Tour de Parks – How did it all begin?

Sarasota County volunteer reporter Gary Reinmuth spoke to Joel and Sarah Calabrese about how the popular event started.

March 2018

An estimated 750-plus enthusiasts from 16 states and more than 20 Florida cities are ready to spin into action. More than 100 dedicated volunteers are geared up to provide them with enough food and drink to keep them going (20 miles), going (35 miles) — or going some more if they want to (62 miles).

This Sunday the annual Tour de Parks bicycle ride returns to the Legacy Trail and numerous Sarasota County parks. Proving that, sometimes, one small idea can grow into a really huge deal.

With or without good beer. More on that later.

How the Tour de Parks became a success is a story of one man’s inspiration and how a passionate local community of cyclists has carried it to the top of every dedicated Southwest Florida biker’s spring agenda.

Suffice it to say this area owes a lot to former San Mateo, CA residents Joel Calabrese, 67, and his wife Sarah, 55, whose decision to buy a house in South Venice 12 years ago, a quarter mile
from the Venetian Waterway Park trail, set a lot of things in motion, especially Joel and Sarah.

“I didn’t really get into a lot of road biking till we got here in 2006,” says Joel. “Prior to that it was just occasional stuff.”

“You can’t really bike in San Mateo,” adds Sarah. “They do, but there is lots of traffic—and hills.”

Their first Tour de Parks was in 2010. Not everyone was in love with Joel’s idea at first sight.

“In 2009 I was on the board of Sarasota County Parks,” he explains. “And the head of that organization was trying to organize some fundraisers and I proposed we do a bike ride because that was the only way I knew to raise funds. Sarah and I had been on a few rides—Bike Florida and Sharky’s Ride (in Venice)—so we were familiar with them and I thought we could organize our own. And they said ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea,’ but then they said ‘no.’”

Sarah: “They we’re going to have a bank donate a motorcycle and auction it off or something, but I don’t think anything happened with the motorcycle.”

Joel decided to try again.

Joel: “I took the idea to Mike Gippert, a good friend of ours, who was on the board of the Friends of Legacy Trail. I was on that board as well, and that’s why it’s named the Tour de Parks because originally it was going to be a fundraiser for Friends of Sarasota County Parks. Wha twe tried to do was put it in a lot of parks so people could see them as they rode through.”

Despite all the planning that went into the initial Tour, Joel was stunned by its success—at first.

“I thought we would be truly lucky to get 50 riders that first year,” he says. “But once I saw the turnout I knew we had a winner. We had 330 paid riders and our net revenue was $9,324, which was far beyond our wildest dreams.”

The basic elements of that first event remain in place despite some recent route tweaks by the Sarasota-Manatee Bicycle Club.

“I thought Joel did a great route,” Sarah says. “And we had a really great lunch that first year. We got this Italian restaurant that was fantastic. Big, big portions. And we also got First Watch to donate the breakfast and they’ve done it ever since and have been really nice, really cooperative.”

When the ride was over (not before, as the legend goes) Sarah proposed that the money they had raised be spent on a four-wheeled Surrey bike, which has been used ever since to help the
mobility-challenged get a ride on the trail from volunteers. In recent years, Tour de Parks money has gone for a feasibility study that will soon lead to the extension of the Legacy Trail to Ashton Road in Sarasota. The Trail could eventually be extended to Payne Park in downtown Sarasota if voters approve a $65 million bond referendum in November.

Back in 2010, though, all Joel and Sarah were looking for was a way to show the bikers of this area a good time.

“Joel has this saying about what makes a good bike tour and he really focused on that the first year,” says Sarah.

“What you want is a good ride—a good route to ride—a good lunch and I think the third thing was a good beer with your buddies to talk about the ride,” Joel says. “So, and I don’t know if you want to put this in, but we got two guys to donate a keg.”
“We found out later,” says Sarah, “that you were supposed to get permission.”
Joel: “But we never really bothered to get it.”

Post-ride beer isn’t on the menu anymore but one thing is certain: Everyone registered for Sunday’s event is glad the Calabreses bothered enough to start a ride they still call the Tour de Parks.