PEZ Profiles: ‘Toona’s Rick Geist
The “premiere stage race in America” turns 20 this year, and looks well on it’s way to a happy old age. The Tour de ‘Toona boasts big road stages, big purses, and big fields for men and women. And it all started when it’s founder Rick Geist crashed his ultra-lite… sort of…
Story and Photos By Phil Marques
What To Do After le Tour?
Every July cyclists from around the world migrate to the idyllic countryside 70 miles east of Pittsburgh to compete in what is becoming a vestigial event in U.S. bike racing – one of only a handful of big money, big course stage races. The venerable Tour de ‘Toona – or Toona, as racers affectionately call it – a 7-day stage race featuring a six-figure purse and some of the most challenging and scenic parcours on the national racing circuit.
Promoter Rick Geist’s day job – overseeing the state’s transportation system and rail lines.
Behind Toona’s evolution is its founder and promoter, Rick Geist. Though the latter is his official title, his day-to-day duties range from chief fundraiser to chief fanatic to lead visionary. A full-time elected politician by day, Geist spends most of his time in Harrisburg sewing new legislation and making policy decisions.
Along the shoreline of the Susquehanna River sits the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. Its four coolant towers rise into the sky like huge hourglasses wrapped in cement corsets, steam billowing from their tops. Upriver the krypton taxiway lights at Harrisburg International glow a deep cobalt hue. And, hard by the river in the rejuvenating downtown just behind the vestibule rotunda in the Pennsylvania State Capitol, sits the spacious office of state representative Rick Geist.
A Republican in his 14th consecutive term, Geist serves the Altoona and Blair County region, home to Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions and main campus of Penn State University. Everything about Altoona harkens back to its heritage as a once thriving railroad metropolis – from the Baldwin locomotive factory on the north end of town to the downtown Railroaders Memorial Museum, to the historic section of semi-circle track known as Horseshoe Curve that hugs the basin rim of the Altoona reservoir.
Riders pass under the Horseshoe Curve tunnel on the penultimate stage.
Considered by bike racers as one of the premier events on the National Racing Calendar, a veritable who’s-who of North American talent have graced Toona’s start line over the years – Lance Armstrong, Tom Danielson, Scott Moninger, Lyne Bessette, and Geneviйve Jeanson.
Racers trek through a historical time capsule as they pass countless farmlands not far from where Flight 93 met its heroic demise on 9-11. Nearly 400 cyclists race through the steel city of Johnstown, site of the worst flood in U.S. history back in 1889, as well as Hollidaysburg, home of the Slinky toy.
A career politician, Geist heeds the criticisms of his constituents even when it comes to his bike race. The Martinsburg stage has two special rules unheard of in cycling: any racer who discards a water bottle on the road or nearby surroundings is fined $500. Also, the lead police motorcade refrains from using its sirens. The unique restrictions owe their origin to local Mennonite dairy farmers who complained of their cows producing less milk after being stressed by unusual noises and the occasional ingestion of plastic water bottles jettisoned by the passing peloton.
An editorial in a local paper once accused Geist of being sexist for making the women race for less miles and less prize money than the men. Geist acted swiftly. The following year, the women showed up to stages that were equal in distance to the men, including the longest stage for women on the NRC, at 97 miles. Geist also matched the women’s purse to the men’s, dollar for dollar. To date, no other stage race in the world besides Toona offers women cyclists equal distance and prize money to their male counterparts.
Massive culverts in Johnstown.
“TDT (Tour de Toona) will always be a showcase event for women,” says Geist dispositively.
During the race, Geist can usually be found seated rearward in the trunk of a late model SUV, its tailgate dropped, watching the women’s race unfold in real time. Geist knows the riders and tactics of bike racing better than most of the people who write about it.
On his way to the cafeteria in the Capitol, Geist shakes hands and engages in politico with what seems like every other person he passes in the hallway. Governor Ed Rendell shuffles by like a kid in high school late for class. Much like fundraising is to a politician’s re-election bid, a race promoter’s ability to raise money is the keystone to an event’s success, and in many cases, its legacy. In this respect, Geist has few equals in the sport.
Toona’s director of communications Dave Rice acknowledges the financial realities of promoting a pro race.
“Rick would tell you the race is community owned and run,” says Rice. “It’s very true that thousands of local residents work on the race every year, and every one of their efforts is vital. But without Rick, it simply would not happen.”
Geist has a hands-on approach to race promoting.
As chairman of the House Transportation Committee and a mechanical engineer by degree, Geist, along with Toona’s race director Larry Bilotto – a maintenance engineer with the state department of transportation – oversee a symphony of volunteers and staff who choreograph the execution of each detail down to the minutia.
In this respect, Geist’s gravitas within the state department of transportation certainly doesn’t hurt when it comes to closing off hundreds of miles of public roadways not to mention getting the cavalry of state police motorcycles to lead out each stage. Once, when President George W. Bush flew into Pittsburgh, the race risked losing its state police escort. But it was the police who didn’t want to leave the race. After some phone calls by Geist, it was the president who was stood up.
Those who go to Toona can’t help but notice that at its core, the race is run and sponsored by a multitude of doting local businesses and individuals. The homemade potato salad in the start/finish tents and motherly hospitality host housing accommodations relied upon by so many teams and racers to make ends meet are as much a part of Toona’s secret recipe as its climb up to the Blue Knob ski resort. Geist encourages each host city and its residents to embrace the event and come out to support the athletes.
July cornfields in Martinsburg.
“Rick opens the doors to numerous local companies to donate food and products,” says Bilotto. But cash sponsorships are the true oxygen of bicycle racing. And Bilotto acknowledges there is no one better at raising money than Geist.
“It cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to run the race. We actually go through $400,000, and the in-kind services are probably close to double that figure. From my side,” says Bilotto, “we run the race. But Rick fuels the machine and turns the gears.”
Monster farm machines are commonplace along the routes.
We Can Rebuild Him
Geist has a passion for athletic competition and pushing the envelope shared by many top promoters. In the 70’s Geist was an active skydiver and hang glider. His foray into cycling came after nearly dying in an ultralight accident in 1981.
“I did everything, but as an engineer I always did everything the right way,” says Geist. Or so he thought.
While practicing takeoffs and landings in a new ultralight he intended to purchase, Geist crashed in Edenton, North Carolina. His ultralight stalled and corkscrewed into the ground. It’s what pilots refer to as a graveyard spiral. Geist suffered severe injuries to his knee, ankle, and hand (his right hand still bears a missing digit). After the accident, Geist was taken to a local trauma center where orthopedic physicians felt the injuries were over their heads. So they called in the Coast Guard, who flew Geist to Duke University Hospital. There, Geist would spend the next five weeks undergoing painful reconstructive surgeries. His ankle needed to be totally rebuilt. New cruciate knee tendons were reconstructed from his own bicep femoris muscle.
As part of his rehabilitation, Geist’s therapist had him ride a Fitron stationary bicycle. He was supposed to ride it for three minutes at a time. Instead, he rode it for 30 minutes. The physical therapy would last nearly two-years. As part of his rehab, Geist took up cycling.
Summer heat means everyone gets thirsty.
“I didn’t really fit in as a bike racer,” recalls Geist of his early racing days.
Before long Geist found himself a regular on the shop rides and became a mileage junkie, doing outlaw races up through Horseshoe Curve, the occasional site of the prologue time trial at Toona. Geist and his riding buddies began tossing around the idea of putting on a race in downtown Altoona during the summer dog days of August.
“It was just Appalachia dead down there,” Geist reflects. “We had no idea what would happen.”
What happened was 80 riders showed up, and the women raced with the men. So successful was the downtown crit, the then United States Cycling Federation stripped several amateur racers of their amateur status and Olympic eligibility for winning some of the $4,000 purse – considered big money by cyclists back then.
“I knew it was going to be a success after the first year because we got the whole community involved,” recalls Geist. “A lot of the big-name racers back then wanted appearance money.” To this day Geist refuses to offer any, and instead opts to sink any surplus funds into the purse.
As a conservative Republican, Geist didn’t fit the typical mold as the women’s rights guy. But when one looks at Toona’s format, it would bring a smile to the face of Billie Jean King.
“We were the first race in America to offer equal money and equal distance to women,” proudly notes Geist to one of his hallmark achievements. “That was back in the day when the USCF rulebook had restrictions on how much climbing women could do.” Geist also implemented a hospitality program adopted from the Virginia Slims women’s tennis tour, which he attended on political junkets.
Silos, and horses and cyclists, oh my.
In 1989, Geist had it in his mind to bring the Olympic trials to Altoona. By 1992, he had raised over $970,000 to host both the trials and national championships. That year a brash, young Lance Armstrong would win the national title on what is now the Hollidaysburg circuit.
Geist’s initiatives also spawned a women’s elite team and secured year-round living arrangements for foreign cyclists racing on American teams. Former Australian World Cup winner Anna Millward lived in Altoona during her reign as the number one ranked cyclist in the world. Few in the sport are aware that the Talgo women’s team – sponsored by a Spanish train manufacturer – owed its existence to Geist’s political dealings with the company. Take one look at Geist’s office adorned with model trains from collector Lionels to scale model bullet trains and the link to trains hits you like, well, a locomotive (Geist is still trying to establish the country’s first high-speed rail line between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia). To date, Talgo is the only U.S. women’s team to have an American rider win a World Cup event – Dede Demet-Barry’s Cinderella victory at Montreal in 2002.
In order for Americans to compete with Europeans, Geist is adamant that the teams need more quality stage races.
“We’ve become a country of crits,” laments Geist as he sums up his biggest complaint with the domestic racing scene. In this regard, Toona represents a dinosaur on the verge of extinction – the megastagerace. While Europeans cut their teeth on six hour road races that ascend the precipices of the Alps and Pyrenees, American cycling finds itself saturated with what are pejoratively known as parking lot crits – where the only spectators are the friends of the racers and the next field waiting to line up to go in circles like some cheap carnival ride.
But with its rolling enclosures, point-to-point serpentine courses, large circuits (the smallest is 20 miles), and fat purse, Toona lures the top bevy of pro cyclists to central Pennsylvania every summer like bees to flowers. The next big deal in American cycling – Tom Danielson – put his mark on the race before making the jump to Europe.
“When I raced Toona I was at my limit until the final day,” recollects Danielson, who won the event in 2003 with a memorable attack on Blue Knob during the second to the last stage, and now rides as a designated grand tour leader for the Discovery team. “The demands of the stages coupled with the strength of the competition took a huge effort by the whole team to win – for sure a big stepping stone in my career.”
Danielson drops his last pursuer (Adam Bergman) on the climb up to Blue Knob climb in 2003.
Though Toona is primarily geared towards elite pros, a 3-day omnium for amateurs has always been part of the core event. Former USA Cycling CEO Gerard Bisceglia acknowledges that stage races which feature amateur classes are the backbone to developing future Olympian and world class cyclists.
“Rick has been a great supporter of cycling for many years – particularly the women’s race,” noted Bisceglia. “He has created the continuity the sport needs. Stage racing is a critical component of cycling, and the Tour de Toona is one of the better examples we have in the States today.”
For now, Geist sees no end on the horizon to Toona’s growth. “We’d like to add three stages including a team time trial,” Geist projects.
Given his track record, what he says is more than just some spin.
Steeples and steel.
Get more info at the official website TourDeToona.com