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When it comes to sports philanthropy, cycling enthusiast is a relative big wheel

Great River Energy Bicycle Festival donates $30,000
Courtesy of David LaPorte
The Great River Energy Bicycle Festival donates $30,000 to Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. From the left are David LaPorte; Dr. Alan Goldbloom, CEO of Children’s; and Great River Energy CEO David Saggau and board President Henry Hanson.

David LaPorte is the geekiest and most erudite sports executive in Minnesota. Pound for pound, he’s the most charitable sports boss, too.

In his day job as professor of biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics at the University of Minnesota, LaPorte, 56, spends his time examining the regulation of metabolism in bacteria.

He is a mystery writer, too, of such compelling titles as “Bacillus subtilis isocitrate dehydrogenase — A substrate analogue for Escherichia coli isocitrate dehydrogenase kinase/phosphatase.”

It’s a mystery because only he knows what the heck he’s talking about.

“It’s really fascinating stuff,” LaPorte says with a twinkle in eyes. Those eyes rest behind large eyeglasses that are secured around his head by an elastic strap. When he delivers entertaining lectures to classes of 170 students, he wears T-shirts, thereby avoiding the need for a standard-issue biochemist pocket protector. He carries an external storage drive with him most places he goes.

But here’s the telltale fact: Most days he bikes nine miles to work from his Roseville home.

And that’s Dave LaPorte’s other venue, other lab, other life’s work. It’s where his metabolism gets cranking. He is Minnesota’s leading cycling promoter and, to a certain extent, cycling philanthropist.

The other day, LaPorte told me that his bike race — the Great River Energy Bicycle Festival — had donated $30,000 to the Children’s Hospitals hospice program. I was stunned.

We hear about the Twins or the Vikings or their sponsors giving $100 for every home run or $200 for every touchdown. We hear about teams’ and athletes’ foundations giving thousands. Sometimes, that philanthropy is to sell tickets or get stadiums built or promote consumer goods, but I won’t be cynical. Any gift to a worthy cause by a sports company is fine by me. Could be worse.

Shoestring and surplus
But what LaPorte has done as creator and leader of the bike festival and the professional Nature Valley Grand Prix, is stage one of the nation’s most successful cycling events on a shoestring, and, then, with a surplus.

The 10th Great River Energy Bike Festival will roll through the streets of Minneapolis, St. Paul, Cannon Falls, Mankato and Stillwater again in June. With a budget of about $300,000, LaPorte brings in nearly 300 of the nation’s top bike racers and also produces a citizens’ cycling convention. (Other races in California and Georgia operate on budgets 10 times or more of LaPorte’s.)

His Grand Prix is particularly elite in the women’s field; the 2004 race was so strong that as LaPorte watched the Athens Olympics later that year he calculated that 10 percent of the women in the Olympics road race had competed a few months earlier in Minnesota.

The Great River Energy Bike Festival has two missions: to promote biking, a no-brainer in an obese nation dependent on fossil fuels, and to make a meaningful contribution to a charitable cause.

For the past five years, the bike festival has had a relationship with Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. This time, the extra dough from LaPorte’s 2007 revenues went to the Pediatric Hospice and Palliative Care Department of the hospitals. It’s the only hospice for kids and their families in the state. It’s a gut-wrenching program, but LaPorte’s selected it because, he said, “It’s just not as well funded as it needs to be.”

Did we say that the events of the bike festival are free? That no tickets are sold? That just about all of the income is generated by sponsorships?

Did we say that Dave LaPorte, over a decade of managing the state’s premier bike race, has never taken a salary?

Like I said, he’s a geek, but he’s our geek, our metabolically regulating cycling geek. And the community is the better for him and his race.

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