Baja Organizers of the semiannual Rosarito Ensenada Fun Bicycle Ride recently announced that the September 27 event would be their last. As with Baja tourism in general, participation in the ride has been declining. In April, it dipped below the 5000-rider mark, which organizer Gary Foster says is his break-even point. City officials and business leaders in Rosarito are scrambling to keep the lucrative event alive. They believe it is the latest victim of “bad and unfair” media coverage of Baja California.
Foster, a trim, clean-cut man of 43, sits in a coffee shop at a table overlooking Cass Street in Pacific Beach. Dressed in a blue surf-shop T-shirt and gray jogging pants, he speaks almost too softly to be heard over the hiss and gurgle of the cappuccino machine 20 feet to his right. “A guy named Dave Dickson, who was leading tours for the youth hostels, discovered the route between Rosarito and Ensenada and found out it was exactly 50 miles. So he was kind of the founder of it. And 1980 was the first ride for which he advertised and charged admission.”
Dickson ran the Rosarito-to-Ensenada ride from 1980 to 2000. “I started working for him in 1989. I was on the rowing team at San Diego State, and we had to raise money for boats and oars, and one of the fund-raisers was handing out water at the bike ride. So I met Dave and started working for him part-time while at school. After I finished my undergrad, I stayed on for a while.”
A few years later, Foster went away to graduate school, then took a telecom job in Denver, which he held for five years. In the meantime, he recalls, “Dave Dickson retired, and he advertised at the end of 1999 that it was going to be the last ride. But in 2000 he sold it to two guys down in Ensenada, Guillermo Rodríguez and Alejandro Treviño. [Throughout the ride’s history] we’d worked with Guillermo Rodríguez. His business was printing T-shirts. During all those years, he printed the T-shirts for us. And because he was an Ensenada local, he always helped us with getting permits and overcoming any roadblocks with the government.”
Rodríguez and Treviño, Foster says, “are 50-50 partners in the Señor Frog’s stores. They also own a newspaper in Ensenada, El Vigía. And [Rodríguez] has a boutique winery. Their interest in the ride was they didn’t want to see it come to an end. They wanted to keep it alive because it was such a big influx of tourist revenue into Mexico, especially their hometown of Ensenada. So they bought everything from Dave, all the rights, the trademarks, and everything.”
Foster continues, “They ran it from 2000 until 2003. They got decent crowds, 6000, 7000, 8000 per event, but the business was failing.”
Foster left his telecom job and moved back to San Diego. One night, “I was grabbing dinner and catching up with Guillermo. He said, ‘We’re having a lot of trouble with the business, and we know that Dave [Dickson] doesn’t want to do it anymore. You are the only other guy in the U.S. who knows how to do it, so would you like to come work for us?’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to work for you, but if you are looking for a partner or you want to sell the business, I am interested.’ So I worked as a partner, and we set up two companies. One is in the U.S., Bicycling West. That is the one that I work for. And Bicycling West operates as basically an advertising firm. We do sports marketing, advertising in all media, from Internet to direct mail to bulk distribution of brochures. The second company is in Mexico, and it is called Paseo Ciclista Rosarito Ensenada. And that company owns everything in Mexico, the intellectual property, the name of the event, the trademarks, the logos, all artwork; it gets the permits for the ride, posts the ride, collects the revenue, all that stuff. So the event pays Bicycling West. I bought in at 50 percent of each company.”
Foster won’t divulge the amounts he paid to buy into the companies or how much money he’s made from the two for-profit businesses. “This has been my only job for the last five years. I’ve bought a house five blocks from the beach in PB, and I have four kids. My wife works too — we’re a two-parents-working family. So I’ve done all right. Not as much as when I was a director in telecom. But it’s also a lifestyle business. In telecom, I was working 60, 70, 80 hours a week and traveling. I had 80 employees and a $41 million budget. But I never got to see my kids. Now I’ve been working a normal 40-hour week or less. In the middle of the day, if my ten-year-old son says, ‘Dad, I want to take a bike ride,’ we hop on the bikes and take a ride. It’s been nice. I’m going to miss that.”
The business grew, Foster says, through 2006, “and then in 2007, the business fell off, and it was just not something we could overcome. We had been averaging 7500 people, but in the April 2008 ride, we just had, we had between 4900 and 5000.”
Five thousand riders, each paying a $35 entry fee is $175,000. Seems like plenty of money, especially twice a year. But, Foster says, “Our event is a destination event. We are pulling people from the U.S., about 75 percent from the U.S., primarily coming from L.A., Orange County, and San Diego. When most people go across the border, they want to feel safe, and they want to feel that if something happens, they are going to get the same level of care that they would get if they fell off their bike up here. So what we have done, ever since I worked for Dave, we’ve always provided life-flight helicopters and airplanes to bring people up. So if someone has a critical injury on the course, we can actually pick them up right on the course in Mexico by helicopter, come across, touch down at Brown Field and clear customs, and bring them right to a hospital here in the U.S.”
Asked if they have ever had to use that service, Foster answers, “Almost every event we have, something happens. Cycling is the most dangerous sport of all the popular sports.”
Foster also hires U.S. paramedics to go down and be on call. And, because of Mexican law, they can’t use volunteers to staff any aspect of the ride. “So at the water stops, people handing out T-shirts, people handing out numbers and registrations, they are all paid employees. In Mexico, you can’t use someone as a volunteer the way you can here.”
On top of medical and staff costs — Foster won’t divulge how much they are — there’s a federal revenue tax on the registration fees. And the cities of Rosarito and Ensenada each charge a per-rider tax, a practice Foster describes as “a very counterproductive way of thinking. If you look at the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, the model they use is, every time they go to a new city, the city pays the company to bring the event to them because it generates tourism. So what happens is, Rock ’n’ Roll doesn’t have to make any money on participation because they are getting so much from the cities. But for us down there, we do it upside down. We go down there, we have to pay the city to put on the event. We have to buy the permits to put on the event. Every police officer that is stationed along the route, we have to pay his salary for the day. It adds up, and it’s cost prohibitive.”
Ron Raposa, public relations director for the City of Rosarito, blames the demise of the bike ride on American media coverage of Baja, “including things like the recent cover story you ran in the Reader” (“Greetings from Tijuana,” August 7).
Asked what the economic impact of the ride has been for Rosarito, Raposa doesn’t have dollar figures but offers, “Well, we had 5000 to 7000 participants plus friends and family members that came down, that stayed in hotels and ate in restaurants and spent money in Rosarito and Ensenada twice a year and created a great deal of publicity for the area. It’s a wonderful event with wonderful people. They never had a problem with anything down here, and we never had a problem with them. We’d like to see it continue, and we still hope that some way might be found. If it can’t continue, we’re going to miss it. There’s no question about it. As for the exact economic impact, well, we get over a million visitors a year here, and we’re starting to see a recovery in tourism this summer, so it’s not going to kill us. But we’re surely sad to see it go. It’s extremely sad, and it truly is the result of bad and unfair U.S. media coverage, and I put the Reader cover story in that category. I can’t say it any more sternly. Twenty-seven years, 375,000 participants, and never a single serious crime among them. But the U.S. media are simply scaring people away with biased, unbalanced, and unfair reporting.”