It was a midsummer early evening last July when about a dozen cyclists gathered alongside the Guilford Green, the designated meeting place for the weekly Tuesday Night Ride. A few guys from Madison, a couple from Branford, one from Clinton, and several Guilfordites fist-bumped, chitchatted, sipped from water bottles, then clicked into their pedals, revved up and ready for another spin on Route 146 out to Pine Orchard and back, about a 20-mile round-trip.
Leading the pack of middle-agers, at a speedy pace right out of the gate, was the oldest of them. “That’s my home course and one of my favorite routes,” declares 68-year-old Paul Rogen, who regularly relishes that jaunt from his nearby home on Dunk Rock Road. That’s saying a lot for a guy whose current livelihood, as the co-owner of Thomson Bike Tours, finds him riding some of the most beautiful, and challenging, roads in the cycling world.
The road that brought the principled son of a preacher man from the Upper Midwest to Coastal Connecticut 25 years ago is a circuitous one, paved all along, though, with bike riding. Born in Wisconsin in 1945, he moved several times, picking up whenever his father, a socially conscious Lutheran minister, heeded the call to minister another flock. The second of four Rogen offspring, he spent his Wonder Years, 8–16, in Anaconda, a rugged mining town in southwestern Montana. “We used to ride our bikes down to the mine’s sump pits to swim,” he recalls, wincing still at the thought of what toxins he and his pals might have been frolicking in.
Rogen graduated from Augustana College, a small Lutheran school in Illinois, and ventured east to earn a master’s degree in History at the University of New Hampshire. “Then I was drafted,” he says, citing the plight of many first-wave baby boomers born soon after the end of World War II. A pacifist by nature and nurture, he exhausted his deferments and registered with Uncle Sam as a conscientious objector (CO), which kept him out of the Army but still required two years of community service. Rogen relocated once again, this time to California, fulfilling his CO hitch while studying Education at the University of California, Berkeley.
“I spent almost 20 years in the Bay Area,” Rogen says. That’s where he met his wife, Linda, where their two sons and daughter were born, where he wasn’t far from skiing and hiking in the Sierra Nevadas, and where Rogen rekindled his love of cycling. “For a while I didn’t have a car, and I liked commuting around town. I’d ride 20 miles to a friend’s house. They thought I was crazy, but it was nothing.”
Rogen eventually bought a car and drove to and from his job as a distribution manager for a French eyewear company, which transferred him to Guilford in 1988. By then, between work and raising kids, he wasn’t cycling much. “After we moved, I missed California,” he muses, “the weather, our friends, the outdoors. I fell into a depression, thinking, ‘Did I make a mistake?’”
He found the answer after deciding to get back on the bike. “Cycling really saved my butt,” Rogen says, admitting that the healthy serenity he experienced while exploring the back roads and small towns on a two-wheeler lifted his malaise. “Cycling was a way forward and a way out. It really started making sense.” Turning the pedals made even more sense after he hired Peter Thomson, an IT specialist from Scotland who also happened to be a fanatic and accomplished cyclist who’d raced throughout Europe with Bernard Hinault, a five-time winner of the Tour de France. “I started riding with Peter and learning from him, doing longer and faster rides,” Rogen says. “Cycling took over, and that led me to buy my first ‘real’ bike, a thousand-dollar Trek.”
Rogen also started riding with some of his neighbors, who before long dubbed themselves the Dunk Rock Roadies. They’d meet fellow enthusiasts on their group rides or at Zane’s Cycles, where everyone ogled lighter, faster, more expensive bikes and chattered about the burgeoning sport, largely spurred by the heroic emergence of Lance Armstrong, who won the first of a record seven consecutive Tour de France races in 1999 (all stripped from him in 2012 for doping). That enticed the Dunk Rock Roadies to embark on a cycling trip to the Tour in 2002, recruiting Thomson as their knowledgeable leader and guide. So familiar with the event and its routes, he knew the best places to watch the racers—especially Lance—and led them on their own grueling rides along the same roads. “You’re so great at this, Peter, you should do this for a living,” Rogen remembers jokingly telling him.
A year later, the joking turned serious, and the two launched Thomson Bike Tours, promoting themselves as expert guides to the Tour de France. “We bought a teeny ad in the back of Bicycling magazine and set up a website,” Rogen says. With Lance fever burning bright, they had no trouble finding enough avid cyclists, domestic and foreign, to evolve their fledgling business into a thriving enterprise. “We went just to the Tour de France for three years, then started organizing other trips.”
Thomson has since become an official Tour provider, paying annual licensing fees that allows them preferred access to prime race-viewing venues and riding routes, including majestic, thigh-burning rides up and down the Alps and Pyrenees. “Last year was the 100th anniversary of the Tour, and we brought our largest group ever, more than 150 riders,” Rogen says.
He counts that momentous occasion among his favorite of dozens of Thomson sojourns, which numbered more than 40 last year, including several invitation-only VIP trips. Besides the Tour de France, Thomson is an official tour operator for Italy’s counterpart, the Giro d’Italia, and Spain’s Vuelta a España. From May to September, Thomson also takes cyclists on so-called Trans Challenges, featuring average daily rides of 60 to 80 miles and a total elevation gain of over 50,000 feet, in the Pyrenees, the Dolomites, the Austrian Alps, and the Swiss Alps. The company recently added a winter training camp in the Canary Islands, a January trip to Australia’s Tour Down Under, and an excursion in September to Hokkaido, Japan.
The core of Thomson Bike Tours remains the cofounders, plus Eric de Saint Maurice, a French tour leader based in Paris, and Marketing Manager Kate Veronneau, who also races professionally from her home in Pennsylvania. “The key to the company’s success, though, is Peter,” Rogen states. “He’s got an almost cult personality with riders on the trips. Plus, he has a panache on the bike and a banter and people skills that everyone appreciates.” No wonder that more than 40 percent of their clientele, mostly ages 45–60 and all of them serious riders, are repeat customers, ponying up thousands of dollars for the experience. “That’s a testament to Peter’s attention to detail, quality and challenge.”
Rogen doesn’t ride as much as he used to, tapering down to about 4,000 miles a year from 6,000. And he’s always upgrading to a better bike, currently a top-of-the-line, all-carbon Orbea. His fellow Dunk Rock Roadies don’t get out there as often, either, but still socialize regularly and chatter about cycling.
“I sure hope so,” Rogen says when asked if he’ll still be riding, along the coast of Connecticut and the mountains of Europe, when he’s 78, “even if I’m on a tricycle.”