races are a reason for people to come together and celebrate together, it gives the community a reason to have fun again. As Woods explained, “the participation of local residents in such events can also practically help to reinforce community coherence, acting as a shared communal endeavour, or as a literal 'meeting-place' for community members” (2011, 211). And in the case of bike racing it is a win-win all around. It can bring the community together while also bringing in much needed economic income.
Bike racing may not be the first thing that comes to mind when someone says “how do I help my rural community’s economy?” but without a doubt they are an option to help do just that. From the advent of the bike racing with the Tour de France bike racers were racing in clubs to find social opportunities within their communities. Today people of rural communities throughout Europe use races like the Tour de France to find social opportunity through the celebrations that incur from the races making their way through their towns. And economic opportunities aren’t far behind with the tourism that comes from those bike races. If more people, specifically in the United States, can embrace this idea than more rural communities could benefit this much needed economic and social opportunity. Needless to say, bike racing has a lot more to it than a bunch of teams racing up and down mountains and country roads and while those racers are racing their way to big wins, the towns they race through can have their own wins as well.
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