The cycling event that Bob Hughes co-founded nearly a decade ago returns in 2023 with a new name and under management by a Grand Rapids company that’s built a portfolio of endurance athletic events in Michigan.
Aligning with Tris4Health assures that the renamed Grand Rapids Fondo has longevity well into the future as an annual event staged in downtown, Hughes said.
“The Fondo’s best days are ahead,” Hughes said. “This is great for the city and will make sure the event continues and gets even better.”
The principal of Advantage Benefits Group Inc. and a cycling enthusiast, Hughes in 2013 started what was formerly known as the MSU Gran Fondo. The cycling event raised nearly $1.2 million over the years for skin cancer research at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine.
When the event last ran in 2020, the Grand Rapids Fondo attracted more than 2,200 cyclists who biked one of four courses that started in downtown Grand Rapids and covered routes that ranged from 12 miles to an 80-mile round trip to Ottawa County’s North Beach Park north of Grand Haven and back.
The Grand Rapids Fondo also becomes the latest endurance event for Tris4Health, which now owns and organizes nine events, including the Grand Rapids Triathlon, trail runs and cycling races.
The newest is the Road to Hell Gravel Race, a gravel cycling event in Jackson, Washtenaw, Livingston and Ingham counties that debuts Oct. 8 and goes to Hell, Mich. Participants will ride one of four courses over mostly gravel roads that cover 25, 39, 65 and 101 miles.
Flagship events include the Grand Rapids Triathlon that this year attracted nearly 2,500 participants, the Michigan Titanium in Plainfield Township — featuring a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run — and the Dirty Mitten Gravel Triathlon & Bike Race on Sept. 24 and 25 in Middleville.
In the Grand Rapids Fondo, Tris4Health aims to “elevate the cycling experience for athletes, spectators and the community,” said race director and co-owner Jon Conkling.
Conkling and business partner John Mosey acquired Tris4Health in 2019 from Andy and Ann Vidrow, who started the company in 2011 with the Grand Rapids Triathlon. Since 2019, and after navigating through the pandemic, the two have grown Tris4Health from two events — the Grand Rapids Triathlon and the Michigan Titanium — to nine events with the addition of next year’s Grand Rapids Fondo.
Conkling said “we jumped at” the opportunity to take over the Grand Rapids Fondo and add another signature event that draws thousands of people to downtown.
“It kind of expands our potential participation base. We were a triathlon company to start but this year we moved into the cycling realm,” he said. “Having a road event like this, especially right in downtown Grand Rapids, it’s kind of a no-brainer for us. We love putting on these big events. We love the challenge of it, and we have the infrastructure and operations to be able to pull it off.”
Tris4Health generates revenue from entry fees and event sponsorships.
Conkling describes Tris4Health as a “health and wellness company” that organizes events with various levels of participation. The company’s goal is to inspire people to better health and fitness and overcome personal barriers through endurance events.
“The point of our company is basically to show people that exercise barriers they think they have, or any physical barriers that they think they have — that they can’t run, they can’t bike, they can’t swim — really don’t exist. The hard part is just deciding that you’re going to sign up for something, that you’re going to do it, and you’re going to very quickly learn whatever barrier that you think you have or whatever line that you think you can’t get past, you can,” Conkling said.
After expanding to nine events in just a few years, Tris4Health intends to focus over the next year or so on its present portfolio and “making sure that we’re keeping the level of execution and the athlete experience the same, if not better, and really trying to refine the events that we have and keep them growing,” Conkling said.
“A lot of them have the potential to be much larger events than they are now,” he said. “But also we need to stay flexible enough (so) if there are other opportunities that come up that make sense for our company, (we’re) able to seize those and be nimble enough to jump on these great opportunities.”
Organized for years with assistance from the MSU College of Human Medicine, the Grand Fondo was not held this summer because of staff changes that left the medical school unable to continue providing administrative support to the event, Hughes said. Road construction in downtown Grand Rapids that interrupted the traditional start and finish area also contributed to taking a year off, he said.
Rather than undertake the “big, big job” to organize the event alone with MSU’s administrative support, Hughes connected with Tris4Health to take over.
Hughes essentially gave the Grand Rapids Fondo to Tris4Health and remains involved in working with sponsors. Tris4Health now manages planning and logistics — from setting routes and organizing volunteers — to coordinating with sheriff’s offices and police departments in Kent and Ottawa counties and arranging the post-event party that features locally brewed beers.
“The goal (in 2013) was to have it be a signature cycling event in West Michigan, and it’s done that,” Hughes said of the decision to turn over the event. “It was: I need some additional help because I just can’t do everything with our team.”
Under Tris4Health’s management, the Grand Rapids Fondo returns June 24, 2023, “with a vengeance” and as “the same great event,” Hughes said. As well, the Grand Rapids Fondo has a new beneficiary in West Michigan Trails, a nonprofit organization that works to promote development of regional trail systems.
Hughes formed the Gran Fondo after Advantage Benefits Group sponsored a cycling racing team with Mark Bissell of Bissell Inc. He recalls how they went on the road to watch the team “and we’d see these big races downtown where there’s 10 people deep on the sidewalk cheering, supporting the restaurants and stuff.”
From the team sponsorship arose the Herman Miller Brickyard Criterium where cyclists raced through downtown Grand Rapids around the Arena District. They later transitioned to an event beyond a cycling race for a few hundred professional and “hard core” amateur riders, plus spectators, Hughes said.
Out of the Herman Miller Brickyard Criterium spun the MSU Gran Fondo, an event intended to “get a lot more people out on bikes,” and model events that have been popular in Europe for years.