The annual Tour De Nez bicycle race gets back to its roots
The journey started, like so many good things, with a party. Before there was the bike race Tour de Nez, there was the coffeehouse Deux Gros Nez. The Deux was a local cultural epicenter, a place where Renoites of all ages and persuasions came together to drink coffee or beer, to have lively conversations, or to sit without talking, to praise the food or complain about the service. For 21 years, from 1985 to 2006, the Deux was one of the hippest spots in town: a place to get good grub at nearly any hour, to drink unusual coffee drinks long before the Starbucks invasion, a place to mingle and cajole. Above all, it was a place to hang out.
Back when Reno’s economy was still geared almost exclusively toward tourists, a place for locals to just hang out was unusual. It was like a neighborhood bar, coffee shop and clubhouse all in one—a pub, in the British sense, a place for the parts of life that aren’t work or home.
“It’s a weird, iconic place for a lot of people, a culturally revolutionary place,” says Tim Healion, the Deux’s former proprietor and now the head honcho of Tour De Nez. “It was a place where you could get a good cup of quality coffee at a fair price. It was a place with real food. You could hear the music; it wasn’t just in the background. And we hired people with purple hair.”
The Deux often felt like a party, but the joint’s summer anniversary parties were blow-outs, with mint juleps and live music—huge block parties that took over a chunk of California Avenue. At the seventh anniversary party, in 1992, almost as a lark, just one more fun thing going on in the midst of the mayhem of the shindig, there was a bike race, the first Tour De Nez.
It made sense. The Deux was a bicycle-themed restaurant, the walls were lined with bicycle jerseys and autographed photos of Tour de France winners and other bicycling luminaries. The bike theme was somewhat secondary to the bristling activities, colorful characters, and the food and drink. The theme wasn’t really the first thing anyone ever noticed about the place, but it was an essential ingredient of the Deux’s charming, idiosyncratic recipe. So, of course the anniversary party should include a bike race.
Now, 19 years after the first Tour De Nez, and five years after Deux Gros Nez closed, the Tour De Nez has grown into a major cycling event. It includes amateur races, like kids’ races and the clunker classic—a race of heavy, single-speed bikes—and professional races for men and women that are part of the National Racing Calendar of USA Cycling. For the last few years, the event has occurred over multiple days, in multiple locations, not just in Reno but also Northstar-at-Tahoe, near Truckee, Calif. It has become a serious, nationally respected bike race.
But this year, Healion wants to return the event to its roots—a festive, single-day event in downtown Reno. In other words, he wants to party.
“I took a sunrise ride on Peavine this morning,” said Healion, sipping espresso outside of Bibo Coffee on Record Street on a recent afternoon. “I felt totally free. That’s what a bicycle is—total freedom. … I want to reintroduce the fun of riding bikes. Who didn’t have fun riding bikes as a kid?”
He has the tall, lean build of an avid bicyclist, and the quick, sharp energy of an idea man. He wears wire-framed glasses and keeps his hair long, and has a distinguished, prominent proboscis, one of the titular gros nez. He seems to know everybody in town and has a mind that’s always in motion, exploring future possibilities. In addition to his duties as the executive director of Tour De Nez, he works as a maintenance man for a property management company and counts among his abilities a facility to, as he says, “fix shit.”
He waxed a tad nostalgic about the Deux. “At the time, there was not a lot going on in Reno. … It was the first non-smoking restaurant in Reno, and the first with a recycling program.”
Healion and his business partner, John Jesse, opened the Deux in ’86, and then opened a sister restaurant, The Pneumatic Diner, in ’88. The business partners split amicably in the early ’90s, with Healion taking the Deux and Jesse taking Pneumatic.
“It had just evolved that way,” said Healion.
(Jesse sold Pneumatic a few years later, and the Diner, which is still kicking, has had a long, strange life of its own.)
“I saw myself as a facilitator,” says Healion. The Deux was a place defined by its ever-changing, always-colorful clientele. In addition to many other things, it was a gay hangout, and a place for high school kids looking to cut loose. It was a place the casino showgirls went to after hours, as well as the angsty, horny nerds after Rocky Horror screenings. It’s a place that launched a thousand bands and business startups. There were open mics, rock shows and DJ nights.
“I miss it sometimes,” says Healion. “It was a lot of work. That place just exuded life. It was colorful, and loud, and people from all walks of life hung out there.”
“Tim Healion and Tour de Nez are completely ahead of their time for Reno,” says Tim Conder, co-owner of Bootleg Courier Co., a bicycle messenger service. “Deux Gros Nez was a great cultural meeting place for young people and old people in Reno, and now that that’s gone, Tour De Nez is sort of fulfilling that spot.”
Healion is the director of the Tour De Nez Outreach program, a bicycle advocacy program that’s active year-round. For him, an important feature of the Tour De Nez is that it represents all aspects of cycling, not just street-racing. Just as the Deux was a place where everyone was invited to hang out, the Tour is an event intended for all cyclists. Thus, the kids races for families, and the Clunker Classic for vintage bike geeks, as well as a handcycle race and Tour De N’Ally Cat, a messenger-style urban race, where racers ride to checkpoints and complete tasks, organized by Bootleg.
“This year, we’re going to get a lot more moms and kids and the whole masses involved, instead of just a young group of young men and women riding around doing something crazy,” says Chad Strand of Bootleg. “We really want to get everyone involved. It’s going to be really fun. We’re kind of going to be doing a scavenger hunt-slash-choose-your-adventure enjoyable race that anyone can do. … We’re trying to do, like, weird little riddles. You’ve got to do some thinking on your bike, for sure. It’s not going to be a lot of crazy, fast, hard things to do. It’s going to be more about getting people to check out cool spots around town.”
In the early days of the tour, when it was still just one event among many at the Deux’s annual party, there was live music and bellydancers, and during pit stops, even the pro racers were as likely to be handed a mint julep as a water bottle.
“It started out as a big parking lot party and a Masters race, and people went to party, and before they knew it, they were thrilled about bike racing,” says Noah Silverman of the Reno Bike Project, another bicycle advocacy organization. “I’m sure it turned a huge number of people on to cycling in Reno. …What makes the Tour De Nez so special, and what makes Tim so special, is that he took his two passions, which were cycling and community, and he made them Reno’s passions.”
“Tim has really created something that’s special and specific to Reno,” says Conder. “Tim took something that was a completely original idea of his own and made it a lasting staple for July in Reno. It’s really fun, too.”
“He set a high standard,” says Bubba Melcher, a P.E. teacher at Galena High School, who has won the Masters race the last two years. “And since then, I think there’s been a lot of races that have done the same kinds of things and created that same kind of atmosphere in other cities. Prior to the Tour de Nez, I hadn’t competed in a race with that kind of atmosphere. You’d go to a town, and there’d be some orange pylons set up and a start line, and some racers would show up, and that’d be about the extent of it. You go to the Deux Gros Nez race, and it’s a big party. It’s a huge party, and there’s all sorts of stuff going on. And Tim always took care of the racers. … That was one of the very first races that had a real meat of atmosphere, if you will. … It started as a birthday party for the Deux Gros Nez, and the bicycle race was just an added attraction—that’s how Tim defines it. As a racer, it was one of the hardest races you’d ever do.”
The difficulty of the course and Reno’s high, dry climate made the Tour De Nez an attraction for racers looking for a challenge. As the event grew, it evolved into a serious bike race. In the past few years, the emphasis has been on time trials, not good times
“It got away from its roots,” says Healion. “The party thing got lost.”
“Tim always tried to keep the spirit of it that way, but I think a lot of that went away when the Deux Gros Nez went away,” says Silverman. “I think Tim’s always remained true to it, but … it getting as big as it did, it ceased to be kind of a cool local thing, and it got a little bigger than the Deux Gros Nez. … The heart of that bike race was really the Deux Gros Nez, so once they got a little bigger than that, it was hard to keep the party going.”
But this year, Healion wants to bring the event back to its roots.
“It was a party first, and that aspect is coming back,” he says.
The event this year will feature food and drink, DJs, live music including Keyser Soze, and hula hoopers at the finish line. There’s also PopArtCycle, an Artown tie-in featuring a parade of funky decorated bikes. But the biggest thing that brings this Tour De Nez back to its roots is that the races are all on one day, Sunday, July 31, and concentrated on one location, Wingfield Park.
“I’m so excited to be back in downtown Reno on a weekend day,” says Healion. “That hasn’t happened since 2007.”
Perhaps what’s most remarkable is that, in addition to being an official part of USA Cycling’s annual calendar, the Tour De Nez is just one part of Reno’s annual bicycling calendar. It’s sort of amazing that Reno even has an annual bicycling calendar. That calendar is especially packed at the peak of summer, with Bootleg’s Forage: A Roaming Gallery on July 23, then Reno Bike Project’s Hot August Bikes Show and Shine on Aug. 4 at the Nevada Museum of Art, and HAB Group Ride on Aug. 12.
Bicycling is bigger than ever in Reno.
“Now you see girls in dresses riding bikes to bars!” says Healion.
There are bike couriers riding fixed-gear bikes around town, bicycle pedicabs hauling around tourists, roving squads on chrome lowriders or joust-worthy tall bikes, Burners testing out their fuzzy, flashing-light-covered playa bikes, BMX-ers and mountain bikers traipsing around the hills surrounding the valley, and riding to work and school, bicycle commuters of all stripes—the gas-saving, the health-conscious, and the DUI-enforced.
There weren’t that many bicyclists on the road in ’85, when Deux Gros Nez opened, nor in ’92, when the first Tour De Nez happened. As Silverman says, “When no one else was thinking about bicycling in Reno, Tim Healion was all about it.”