Why the Demise of Ride the Rockies

By Bill Plock

April 21, 2024–Ride the Rockies (RTR) ended for many reasons. Not all of it can be put on in any one thing and the decline started years ago and accelerated rapidly in the last three years. A complex combination of poor management, a difficult business environment, high expectations of cyclists, a failed business model, and poor vision all contributed to a disastrous recipe. 

I know it well, I directed it in 2022, the first year Ventures Endurance (VE) owned it after buying it from the Denver Post Foundation in October of 2021.

Ride the Rockies Staff 2022, they crushed it! Great people

What VE bought was a strong brand, a storied history, and a ride that was in decline for many reasons. Some internal reasons and some simply due to the changing Colorado demographics, the aging and decline of road cyclists, and the difficulty of doing business after COVID.

Colorado is a vastly different state than it was when RTR started 37 years ago. Many of the towns I dealt with (and I heard 2023 wasn’t much different) didn’t want the ride. They tolerated it but not enthusiastically except for Salida. Having 1,500 people roll in for one night is hard on infrastructure and hotels that are short-staffed and worn out with tourism. 

The roads are more congested and require more support to keep cyclists safe. 

If I had known then what I know now about directing ride tours, I would never have agreed to take on the role of RTR Ride Director eight weeks before the ride in 2022. But, I would say it changed my life, for the better, and am grateful for all that I learned.

I have seen many comments on social media blaming “corporate greed” but that might be unfair unless you believe everything we pay for is priced or underserved because of corporate greed. Corporations exist to make money for stakeholders and sustain profitability to pay employees. It’s just math. I can assure you nobody was trying to get rich off of Ride the Rockies. 

With a gigantic portfolio under the publicly traded Gannet Media umbrella, including Ventures Endurance, making a few bucks on RTR was not a huge priority. I think they understood it would take time to be profitable. But losing seven figures in two years will get the attention of any accountant.

In 2022 we lost more money than a lot of houses are worth. No doubt 2023 wasn’t much different with the booming costs simply due to the weather problems. Given what they paid for the ride, given the boatload of money they lost in the last two years, 2024 had to be a grand slam. They needed the ride to get back to pre-pandemic registrations of nearly 2,000 to probably make it sustainable. 

The route they chose, as cool as it might’ve been to explore parts of Colorado never touched by RTR had a very low chance of performing economically for one primary reason. The lack of hotels. I don’t know how many registered but my hunch is a fraction of what they needed, 

Over the years, RTR riders moved more and more into hotels. In 2022 more than 70% of the riders were in hotels. So you say, why did they choose that route then? That’s a good question. But maybe they didn’t have a lot of choices. 

But first, let’s look back and perhaps the answer will partially surface. 

In 2022 we lost money for many reasons. Keep in mind VE bought a ride with certain expectations, many of which were not well reflected in the cost structure and the proverbial mentality of “we have always done it that way” operating structure. 

I had eight weeks to make it all happen. I leaned on the staff and took the Ted Lasso approach. They worked their tail off, there just wasn’t enough time after losing the ride director in March to do the job we wanted. I smiled a lot, let people do what they do best, and asked for lots of forgiveness from government agencies, town officials, and our customers and relied on great people more than ever. 

We were riding no matter what, and I can assure you that didn’t sit well with permitting agencies. And I came to find out this wasn’t the first time RTR irked some government folks. Let’s just summarize and say RTR had worn out its welcome in many parts of the state. 

Let’s talk about the red tape and hassles that I endured. In just one example of many, one county, because of COViD changed policies and wouldn’t allow us to cut fruit or offer food in bulk; everything in single-serve packages. What a waste. And a nightmare later on Independence Pass when gusty winds blew wrappers into the tundra and in an attempt to collect the trash we were fined for encroaching on sensitive terrain. 

We were also fined for cyclists who didn’t stay on course. The cyclists who chose to ride on the bike path over Vail Pass rather than on the route over Fremont and Tennessee Pass cost us thousands in fines. The Forest Service operates that bike path and we weren’t permitted to use it. 

We were watched closely. We weren’t trusted. Many towns and counties required us to spend tens of thousands of dollars on certified flaggers, on local ambulances even though we had two on route thanks to a generous donation from Centura (now Common Spirit). Over the past few years towns and counties had been burned and were on alert.

Many riders had become conditioned to treat SAGs and shuttles like taxis and we spent tens of thousands on those services. Add in the costs of retaining shuttles for inclement weather and evacuation (especially in Glenwood Canyon) we were getting creamed. 

The route that I directed was hard and expensive. It was hard on cyclists and staff with two days of over 100 miles which means at least five aid stations and lots of SAG’s. Add in Glenwood Canyon and Independence Pass with many special permit requirements, the coffers were spilling over. 

And then, last-second negotiations with CDOT failed and we were not granted a pass-through of a construction zone near Idaho Springs, so more shuttles and another $25,000 bill. 

All this to be said, route selection is crucial, but so is developing strong relationships with the towns and government entities, something RTR was losing, fast.

It’s also vital to price the tour to account for just about every imaginable scenario. To account for wide-ranging needs on diet, comfort, ability, and lodging. The registration cost couldn’t cover it all. Moving from a non-profit (Denver Post Foundation) to a for-profit entity didn’t help with donating services or products or attracting sponsors.

Looking at the 2024 cancellation, and understanding the mounting debt of two years of disastrous bottom lines, I am not surprised in the least of this decision. Lots of money had been spent this year on staff costs, vendor costs, and many pre-ride expenses, but the big bucks were yet to be spent. With less than 60 days to attract more riders and no hotels available, there was little choice. 

With an expectation that the route changes each year, with so many towns opposed to the ride, with so few route options left, and 2024 towns eager to have RTR, they rolled the dice on Northwest Colorado, hoping a record number of people would camp or find some other way. The gamble didn’t pay off and now people are reeling to get refunds, recoup losses, re-arrange trips, business etc, etc. 

Sadly VE has very little skin in the game in Colorado with no other events here. Many of them are good people from my dealings, I would even call some friends. But they had no historical relationship with RTR. Most of the VE cycling team’s focus is on RAGBRAI—the annual bike ride across Iowa, the largest bike tour in the world.  A vastly different tour. 

I don’t think there was a clear understanding of what they bought in the fall of 2021 here in Colorado. And they thought it could grow to 5,000 riders. What they didn’t know, is there is just no room for that sized ride on our roads or in many towns. RAGBRAI closes roads and the impact is lessened with so many route options and the vast majority of riders camp. Colorado isn’t that way. 

For 37 years tens of thousands of cyclist made it their vacations. Friendships were made. Couples found love. Celebrities reported it on television. The staff became a family. The riders were a community. 

No doubt this happens on RAGBRAI, but the complexities of the mountains, the relationships with the few towns that can host the ride, the limitations of available roads, and dealing with so many government agencies (like the Forest Service) and the much larger population of Colorado partially make RTR a different and much more costly tour (cost per rider). 

For me, I never rode it. But I got it. I appreciate the love for it. I feel the sadness of its loss.

I was very familiar with it. Chandler Smith a director for many years came to my spin classes at the Denver Athletic Club—I thought he was big-time! My brother rode it several times along with loads of my friends, the founder of 303 and so many others. 

But one person showed me just how special it was, Steve Twitty. 

A few weeks after I took on the job I met Steve, the brother of a woman I was dating. He couldn’t wait to meet me. Not because I was dating his sister but because I was in charge of Ride the Rockies. And he had weeks to live. He was battling inoperable brain cancer and died just before the ride began. 

He seemed annoyed to talk about anything other than Ride the Rockies, something he had done for over twenty years. I chuckled when his wife might ask me something about my family or how met his sister and Steve would get so impatient to get back to the subject at hand—all of his stories and joys about riding RTR.

I shared this story with the staff the night before our ride. I shed a few tears and little did I know that the SAG team dedicated their efforts to him and toasted him every night. I really liked our staff and they treated me like family. I  think Steve watched over our ride and we made it work. A few problems withstanding, everyone arrived in Golden safe and we had relatively good weather. 

Steve was obsessed, as so many are to the allure of the mountains, the fun vendors like the “Pancake guy”, JKF food, the Cookie Lady, and the mountain top DJ. The “badboys”, a group of cyclists pulling a smoker, a blender, a sink, and set up for fun. The smoothies and pie and community meals. A lot of that had diminished or gone away when I arrived. 

The rider experience had become more generic and lost a lot of charm. The history of the ride just didn’t get passed down and eroded. 

I was honored to learn so much through Steve of course, but countless others who have shared so much with me too. Thank you.

Goodbye Ride the Rockies, lost in brand but not in memories or on the impact of my life. Can another multi-day ride happen that moves every day and goes all over Colorado? Probably, but it has to be re-invented, re-imagined, and run by different people. 

Full disclosure, I am co-owner of Colorado’s only week-long tour, Colorado’s Ride but it is a two-town spoke and hub model, but could be seen as a competitor. 

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  1. Dejan Smaic

    COVID was the last nail in the coffin for many races and cycling events on life-support: Tour of California, Tour of Utah, Colorado Classic, and road racing / cycling is at a ebb. Hopefully, it will get better.

  2. Scott DeLeeuw

    We were always impressed how you pulled the ride together in just 8 weeks! Was it perfect, no, but you pulled off a miracle. Thanks for this article.

  3. Stacie Ward

    26 years ago, I met my husband on RTR and we continued to ride it for many years together. We have many memories of riding together in all kinds of weather. There was something special about a week of riding with 2,000 other cyclists. All you had to do was ride your bike and camp. Some of the best vacations. The crew and volunteers were all incredible. I’ll miss it but like many, have sought out rides elsewhere. It started my love of cycling which is still there. Thank you RTR for the best memories.

  4. Tony Daugherty

    I know its not the same but there are other rides with Large #s of people and maybe not as logistically difficult as say RTR. Courage Classic is a 3 day one where route variations don’t often happen but also MS-150 has changed routes over the years (2 day events) . The Insite shared here by Bill was very valuable for understand and appreciate this sad announcement. Hopes that it will get rebirth some day.

  5. William H Pedler

    It is a loss. And a sign of the times. With the mass influx of new residents, this was inevitable. RIP RTR.


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