October 4, 2022

RB Group

Business Service

Return of women’s Tour de France ripples in Minnesota

The women’s Tour de France opens in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower on Sunday in Paris. In the minds of some with a stake in the race, the athletes will charge through Minnesota, too.

Circuit Sport, a sports management company based in Edina with a long history of directing professional cyclists, has a team of six women in the field. The Human Powered Health squad is one of 24 teams in the tour, which is weighted with significance on both sides of the Atlantic.

Sunday’s stage race brings a new air of legitimacy for women, whose history of a tour is mixed over a near-half-century, while the men claimed the headlines. The first attempt at a women’s equivalent rolled in 1955. Almost three decades later, an event for women was held alongside the men’s tour beginning in 1984. The Societe du Tour de France, then the organizer of the men’s race, put on a shorter version for women called the Tour de France Féminin (Female). It lasted until 1989.

Incarnations of the event happened until 2009, with different organizers and inconsistent race lengths, owing to a lack of interest, sponsorships and money. Later, women’s opportunity was reduced to a single one-day race. Finally, under pressure, Amaury Sport Organization, the men’s tour organizer, launched a lapped race called La Course in 2014, laying the groundwork for the return of a full women’s Tour de France.

The women’s ascent is a breakthrough, too, for Charles Aaron, who owns and manages Circuit Sport. Aaron formed the first professional cycling team based in Minnesota 15 years ago.

His first squad, KBS/Medifast, was a men’s team and filled out with U.S. and Canadian riders. Its main sponsor was Kelly Benefit Strategies (KBS) in Sparks, Md., an insurance broker, and Medifast, creators of a diet plan. He began racing his first women’s squad in 2012.

Team names have changed to accommodate shifting sponsorships through the years — Optum Pro Cycling predated Rally Cycling, which became Human Powered Health this year — but that fleeting aspect runs counter to long-term support that has helped Aaron and his staff realize a longtime dream.

“There are so many connections,” said Aaron, a native of St. Louis Park, citing business mentors, friends, and backing from Minnesota corporations like UnitedHealth Group.

Now, he has both men and women’s teams racing across North America and Europe. Through June, the women have one win, seven podium placements and 26 top-15 finishes, and there are more than two months left in their season in the women’s world tour, which consists of the top 15 teams.

Closer to home and in recent years, Aaron’s teams produced regular success at the Nature Valley Grand Prix that, until 2017 and with its lap and road races and time trials, was a summer fixture around the metro area. It was the main event of the Great River Energy Bicycle Festival founded by David LaPorte, and was a major event on the USA Cycling calendar. Some of the best U.S. cyclists were regulars. It was a showcase of sorts for Kelly Catlin, the late cyclist from Arden Hills who rode for Aaron and found Olympic glory. She was part of a foursome that won a silver medal in team pursuit in 2016 at the Rio Games.

With success has come scale. Aaron has nearly 90 employees devoted to the Human Powered Health squads and their busy schedules. The base of logistics now is in Girona, Spain — closer to the action.

“To have this [women’s tour] come back, to be a part of it, is an unbelievable, historic milestone for everyone involved here [at Circuit Sport],” said Aaron, who left Wednesday for Paris. “I am really excited.”

The breakthrough for his team came this year. Circuit Sport applied to Union Cycliste Internationale, the world governing body for cycling, and received a spot in the women’s world tour. The Tour de France, or Tour de France Femmes (Women), is part of it.

Aaron said the women’s world tour has more organization and strength than in recent years, a sort of synergy with the rejuvenation of the women’s tour.

“It’s about time,” Aaron said. “The change is definitely better for everybody.”

Is a women’s Tour de France resonating in Minnesota’s cycling community of road racers?

“Absolutely,” said Jenny Beckman, 33, an employee at Gear West in Long Lake who organized the popular ski and bike shop’s racing team, Pretty Fast. “It’s a topic on the group text for sure.”

Beckman became aware of the women’s event while using Zwift, a popular online platform for cyclists. Zwift is the tour’s title sponsor.

Beckman said the news shouldn’t be framed as men vs. women — cyclists want to see other riders at the top of their games regardless of who is on the saddle.

“Moving more toward inclusivity and representation is super important,” she added. “How do you expect it to grow anywhere … if you are not showcasing what success at the highest level can look like for both [men and women]? Why would they get into it? You need those aspirational stories.”

The women’s Tour de France will play out in eight stages over eight days and 642 miles. (The men have 21 stages.) The longest day is 109 miles in stage five, setting up severe mountain stages.

Aaron’s women’s team — one of three from the U.S. — has had Olympics-caliber cyclists through the years and that continues in France. In fact, the only U.S. rider on the squad, Lily Williams, rode to a bronze medal in team pursuit on track at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.

The men’s Tour de France concludes Sunday, in sync with the women’s launch. Aaron’s goal is to someday see his burnt-orange Human Powered Health kit in the men’s field, too.

For now, he’ll let this milestone sink in.

“It’s going to be a very emotional day for me. We are not just representing Minnesota — we are presenting the United States.

“Pursue your dreams — that’s the message here,” he said.