TOSRV: The other bike ride

Jeff Long
TOSRV ride in 2015

No, Pelotonia didn't kill TOSRV. The Tour of the Scioto River Valley will roll from Columbus to Portsmouth and back for the 56th time in May, with more than 1,000 riders wheeling their way through the hills of Southeast Ohio. But the days when TOSRV (pronounced “tah-serve”) was the dominant cycling event in Central Ohio—when 6,000 or more riders crammed Downtown for the tour's start at the Statehouse—are gone. And they're not coming back.

As Pelotonia has seemingly sucked all the air out of other cycling events into its own ever-expanding balloon—more than 7,000 riders participated in Pelotonia last year—it's easy to assume the massive publicity the colossal charity ride gets every year has been the death knell for venerable TOSRV, which managed 1,281 riders in 2016. But Pelotonia wasn't the sole agent behind TOSRV's decline.

As TOSRV veteran Bob Geoghegan—he rode the tour for 20 years—says, “TOSRV was hurting long before Pelotonia came along.” The culprits? Age, weather and motherly love.

TOSRV started in 1962, when Charles Siple and his son took a two-day ride to Portsmouth and back, mapping a route that skirted the steepest hills and worst obstacles on the 210-mile course. Within a few years, it became a Mother's Day tradition, at first just a group of friends out for a weekend hoot, growing over the next two decades to become one of the Midwest's premier cycling events, one with an alternative vibe: riders in gorilla suits, beer bashes overnight in Portsmouth.

“We were the ComFest of bike rides,” says Lisa Daris, in her first year as TOSRV director. By the late '80s and early '90s, TOSRV regularly attracted upwards of 6,000 riders (1989's 6,650 was the peak). But ridership dropped steadily afterward, to around 3,500 by 2000 and 2,500 by 2010; last year's 1,281 looked meager indeed. What happened?

“The TOSRV crowd's getting old. They didn't replenish their ranks,” says Geoghegan, 60. “Younger people just don't do that kind of stuff anymore. I have three kids in their 20s, and they are all bicyclists, but they don't do those kind of rides.” TOSRV isn't immune to the generation gap, says Jerry Capehart, president of TOSRV organizer Columbus Outdoor Pursuits: “Every kind of tour director from every kind of tour—even overseas—[is] seeing the same thing.” Younger riders “just want to do one-off rides. You're done in just a couple hours.”

Westerville Bicycle Club president Rich Heitman will do TOSRV again this year but points to what he calls “problematic” issues: the Mother's Day conflict, the Statehouse start/finish forces out-of-town riders to stay in expensive Downtown hotels, and May presents weather troubles the Pelotonia in August lacks.

Toward that end, TOSRV has bucked its 50 years of Mother's Day tradition to move to the following weekend this year (May 20–21) and the start has been moved to Grove City—less congestion and cheaper lodgings. Daris says, “We did a rider survey, and more than 400 people responded. We made a lot of changes.” Early registration is up over last year, she says.

But there's still the elephant in the room. “In general, I think Pelotonia has affected all the biking events in Central Ohio,” Heitman says. Pelotonia's perks—“beer, food, parties,” Geoghegan says—can be decisive. “If someone says to themselves, ‘I'm gonna blow one weekend on a big-ass bike ride,' well …”