After a 13-year relationship, Nature Valley has decided it will no longer sponsor its namesake US National Race Calendar event in Minneapolis, Minnesota, race director David LaPorte told Cyclingnews.
The five-day race's most recent deal with the granola bar company owned by General Mills expired this year and will not be renewed beyond 2013. But LaPorte said the race has enough funds on hand to continue for one more season while it searches for a replacement sponsor.
"Unfortunately, their brand has changed directions," LaPorte said of Nature Valley. "When they signed on, they were positioning themselves as a nutritional supplement for recreational athletes. We were a perfect fit with that position."
But Nature Valley recently changed its marketing focus to position the product as "a nutritious snack that you can take along while you're enjoying nature," LaPorte said.
"Their tagline has gone from 'The Energy Bar Nature Intended' to 'We Love Nature and Having Fun In It.' Competitive events are no longer a fit," he said. "They're refocusing their sponsorship portfolio to reflect their new position, and we're one of a number of competitive events to be cut."
LaPorte said the race organization is currently in "hyperdrive" looking for a new sponsor, and an outside agency helping with the search is optimistic.
"There's been some interest," LaPorte said. "We had a couple of prospects that attended this year's event. Nobody has signed on the dotted line yet, but discussions are ongoing."
The Minnesota race started in 1999, and Nature Valley signed on as the title sponsor two years later, placing the event in the center of a two-week bicycle festival that opens with a track race at NSC Velodrome in nearby Blaine.
The Nature Valley Grand Prix was the top-ranked race on the NRC schedule until this season, claiming multi-time Olympic and world champion Kristin Armstrong and three-time men's winner Rory Sutherland among its list of past champions. But the race slipped off the NRC's top rung when USA Cycling changed its formulation to favor UCI-ranked races. Only Silver City's Tour of the Gila and the one-day Philly Cycling Classic met the criteria this year to assume the NRC's top ranking.
The slip in prestige, combined with competition from the UCI 2.2 Tour de Beauce in Canada may have weakened the Nature Valley Grand Prix's field slightly this year, with only three of eight US domestic Continental teams choosing to participate. Both NRC individual leaders at the time, Francisco Mancebo (5-hour Energy/Kenda) and Alison Powers (NOW and Novartis for MS), did not start the Minnesota race. Mancebo's 5-hour Energy team was competing at Tour de Beauce, while Powers and NOW were racing a criterium in the east.
Despite missing Nature Valley, Mancebo held onto his NRC lead. Powers slipped to second behind Tibco's Claudia Häusler, who won Nature Valley's final stage. Optum Pro Cycling won the men's race for the third consecutive year with Mike Friedman. Tibco's Shelley Olds took her second overall win at Nature Valley this year after overall leader Jade Wilcoxson (Optum) crashed in the final corner of the final stage.
Aside from its spot on the national calendar, the Nature Valley Grand Prix has also proven to be a springboard for many professionals. In 2006, the race started a women's collegiate all-star composite team that allowed select collegiate amateurs from across the country to compete alongside the pros - with full support and coaching. The Nature Valley Pro Chase composite team followed the next year, providing a chance for regional amateur riders to qualify for a composite team and a multi-day training camp before the race.
The women's composite teams have produced a steady stream of current pros. Amanda Miller, Alison Tetrick, Jennifer Purcell, Olivia Dillon, Emily Kachorek, Erica Allar, Anna Barensfeld, Kristin McGrath, Brianna Walle and current US pro road race champion Wilcoxson are all alumni of Nature Valley's Pro Chase and Collegiate All-Star programs. Several men have used the race to break through to the professional ranks as well, including Optum Pro Cycling's Chad Haga, currently second overall in the NRC individual standings. Haga finished 13th overall at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in 2011, winning the Best Amateur jersey for his effort.
"It was at Nature Valley, when I did the whole race in the Best Amateur jersey, that I started talking with (pro team) directors," Haga said.
LaPorte could not say what the future of the amateur composite programs would be, but he did say they are a core part of the race's mission.
"What we have to cut will depend on how much sponsorship we raise," LaPorte said. "The Nature Valley Pro Chase and the Kowalski's Market Collegiate All Stars are high on our priority list, both because of what they contribute to our event and to cycling as a whole - women's cycling in particular. However, there are no sacred cows other than the stage race itself."
The race has also been a fundraiser for many years, working with Children's Hospital Clinics of Minnesota through 2011 and contributing to the Children's Lighthouse of Minnesota in 2012 and 2013. LaPorte estimated the race had contributed at least $190,000 to the hospital charity over the eight-year relationship, and it has contributed about $30,000 to the Children's Lighthouse hospice since last year.