Updated at 5:47 p.m. on Wednesday, June 26, 2019, with more information.
A popular three-day cycling event in Chattanooga has been cancelled after race directors struggled to meet rising costs and organize logistics in time for the 2019 race.
The River Gorge Omnium had become one of the most popular cycling events in the Southeast, according to race participants, with a time trial on Raccoon Mountain, a criterium race in downtown Chattanooga and a road race that started at Covenant Transport. It featured cyclists from about 30 states last year and was becoming a destination race for top racers in the U.S. and some in South America. Race officials plan to continue the race in 2020 after a year to plan, organize and launch a bigger event to offer sponsors more for their money.
"We're all heavily disappointed, but from a bigger picture, the way we're looking at it, we've been growing the race from the type of event that it is, but we never really developed the sponsor model we needed with that to sustain it," race director Scott Morris said. "Inherently, the nature of events, costs are going up."
The late-August event likely would have lost money, Morris said. Organizers were putting more of a burden on sponsors to pay as costs increased. Insurance, equipment rental and other costs rose incrementally through the years.
It's still a great bike race, Morris said, but the organizers wanted to take time to ensure it continues to run successfully in future years. They were planning a more community-driven festival that could bring in more sponsorship money. They talked about reviving Chattanooga Brewfest — which often took place downtown at the same time as the omnium — and combining the events. The bike races would anchor the festival.
The plan would use the renovated Miller Park. They'd bring in bands and invite local breweries. Race organizers were planning to make the change ahead of this year's race in August but didn't have enough time, they said. Instead, they'll focus on launching the new festival next year to support the future of the race.
"It has the opportunity to be a national-level race. The opportunity is there," Morris said. "With more money, we could be a national-level race. We could be the finals of USA Crits or the [Pro Road Tour] calendar. We have the venues. We have the structure. It's literally just the money that keeps us from getting there."
Racing numbers have dwindled nationwide along with the money cyclists paid to enter events. Once-prominent races have disappeared. But more people continue to ride bikes in the U.S. every year, according to data available on Statista, a German-based statistics portal. There are just more options. People are choosing mountain biking, recreational riding and gravel riding instead. The River Gorge Omnium has seen its registration stay relatively consistent, but numbers have dipped from about 600 racers to the 520-530 who participated last August in the race's 14th year.
"I was very disappointed, but I will say I think that's the trend," local racer Beth Lofgren said. "There's a lot less races, and we're seeing that trend across the country. More riders are turning to gravel racing. These things cycle through. People like one thing and then another."
Lofgren raced mountain bikes for years and recently picked up road racing. She has participated in the event three times and won the overall Category 4-5 women's race in 2017.
Now, the focus will be about bringing in sponsors. Village Volkswagen, which was the title sponsor, plans to remain involved with the race. The company sponsors racing teams in town and just about all the local cycling events from junior racing to mountain biking and road races like the omnium. The company has hosted a registration party for the race, helped stuff packets, given financial support, supplied trailers and provided pace cars.
"It's a great course, It's one of the best out there," Village Volkswagen President Brad Cobb said. Cobb races mountain bikes and has participated in the River Gorge Omnium. "I hate to lose it this year but understand why. We will be back in full force."