ADDISON COUNTY — It was just two years ago that Yankee magazine heralded Addison County for providing the best road biking experience in New England. It’s an accolade that comes as no surprise to local cyclists, who now want the rest of the world to come see what it has been missing.
To that end, local organizers are busy planning a major, annual cycling event that could draw thousands of people to Addison County to bike, shop and eat … and perhaps some day relocate their households and businesses.
Economic development officials and recreation enthusiasts from throughout the county are busy organizing a local Gran Fondo — an Italian term that loosely translates as “big ride.” Gran Fondos offer cyclists a choice of course distance options in which to challenge themselves and/or compete against friends or teammates, then meet at a common area for a big celebration. Gran Fondos have exploded in popularity in Europe and have been catching on in the United States, as well.
“It occurred to me that (a Gran Fondo) would be a good way to showcase something we have here in Addison County that’s better than anywhere else,” longtime Sports Illustrated writer and Cornwall resident Alex Wolff said of the cycling experience in our region.
It would be Vermont’s first Gran Fondo.
“If it is going to be in Vermont, it might as well be in the part of Vermont considered to be the best place for it,” Wolff said.
Wolff, of course, has covered cycling on many continents and has seen the excitement the sport generates across many demographics in other nations. While Addison County is home to the annual “Tour de Farms” and Kelly Brush Century Ride, Wolff and like-minded folks believe the county — with its rolling green hills, stunning bucolic scenery and challenging mountain inclines — can offer an even grander stage for folks of all abilities who love to travel on two wheels. Bikers already informally flock to the county in decent numbers to travel county roads and take on the steep and challenging Middlebury, Lincoln, Brandon and Appalachian gap rides.
“For years, I’ve thought it would be great to attract people up here for something like this,” said Willem Jewett, a Democratic state representative from Ripton and a cycling enthusiast. “I would love to showcase the entire county.”
Jewett and his family this past summer spent some time in Europe, where they became familiar with a Gran Fondo in the French Alps that draws around 8,000 people. While Addison County’s version is not expected to approach that level, it could become a signature regional event, Jewett said. He imagines bikers appreciating all the county has to offer, including its town centers, scenic roadways, covered bridges and agricultural heritage.
And the Gran Fondo would pay some big economic dividends. Visiting cyclists would need places to stay, supplies and food, among other things.
“From a tourism standpoint, it is untapped potential,” Jewett said.
That potential hasn’t been lost on the folks who specialize in bringing people to local stores, inns and eateries. The Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP), Addison County Chamber of Commerce and related commerce organizations in Bristol and Vergennes have hopped on board for the Addison County Gran Fondo. All can have input on a Gran Fondo organizing committee that is laying the foundation for an inaugural event that could be held as soon as next June, according to BMP President Ben Wilson.
“It’s very early in the planning stages,” Wilson stressed. “People are very excited about it.”
The committee has been talking in terms of an event that could feature three distances — 33 miles, 66 miles and 100 miles. Cyclists would pay an entry fee and choose the distance that best suits their ability. Again, the emphasis would not be on winning a race, but about measuring one’s personal endurance and performance while enjoying the sights and everything else the county has to offer.
At the end of their respective treks, participants would converge at a common location for a local event — perhaps a local foods fair featuring Addison County’s farm-fresh products, along with entertainment.
Mike Hussey is director of Middlebury College’s Rikert Ski Touring Center, a Ripton resident and avid biker. He is working with others to map out potential Gran Fondo routes.
“It’s important that we raise our flag here and show what makes us who we are,” Hussey said. “I’m really looking forward to working on this and bringing people in.”
Organizers will soon establish an Addison County Gran Fondo website and recruit volunteers to help stage the event, which among other things will need cooperation from public safety organizations and the leaders of the communities through which the sea of cyclists would pass. Wilson acknowledged that hiring a paid staffer might be warranted if the Gran Fondo proves as successful as many believe it would be.
“Within the next few weeks, we will have a better sense of the timing and organizational (structure) … and create an LLC to handle it,” Wilson said. “We will stake out our turf in the next month.”
Looking into the future, the Gran Fondo could become a big factor in introducing the county to a new generation of residents. Some of those who come on bikes might return with moving vans after becoming enamored with the area, perhaps bringing with them new jobs and businesses, organizers said. The BMP has already been recruiting telecommuters, and Hussey believes some cyclists might return to the area during the winter to try cross-country skiing or downhill runs at the Snow Bowl.
But organizers agreed that it will be essential to stage a solid first-time Gran Fondo to demonstrate Addison County is ready for the big spotlight.
“If it’s well run, it will grow quickly,” Hussey said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]