Full text: Alex Wolff speech to Chamber of Commerce

The following is the full text of a speech given by Alex Wolff at the Addison County Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting Sept. 12.
Everyone’s Invited:
Addison County and the New Endurance Sports Boom
We live in an old farmhouse in Cornwall. Our front yard faces a road where a long hill flattens out obligingly beneath the canopy of a large pig-nut tree.
I say “obligingly,” because for a dozen years now my wife and I and our two kids have watched bicycle tour groups labor up that hill. The riders will pause in the shade at the top to collect themselves, smooth out their Lycra, and take long draws from their water bottles.
Many people would recognize a thirsty consumer of high-end bicycling products as a potential customer. Our kids certainly did. They would set up a lemonade stand under that pig-nut tree and do a brisk business. After refreshing themselves, the cyclists would roll on, past pastures and barns, toward that night’s lodging in Shoreham.
Residents of Addison County know the scene as well as the bike-tour companies do, and as well as the riders who take those tours do. It’s all there in that tableau: The interplay between the natural and built environments . . . the timeless appeal of outdoor recreation . . . and, amidst all this, commerce with a human touch.
I hope you’ll keep in mind that image—of cyclists spending their coin on our roads—as I build out a case for what could be a promising driver of business in Addison County over the coming decades.
A couple of years ago I noticed that Yankee magazine had named Addison County home to New England’s best road cycling, and thought, Why put a good compliment to waste? I mentioned this to my neighbor Bruce Hiland, who was then president of the Better Middlebury Partnership, adding that it would make sense to capitalize on this with some sort of bike event. The idea intrigued him . . . the town has had success with a series of recurring, seasonal, themed events . . . and he suggested I speak with another neighbor, his daughter Becky, who runs the Vermont Book Shop.
Aside from being the Addison County Chamber of Commerce’s Business of the Year for 2012, the Book Shop is a little hive of local bike culture. Walk in and you’ll find a selection of cycling books; a magazine rack with a handful of niche-y bike journals; and a signature Vermont Book Shop racing jersey pinned to the wall over the register. It’s not exactly that cafe in Marseille where the toe of former French rider Rene Vietto, lost to sepsis during the 1947 Tour de France, has pride of place in a jar of formaldehyde over the bar. But you take evidence of local bike love where you find it. And when I mentioned the notion of a cycling event to Becky—something to showcase the county, and fold in local food and drink as part of an all-embracing community festival—she told me about a one-day spectacle called a Gran Fondo.
Gran Fondo is an Italian term that means, roughly, “great endurance.” A Gran Fondo is less a bicycle race than a bicycle challenge and festival. At its high end, riders can choose to cover 100 miles or more in a day, often with thousands of feet of elevation baked into the route. But the event usually features a couple of more modest loops too, of 60 and 30 or so miles, to attract those who aren’t cyclists so much as bike riders. Each distance finishes in the same place, where—and you can imagine that the Italians have this part down—everyone gathers for a huge meal.
After more than a century in Italy, Gran Fondos have spread to every corner of Europe and now to the U.S. and Canada. From a handful on this side of the Atlantic, mostly in bike meccas like California and Colorado, they have boomed over the past several years, and you can now find a Gran Fondo in more than 100 places around North America, including New Hampshire, Massachusetts, the Hudson Valley, the Adirondacks, and Quebec. But there hasn’t yet been a strict, one-day, three-route Gran Fondo in Vermont.
Well, next year, on June 21, we’ll host the first, right here in Addison County. At the top end, we’ll plot a course that features several crossings of the gaps that serve as the eastern gateways to our county. (Did you know that cyclists use the acronym LAMB to refer to our four gaps—the Lincoln, the App, the Middlebury, and the Brandon, L-A-M-B? It’s a set of climbs that surely invites the descriptive “sacrificial.”) This top echelon “Gran” course will likely include thousands of feet of climbing, as well as killer grade, what Tour de France organizers might call beyond beyond category—perhaps the final few hundred meters of the western face of the Lincoln Gap; or maybe the stretch on Route 125 just east of the bridge in East Middlebury. For duffers, it’s just about 30 relatively flat miles round-trip between Middlebury and Vergennes. And a mid-range ride might take you from the Champlain Valley up through Bristol and Lincoln and back.
There’d be no shortage of possible sources for a banquet post-ride. And to entice as many entrants as possible to our inaugural event, thanks to the enthusiastic support of Doug Anderson and the Town Hall Theatre, we have plans to add a bike-themed gallery exhibit, a movie screening, and a panel discussion about the state of pro cycling—for we recognize that cycling is one of those sports where fan-followers of the elite level tend also to be participants.
Imagine it: Our town greens transformed into localvore feed zones. Traffic calmed to respect everyone’s commitment and effort. Mechanics and stewards, roving and fixed, to support riders in distress. And one huge community meal to top off the day.
Yes, some Gran Fondo participants ride to win, and some try mightily to exceed their personal best. But most are there for the collective experience. Italy’s two-time Olympic champion Antonella Bellutti articulated the appeal of the Gran Fondo well when she once said that it lay in “the satisfaction . . . of being there, of being a protagonist in a moment of collective joy, of the sublimation of fatigue in the name of the bicycle . . .. Young and old, men and women, competitive and touristic, well-trained and less so, alone, couples, and groups, Italians and foreigners: a variegated universe with but one passion: the bicycle!”
That’s gauzy and sentimental stuff. We’ll confess to the ulterior motive of economic development. By placing the Gran Fondo in June, we hope to goose the listless retail period between college graduation in late May and the July Fourth holiday that kicks off high summer. In addition, by attracting affluent, relatively young and health-conscious people from around the larger region—down from Quebec, and up from Boston and New York and other points south and west—we’ll have a chance to showcase what Addison County has to offer. If even a handful get hooked on the attributes that most of us already know well, we might be able to convert some into residents. And if they happen to bring with them a business, or have the mobile professional skills that would place them among the exploding number of Americans who work at home or telecommute, we’re boosting the local economy for the long term.
Perhaps we’ll attract more elite athletes, the kind who confer the stamp of approval on a region, and whom more recreationally minded participants take note of. In the past year our next-door neighbor, Jessie Donavan, has won Ironman triathlons in Lake Placid, Quebec and South Africa, and in a few weeks will be headed to Hawaii for the Big Kahuna of Ironmans, on Kona. She loves training here. A few houses down in the other direction you’ll find Topher McKhann, a former nationally ranked track cyclist. Both Jessie and Topher are dedicated to their sports, but they’re also raising families here, helping to support them by telecommuting to offices in Burlington and Chicago, respectively.
Topher’s high-level competitive days may be over, but he’s exploring ways to add track riding to the local cycling mix. As he sees it, this might start with something that’s popular in Great Britain, an informal “grass track” where riders do circuits around a soccer field. Eventually, if the numbers and interest prove to be there, this might lead to more. Topher has taken note of someone in Ontario who has thrown up a wooden velodrome over the boards of an old hockey rink. Or you could build a poured concrete track, which would be larger and easier to maintain than a wooden one.
The point is, initiative begets initiative, and eventually you reach a kind of critical mass. If there’s to be an East Coast Boulder, Colo., a cycling center in the Northeast, it might as well be here.
The Gran Fondo is just the late spring/early summer piece of what’s percolating locally. Now that both the Middlebury Snow Bowl and Rikert Nordic Ski Touring Center have snowmaking capability, there’s a wintertime piece too. We can make a plausible pitch for our region as “the Addison Alps,” and do so with confidence that no other place between Stowe and the Adirondacks can guarantee both skiing disciplines almost regardless of the weather, least of all within barely a mile of each other.
If it’s taken a while to get people to think of Addison County as a winter resort destination, there’s a reason. Unlike Okemo or Killington or Stratton, we don’t have a single development with slopeside lodging and restaurants. It takes a more discriminating cross-country skier to hunt down Blueberry Hill in Goshen, with its world-class food and network of private trails. And downhillers until now have seemed content to look 45 minutes to our east, to the Mad River Valley.
But here’s where we can distinguish ourselves. Every ski resort faces the same dilemma: Once the day’s skiing is done, or if the weather goes south, what do you do? And it’s in the après sport that we have the edge. We have theatre. Museums. Spectator sports. A range of places to eat, as well as a bounty of local foods for those interested in self-catering. As Rikert director Mike Hussey recently told me, “It’s all right here. We just need to put it together and in front of the market to let people know. It’s been done for leaf season and for the summer, but we’re now a four-season destination. And other than weekends when the College hosts sporting events, we have a lot of unused pillows in the winter. With the most extensive Nordic snowmaking in the state and a great family alpine center in the Snow Bowl, we can put together a really good package.”
Since taking over at Rikert several years ago, Mike has been a dervish, not just in upgrading facilities, but also in recruiting events and thinking up innovative programming. Don’t be surprised if Rikert introduces snowbiking—mountain biking on snow—sometime soon. Or stages what Mountain Top Resort down in Chittenden has done successfully for kids, a paintball biathlon. Or even something called a “primitive biathlon.” If we play host to a bunch of people in snowshoes tromping through the woods with muskets, people elsewhere will take notice.
After hosting the NCAAs last winter, Rikert is ready to bid on more national events—the National Senior Championships, for instance, or the Junior Nationals. “Pie in the sky?” Mike says. “That would be a cross-country World Cup. We have the trail and the arena for it.”
The International Ski Federation likes to cluster several World Cup events regionally, for ease of logistics and to save on travel costs as the circuit moves around the globe. Last winter the calendar included a successful stopover in Quebec City. There’s actually a movement afoot to stage a sprint event in New York City. Rikert would be perfectly situated for the third leg of a North American segment to the circuit.
Several months ago the magazine I write for, Sports Illustrated, ran a long story about the new endurance sports boom. Last year, some 65,000 people finished an Ironman triathlon—which is to say, more than 140 miles of running and biking and swimming. From mud runs to sprint triathlons to Gran Fondos, the trend is no longer driven by the solipsistic urge that led to the “running fad” you may remember from the “Me Generation” Seventies. That was largely about self-perfection. Nowadays, people are getting off the couch with the goal of being “completers” rather than “competers,” and celebrating everyone else who’s out there. The headline over our article was MUD, SWEAT AND BEERS, and caught the spirit of the movement just right.
The new endurance sports boom is in fact part of something that might be called the “back-to-health” movement. From the Baby-Boom Generation on down, people are taking a renewed interest in being healthy, whether eating healthy food or engaging in healthy activities. Marketers say the largest cohort of newly minted athletes is made up of so-called “out-of-the-cave” women who have raised children through age 5 or 6 and, with the kids off at full-day school, want to get their lives back. Vermont is well-positioned to identify with “back-to-health,” particularly our little patch of the state, with its farm-to-plate reputation.
As for the athletic and recreational parts of that equation, you can find evidence of our ability to accommodate them all over the county: Hiking loops like the Trail Around Middlebury and paths that take you up Snake Mountain and Mount Abe. The longstanding Vermont Sun Triathlon. The “Sweetest Half” Maple Run, which has become a widely anticipated race with a region-wide reputation. And the Kelly Brush Ride and Tour de Farms, cycling events at other times of year that a Gran Fondo would be proud to take its place beside.
Two magazines do those “best-place-to-live” surveys. One is Money magazine. As you’d expect, its rankings put a premium on low taxes and median home prices. But the other most closely watched set of rankings belongs to Outside magazine, the bible of people dedicated to the active outdoor life. What does that tell us? That many people, when they assess quality of life, consider value and texture every bit as much as affordability. Natural beauty, good infrastructure, and the kinds of support businesses that make for first-rate outdoor recreation sit at the top of their checklist. And we’ve got all those things right here in Addison County.
Waitsfield, by the way, just made the Outside magazine list. I humbly submit that, after a day of skiing in the Mad River Valley, you can’t ogle Edward Hopper landscapes on a museum wall. Or take in an opera with internationally renowned performers in an exquisitely restored theater. And there’s no Sugarbush State College at which to soak up the energy of a hockey game.
During the 1950 Tour de France a cyclist from Algeria named Abd El Kader Zaaf, known within the sport as the Lion of Chebli, stopped to enjoy some wine offered by a roadside spectator. He drank up, lay down in the shade of a tree, and promptly fell asleep. Insofar as a name like Abd El Kader Zaaf can ring at all, his rings dubiously down through the annals of that great bike race, for upon awakening he rode off in the wrong direction.
But the tale of the Lion of Chebli has its usefulness. It reminds us that there’s a time for pouring out calories, to be sure, but every bit as much a time for taking them back in—and that for the sake of business, and of community, and of good health, we might as well put the two next to each other, cheek by jowl, and invite the world to come.
So, see you at the start . . . and more important, at the finish!

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