The 2018 Intelligentsia Cup powered by SRAM: An Interview with Executive Director Marco Colbert

For the last seven years, the Intelligentsia Cup powered by SRAM series has been offering high level competition to Pro-Am  road racers in and around Chicago. The series draws road cyclists from far and wide, with this year’s event welcoming riders from all over the United States and from 12 countries.

At BikeReg, we’re always trying to get the details about how successful events are started, managed, and run year after year — so we can put this information into the hands of other event directors that may find it useful.

To learn more about the series, and to get some real, inside information for all of you, we reached out to Marco Colbert, the executive director/co-owner of the Intelligentsia Cup.

Intelligentsia Cup – William Blair Grand Prix // photo: Ethan Glading
Can you tell us a little bit about the Intelligentsia Cup?

MC: The Intelligentsia Cup powered by SRAM is a bicycle road racing series. Next year will be our 8th year. We’re a series of road races in and around Chicago — ten consecutive days in the last two weeks of July. This year we had seven criteriums and three road races. We attract riders from all over the Chicago area, all over the Midwest and from across the nation and around the world. We had riders this year from 38 states and at least 12 foreign countries. We had another good year. We are the second largest road series in the country based on the number of entries.


How many entries do you typically get in a given year?

MC: Around 5000-ish; that’s been fairly consistent in the last couple of years. We’re a Pro-Am series and each day we have approximately ten or eleven bike race categories, men and women, pros and amateurs, also divided by age groups. We divide our masters at 35 years old. Not everyone does that; but for us, masters starts at 35+. We also have a really good  race for the masters 50+ and 60+ racers, presented by Team MACK. It’s gotten to be quite popular on a national level, I think.


How long have you been with the Intelligentsia Cup?

MC: Since the beginning. I’m one of the co-founders of the Intelligentsia Cup with my partner Tom Schuler. We are the owners. Tom, by the way, is just getting inducted in the next few weeks into the Wisconsin Bicycle Hall of Fame, and he’s already in the U.S. Bicycle Hall of Fame, so now it’s a two-fer for him. We founded the Intelligentsia Cup back in 2012.


What inspired you to start the Intelligentsia Cup?

MC: I was in management with a couple of men’s pro cycling teams back in 2005, 2007 to 2009, and that’s what got me interested in competitive cycling at the pro level. Also, I was doing a little bit of amateur racing, first on a mountain bike and then on a road bike back then. I was very low level but I enjoyed it a lot. Around 2009/2010 I was helping some of my buddies who were promoting bike races like the Glencoe Grand Prix and the Evanston Grand Prix. I watched them, and in 2011 I said, “Well, I think I need to promote a bike race.”  

I decided I was going to promote a bike race in Lake County Illinois where I live, which is north of Chicago. So I looked around, and just by serendipity, the Village of Lake Bluff, Illinois wanted to do a bike race. I went out and found some sponsors and I did my first bike race as a promoter there in 2012. Then right after that I was approached by Tom and some guys from Wisconsin, and they said, “Let’s do a bike race series in the Chicago metro area.” And that’s how the Intelligentsia Cup started.


What is your role in putting on this event?

MC: My title is executive director and also race director of the series, but my specialty is all the paperwork that’s required throughout the year. This is a 12-month process to get the Intelligentsia Cup off the ground. We’re well into planning for next year. We’ve been meeting with all of our venues and some of our bigger sponsors already, and we’re looking forward to having another great year in 2019 next July.

Intelligentsia Cup – Elmhurst Cycling Classic // photo: Ethan Glading
What was your overall goal this year for the event? How do you measure success?

MC: First of all, we want to have a great bike racing experience for all of our riders. I’m pretty pleased with where we are in that respect, I think. We get a lot of positive feedback from our racers; they like our race courses. We have a lot of variety and challenge in our race courses. Our crit courses, almost all of them, are very interesting courses. So, rider satisfaction is one measure.

We go into various communities, whether it’s neighborhoods in Chicago or whether it’s communities in the suburbs around Chicago, and I want those communities to have a nice summer  event. Ultimately, the localities where our venues are have to be satisfied with what we’re doing or it won’t work out in the long run. We want to have a good family-friendly community event in each of these places that’s popular and has longevity. Our goal is to go into a place and be there for a while. The ultimate goal is to create a legacy series of quality bike racing in the Chicago metro area that will outlast me and Tom.


How many people, both staff and volunteers, does it take to coordinate a big event like this with so many moving pieces?

MC: Right now, in our offseason, it’s primarily me and Tom and our marketing director Mark Zalewski. We’re doing the heavy lifting by talking to sponsors, getting more sponsors, and talking to our venues. So, it’s just the three of us really, working hard during the off-season. But then you can’t forget that our venues are busy, too.. All of our venues have people involved — what we call the LOCs — the local organizing committees, and they’re also doing their thing to get local permits,  or go to the local Board of Trustees, or find their local sponsors. So those guys are working independently of us, and then we all come together in the spring to put on the bike race.

When the bike race actually happens, our staff balloons up to about 25 people, and this consists of a crew that sets up each venue, sets up the race events and all the other infrastructure. We have a registration crew, which is very important. We have a stage crew. We have two awesome announcers — Todd Busteed and Brad Sohner — who have been with us since the beginning. They bring so much life and and vitality to the event.  We’re like the circus, really. We move from place to place each day, go in early in the morning, set up shop, have a great bike race, tear it down, sleep for like 5 hours and then do it again the next day for ten consecutive days in the second half of July.


How do you ensure that you have enough staff and volunteers, and coordinate them for each race?

MC: For any kind of event of this nature — a running event, a triathlon, a marathon, whatever — you need a lot of volunteers. You need them primarily, in the case of a bike race, to act as course marshals for safety reasons. They make sure that the spectators and the bike racers are not running into each other. The local organizing committee is, for the most part, obtaining those volunteers. It’s one of the most important things that the local organizing committees do, is get a sufficient number of volunteers to staff the positions that are necessary throughout the race day.


We’ve been doing this now for seven years, with eight to ten venues each year, so we’ve done a lot of races, and we definitely know what we’re doing and how to do it. We have competent folks who have done it before. We have stage managers. We have registration managers. You’ve got me and Tom to just sort of keep an eye on things, and then you’ve got Mark managing the PR and the social media. Social media is of course big these days, and we do our best to get information out in real-time via Twitter, Instagram and stuff like that. So there’s really a lot of moving pieces to this thing.

You mentioned Social Media. Do you have a specific strategy around that? Is it different for Instagram vs. Twitter? How do you run that throughout the year?

MC: Now I’m going to be embarrassed! I’m not very well-versed in social media — that’s why we have Mark Zalewski doing all that stuff. We have a presence on all of the platforms that you mentioned. This year, and last year too, Mark hired a couple of interns to be present at the bike races, sending out posts continuously about what’s going on in the races, and I know that it’s appreciated by the folks who follow that. We got lots of positive feedback on our Instagram posts this year.  I should mention we have a great professional photographer, Ethan Glading, who’s been with us now for a while, and he takes those photos that you see in our posts and on our website. He’s another important member of our team.

Intelligentsia Cup – William Blair Grand Prix // photo: Ethan Glading
What is the hardest part of running the event?

MC: Getting sponsors. Getting sponsors is the hardest part. Bike racing in America, and a lot of other places, is paid for largely by sponsorship. It’s a challenge because you always have to be on the lookout for new sponsors, and once you get a sponsor, you have to take care of them and make sure that you’re delivering to them what they want, what they expect. So that’s the hardest thing.   Pro cycling teams face this issue, too.


After the event is over, do you give yourself and your staff some downtime, or do you start preparing for next year’s event right away? What are the first things you do?

MC: In some ways, you’re already preparing for next year before this year is over. You’re always looking for sponsors for next year, grooming sponsors for next year, and that’s even going on before the current season is over with. We’re also always on the lookout for new venues. We’re a ten-day series, and generally speaking, our venues are pretty stable from year to year.   But every now and then, for various reasons, a venue will drop out. One of our road racing venues from last year dropped out simply because they elected a new mayor in that town. The previous mayor was very favorable to cycling events and the new mayor wasn’t, and that’s all it took for us to lose that venue. So we had to go find a new venue, which we did. We got a better venue than we had before, so that worked out okay.


How do you build on each event, year after year, to make them as successful as possible?

MC: That’s an important point. You always want to try to do better, and bring new amenities to your riders.  You want your riders to have a good experience. You want them to have fun while they’re there, and then think about it favorably after they’ve gone home. So that is a challenge. In one of our venues for instance, we brought in a bicycle stunt rider, the Chris Clark Bicycle Stunt Show, and he did a great job of entertaining the kids and the adults, too. Whenever you can bring in something new and fresh to a venue, that’s very much appreciated. But I guess we’re trying to do quality bike races for the riders and to keep up a high standard of quality. We think the quality of what we do is pretty good, and we think that our riders appreciate that. To those who say that road racing is not thriving – I beg to differ!  It is thriving at the Intelligentsia Cup p/b SRAM in Chicago!


What were some of your big takeaways from this year’s event?

MC: I continue to be impressed by the passion that our riders have for racing their bicycles.  The level of competition – the zeal for competition – that we see at the Intelligentsia Cup is really amazing – and it doesn’t matter whether you are a pro level rider or a Cat 5.  Every year before the series begins I will get several calls or emails from individuals who say, “I’ve never done a bike race before but I’d like to try it.” I really try to encourage these folks to give it a try but also try to be honest with them that this is not an easy sport.  Our riders take their racing very seriously and I’m glad that we can offer them a forum to do their best.

Intelligentsia Cup – Lake Bluff Criterium // photo: Ethan Glading
What is your favorite part of all of the days of racing?

MC: A lot of our venues will put on a local event. Frequently it’s a kid’s race, or a family ride. Sometimes, those kids races, little kids, 3, 4, 5 year olds riding their strider bikes or riding their tricycles and bikes with training wheels, often that’s my favorite part, watching those little kids, and it’s a crowd favorite. We’ve done hand-cycling races for the last couple of years and that’s pretty inspirational. Sometimes it will be veterans or others who really want a chance to get out there and compete their brains out, and they do. We’ve worked with Fixation Bicycles up in Milwaukee the last several years, and we’ve done what we call the Fixation Open, which is a fixed gear race. That’s been fun.


Do you have any advice for event directors, or for anyone looking to put on a cycling event?

MC: I work with an organization — it’s not well known yet, but it’s called the National Association of Professional Race Directors (NAPRD) — which consists of promoters of most of the national-level  cycling events in the Us, including events that are on the PRT and a few others. We talk a lot with each other and ask ourselves that exact question over and over! But it’s a good resource for new promoters. Finding a date on the calendar is darn hard!  In North America, there aren’t enough weekends for all the events that would like to do a bike race and so conflicts develop. But besides that, if you want to do a bike race get yourself a good sponsor, and get yourself a venue that wants to do it. I’ll emphasize that your venue needs to want to have a bike race in town – if they are ambivalent it probably won’t work out in the long run. But once you’ve found a great venue and a good sponsor, you can do a bike race! Takes a lot of work, and don’t get into this business if you think you’re going to make a lot of money.


Is there anything else you’d like to add?

MC: We’ve developed an interesting relationship with this team in New York City called To Be Determined. They’re an amatuer team — they’ve come out now for the last couple of years, and they write great blogs about their experiences. They’ve written a lot of interesting things about our series, so if you want to learn more I suggest you go look up To Be Determined and see what they have to say about the Intelligentsia Cup powered by SRAM. I would also be remiss if I didn’t give a big thank you to our title sponsor, Intelligentsia Coffee. Without them, none of this would be possible, and they’ve been a strong supporter of ours since the beginning. They make great coffee. So, Intelligentsia Coffee — go buy some.

// photo: Ethan Glading