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The near death — and second life — of the North Star Bicycle Festival

The festival, which will include a special appearance by three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond, was thought to be dead as recently as January. 

An image from 2014's Minneapolis Crit.
North Star Bicycle Festival/Stephanie Williams

It took nearly 20 minutes for David LaPorte, director of the North Star Bicycle Festival, to weave the story of how close the event came to extinction. He laid it out on a sunny morning in Dinkytown earlier this week, at a coffee shop not far from his office at the University of Minnesota, where he has been a biochemistry professor since 1983.

This year’s festival, with four-time U.S. Champion Freddie Rodriguez heading the field in the men’s pro Grand Prix beginning Wednesday in St. Paul, includes a cycling coup — a special appearance by retired three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond, who lives in Medina and owns a bike-building company in Minneapolis.

Yet as recently as January, LaPorte thought he had a better chance leading a Tour stage through the mountains of France than putting on the festival again. It emerged without the usual women’s Grand Prix (a one-year blip, LaPorte hopes), but with an exceptionally long name reflecting its new sponsors: the North Star Bicycle Festival presented by North Memorial Health Care and Preferred One.

“When [former lead sponsor] Nature Valley pulled out, the goal was, we either wanted to continue the event or to know that we left no stone unturned, so we didn’t have to second-guess ourselves,” LaPorte said. 

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The festival has undergone name and format changes since LaPorte, with the lanky build and bearing of a marathoner turned cyclist, founded it as Tour de Wings in 1999. Best known as the Nature Valley Bicycle Festival, its six-stage pro Grand Prix — two in St. Paul and one each in Cannon Falls, Uptown Minneapolis, Menomonie and Stillwater — proved especially popular on the circuit. This year, the St. Paul Criterium, slated for Wednesday night, returns to Lowertown from the Rice Park area, where it relocated during light rail construction.

The whole thing is a massive undertaking that requires 400 volunteers and about $300,000 to put on. (Disclosure: I twice wrote for the festival web site, a paid position.) Profits benefit a designated charity — this year, Special Olympics Minnesota. LaPorte, who commutes nine miles by bike from his Roseville home to the U in all but the most treacherous weather has never taken a salary as director. 

“People think I’m crazy,” LaPorte said. “They’re probably right.”

It still irks LaPorte that Nature Valley officials never told him directly they were done with the festival. In February 2013, after several fruitless months arranging contract extension talks before the deal expired in June, LaPorte said an executive from Nature Valley’s Chicago-based marketing firm asked to meet him for breakfast near Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. Nature Valley had been stalling because it planned to drop all its sports event sponsorships.  

“Unfortunately, it didn’t work out and he had to tell me over the phone,” LaPorte said. “Because if I had to drive across town during rush hour traffic to be told they were out, it really would have pissed me off.”

The festival had enough cash reserves to put on the event in 2014, even without a new title sponsor. After that? Trouble.

“We had in the neighborhood of $250,000 in reserve, plus a number of smaller sponsors,” LaPorte said. “We cut a few things, but not a lot. The goal was to put it on in 2014 without it looking noticeably shabbier, because (we wanted) to bring in sponsor prospects and let them see what they were buying into.”

That didn’t entice any new sponsors. With no prospects by the August deadline to reserve the 2015 dates, LaPorte told USA Cycling — the sport’s American governing body — he couldn’t pay the $8,000 non-refundable bid fee. USA Cycling hated to lose the event and granted him a two-month extension.

“Who wouldn’t want a stay of execution? “ LaPorte said.

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By October, LaPorte still had nothing and prepared to cancel. In stepped financial angel No. 1 – Jim Pohlad, he of the Twins-owning Pohlads, who LaPorte said attended the Uptown criterium four months earlier. Pohlad’s radio station, then known as K-Twin (now Go 96.3), was a festival media partner.

“Jim Pohlad paid the bid fee out of his own pocket,” LaPorte said. “He thought it was a great event and didn’t want to see it die.” (Pohlad did not respond to an interview request, but his support for various events and entities around Minneapolis is well known.)

When another potential sponsor fell through, LaPorte figured they were really, finally done. A colleague suggested hiring Jean Ryan of JRI Marketing, a small Minneapolis firm, to aid in the sponsor search. LaPorte approached similar firms from out of state throughout the process, but never found one he liked. In a month, Ryan lined up North Memorial Health Care and PreferredOne, the health insurance firm, as co-presenting sponsors.

“They got started in the middle of January.” LaPorte said. “I told them they had until the middle of February to get the money together. I figured no way, but at least we’re going to hit our goal of leaving no stone unturned. Damned if they didn’t pull it off.”

The festival appealed to financial angel No. 2, North Memorial CEO Dr. J. Kevin Croston, an amateur cyclist who takes his family on bicycling vacations. “So when I heard that the sponsorship was available, I thought …why not?” Croston wrote in an email. “I love that biking can be enjoyed by all ages — from kids to seniors — and after seeing the excitement of a big biking event it will inspire them to become more active.”

The uncertainty left one downside. Only 17 riders and two teams signed up for the women’s Grand Prix, which LaPorte reluctantly cancelled. (He hopes to restore it next year.) To replace it, LaPorte added amateur races at every site except Cannon Falls. And next Friday night before the Uptown Criterium, LeMond will lead local executives and Special Olympians on the new CEO Ride for Kids. Proceeds benefit Special Olympics Minnesota and the festival’s programs for children. Croston is recruiting CEOs as well.

LaPorte credited Kathryn Jensen, a volunteer and the mother of a 12-year-old boy with Down’s syndrome, with securing LeMond’s commitment. Jensen helped established Sanford Hype, a Special Olympics team at Sanford Middle School in Minneapolis. Jensen emailed photos of Hype athletes to Kathy LeMond, Greg’s wife, and invited the LeMonds to ride with them in the CEO race. A week later, after Jensen sent a follow-up email, Kathy LeMond responded.

“She was so nice,” Jensen said. “I remember the date: May 23. I checked my phone and there was an email from her saying, `Greg will ride.’ 

“I’m pleased. Sometimes you’ve just got to ask.”   

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 And persevere.