Words & Deeds

Tour de Fat to abandon Boise after promising to 'bring back the best possible event'

Last year, Tour de Fat threw a handful of goatheads on the trail before riding into Boise.

This year, organizers are letting the air out of the tires completely.

After 16 summers of bikes, beers and fun, the touring festival produced by New Belgium Brewing Co. will not return to Idaho this year, says Jimmy Hallyburton, founder of Boise Bicycle Project.

"And we are working on something pretty big, hyper local and very unique to replace it," Hallyburton adds.

That's positive news. But it won't be Tour de Fat. Not that Tour de Fat was itself anymore. Ill-advised changes to the popular event slashed attendance by more than half in Boise last year.

Unless a surprise, late-breaking announcement materializes, Tour de Fat won't visit the majority of the cities it rolled through in 2017.

Tour de Fat has been a yearly boon for Treasure Valley bicycle nonprofits such as BBP, the Southwest Idaho Mountain Biking Association and Treasure Valley Cycling Alliance.

New Belgium's annual party raised more than $500,000 for Boise nonprofits and more than $5 million nationally over the years.

"We're certainly in their debt," Hallyburton says. "We know they made mistakes last year. They still helped us raise some money.

"I think they owned up to that mistake, and the impact they've had in Boise is undeniable. BBP would not be what it is today without their support."

We've been on a long, glorious tandem-bike ride with Tour de Fat. You can't harbor any ill will toward a philanthropic tradition like that.

But it does feel like we got shoved off the back seat without proper warning.

OK, maybe we did hear the panicked "ding ding" of a crashing bicycle bell.

The trouble started when Tour de Fat suddenly became more like a concert tour in 2017. In an effort to make the festival more sustainable, New Belgium decided to charge $25 admission instead of offering free bands in Ann Morrison Park after the bike parade, which always generated a flood of beer sales.

To make matters worse, the bands were punted to the Idaho Botanical Garden's Outlaw Field, where the festival was held separately from the free bike parade in the park.

As understandable as Tour de Fat's financial challenges were, none of this sat well with cyclists.

Tour de Fat also expanded to 33 cities after focusing on nine the year before — another head-scratching business decision.

Afterward, New Belgium communications director Bryan Simpson issued a statement about Boise vowing to return Tour de Fat to its previous, bike-oriented glory.

"We’ve heard from community members who are disappointed by many of the Tour de Fat’s changes this year ...," he said. "We’ll use their feedback to bring back the best possible event in 2018.”

Or not. At least not in Boise. I've been unable to reach Simpson, but he left a comment under this column shortly after it published indicating that New Belgium is still "actively seeking ways" to support BBP, SWIMBA and TVCA.

"At New Belgium," Simpson wrote, "we will continue to find ways to contribute to the cycling scene and other non-profits within the state and we thank the community for many years of support. It's been an amazing run, and while it may not be Tour de Fat specifically this year, there will be much more fun to come."

Everyone except Tour de Fat's organizers could see that the new direction in 2017 all but doomed the event.

Festival attendance in Boise dropped to 1,500 people, according to New Belgium. Outlaw Field holds 4,000.

After attracting 12,000 riders to the bike parade in 2016, only 5,000 showed up in 2017.

Tour de Fat raised $19,948 for Boise bicycle nonprofits. That's impressive. But it had raised $63,365 the year before.

Hallyburton says he plans to meet with New Belgium in hopes there could be involvement in his new, "hyper local" event.

Hear that hissing noise? It's the sound of New Belgium's presence in Boise deflating. I'm not sure anyone feels much like drinking a Fat Tire Amber Ale around here right now.

On the other hand, if New Belgium really does continue its relationship with Boise through a fresh, locally organized event, why wouldn't we get on board?

"I think if we were to create something that was more local, that really did feature some of our local breweries and some of our other local things, I think those breweries would welcome New Belgium with open arms," Hallyburton says. "I think New Belgium has helped create that craft beer scene in Boise."

That is true. Now that I think of it, Fat Tire might be the first craft beer I ever drank.

New Belgium's website indicates that Tour de Fat will pedal on and visit at least two cities: Fort Collins, Colorado, and Asheville, North Carolina. That's where New Belgium operates breweries.

We've got a brewery or two in Boise, too. Maybe one of them will step up. I'm sure Hallyburton would appreciate help promoting a worthy Tour de Fat successor.

Boise's bicycle nonprofits need to lube their chains and gear down for a climb.

It will take stamina and determination to approach the peak of fun that Tour de Fat reached with local bicycle enthusiasts — not to mention the peak of fundraising.

It also will take time to get over that controversial final year in Boise.

We love ya, Tour de Fat.

But fair or not, those last days will be remembered as the Tour de Flat.

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