Adventure racing showing signs of fatigue?

Devon O'Neil
Vail Daily file photo/Shane MacomberThe Beaver Creek stop on the Balance Bar Adventure Series, pictured above, is one of a number of adventure races that won't be held this year. This includes the sport's premier race, the Primal Quest.

Adventure racing has long been considered one of the world’s fastest growing sports. This year it’s going in a different direction.In the past week Primal Quest LLC – owner of the sport’s Super Bowl equivalent – announced that event co-founders Dan Barger and Maria Burton are stepping down, and that there will be no Primal Quest this year.The announcement, which had been a rumor in the tight-knit circle of racers since last fall, comes on the heels of a number of other sponsorship troubles that have left the sport’s top level with a fraction of its normal event schedule. In addition to Primal Quest’s cancellation, which was due in part to the loss of Subaru as a title sponsor, Balance Bar has pulled out as title sponsor of the lucrative Balance Bar Adventure Series, which included three 24-hour races – including one at Beaver Creek – and eight sprints; the series was subsequently canceled. As well, the prestigious Mild Seven Outdoor Quest (MSOQ) will not take place, and the Cal-Eco Series, a five-race series in California which Barger also promotes, has been called off.This all comes after the sport’s flagship event for many years, the Eco-Challenge, dissolved in 2002.However they are viewed, the grand-scale schedule modifications beg one question: For a sport that has always existed outside of the mainstream on the so-called “fringe,” are we in danger of seeing it disappear?

Those closest to its roots and current state aren’t worried.”I don’t think it’s in trouble, I just think it’s being reset,” Barger, a former racer-turned organizer, said Thursday in a phone interview from San Jose, Calif.Danelle Ballengee, one of a number of Summit County residents who compete regularly on the premier adventure racing circuit, concurred.”It’s a bummer, but all sports kind of go through these phases where they kind of build up and then go through a down period, a lull,” said Ballengee, who competes on Team Nike ACG-Balance Bar, and is widely regarded as the top female adventure racer in the world.Ballengee, along with teammates Mike Kloser of Vail, Boulder’s Ian Adamson and Idaho resident Michael Tobin, has been a part of the winning team at all three Primal Quests. In 2002, she made nearly $150,000 competing in adventure races.Yet still she is not concerned with the dwindling races and sponsor support.”I’m optimistic it’ll come back,” she said.Kloser agreed, saying, “It’s just one of those years. Kind of a transitional year. I’ve seen it before.”

Loss of richest race hurts mostWhile all of this year’s changes have contributed to the uncertainty surrounding adventure racing’s future, none hit harder than the loss of Primal Quest.The biggest and richest race, offering a $250,000 cash purse, PQ attracted every top team on the planet. It had been held three times before this year’s cancellation – first in Telluride, then Lake Tahoe, and last year in Washington state.However, recurring permitting issues as well as the death of competitor Nigel Aylott in last year’s race shrouded the Primal Quest in a cloud of “what’s next?” For Barger, who would not comment on his reasons for stepping down as chief executive officer and race director, what was next meant pulling back. Still, he said his decision had nothing to do with the death of Aylott, who was killed by a massive boulder dislodged by an opponent in a treacherous rocky ravine during the 400-mile expedition race.According to Gordon Wright, a spokesman for Primal Quest, Ballengee’s hopes that the sponsors and races will return are not unfounded. In a phone interview from San Francisco on Wednesday, Wright said the Primal Quest will resume with a 2006 edition that is tentatively scheduled for spring. In years past it had been held in the fall.”It’s actually just pushed back about six months,” Wright said.

Still, he said there has been no decision made on potential replacements for Barger and Burton, who served as chief operating officer and executive director. Burton was also the principal set of eyes and ears that helped shape the CBS broadcast of last fall’s Primal Quest, a show that, at the time, racers said was critical to the sport’s future.The broadcast portrayed the race well – despite the sponsor withdrawals that followed – and, Wright said, “You don’t want to lose the momentum from that.”Events such as the five-race Raid Series, including the Raid World Championship in Switzerland, and the Southern Traverse in New Zealand will pick up the slack this year left by those which have been canceled. (On the local front, Kloser said Nike and Beaver Creek will sponsor a 6-hour race to fill the void of the lost Balance Bar event.)Yet only one of the remaining marquee events, a Raid race in Bend, Ore., will take place in the U.S. – a fact that could have an effect on the sport’s ability to attract American sponsors.Still, even that doesn’t worry Ballengee. Why?”I guess it’s just the nature of endurance sports,” she said, “where you don’t know what’s going to happen from one year to the next.”Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 231, or, Colorado

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