“Road is dead.”
So goes the morose refrain from local coffee shops to pro team board meetings, all across the United States. People say it with the weighty resignation normally reserved for taxes, or political defeats, or the extinction of the northern white rhinoceros. Regrettable, tragic, but what could we do?
The helpless shrug is amplified by the cycling media up and down the line into a shrill cry of righteous indignation. “Look at all our poor pro riders,” they wail, “scrambling to find rides and jobs after their title sponsors left!” The underlying narrative seems to be that the cycling world has failed to care for their heroes; abdicated their responsibility to provide them with the bikes and kits and team cars and salaries they need to go compete on the World Tour.
All of this, of course, is patently absurd at all levels. Road isn’t dead. There are still bicycles, and America isn’t short on asphalt, last I checked. Dozens of national and local studies have found huge increases in cycling activity of all types. But as long as we fail to face the nature of the reality we inhabit as cyclists, racers, and fans, we’ll continue to witness the decline of American bicycle racing, particularly on pavement.
Reality #1: Cycling is a niche sport.
Let’s start by acknowledging that the primary driver for anyone to be interested in bike racing is that they do it themselves. America has a tragic and catastrophic addiction to lethargy, which means we prefer to watch our sports on television, not participate in them ourselves. And with the exception of downhill mountain biking and possibly cyclocross, cycling makes for garbage television to the casual viewer. Compared to NASCAR, or the UFC or NFL, or a presidential election cycle, it’s slow, confusing, boring, and possibly offensive to our concepts of masculinity.
If people mostly don’t do it and aren’t excited by watching it, that means networks won’t show it, and advertisers won’t support it. Ours is a niche sport, and is unlikely to be considered otherwise in the foreseeable future by the general population.
Being a niche sport has consequences beyond the financial. Kids don’t grow up with heroes clad in lycra; their idols wear LeBrons or football pads. They won’t ask for a new bike for Christmas, but a new baseball bat instead (or more likely, a new iPhone). What percentage of American kids have ever even seen a bike with skinny tires and drop bars? We might as well expect them to be enthusiastic about sepak takraw (Google it; I’ll see you in an hour).
When the parents don’t do it and the kids don’t know to ask for it, there’s no demand for junior leagues. No junior leagues means no development, and an almost imperceptible percentage of the total athletic talent of our nation going into the sport. Which leads me to the next hard truth.
Reality #2: American racers are (mostly) not that good.
Here’s the part where the comment section explodes with “what abouts.” Yes, I know about Aaron Gwin, and Katie Compton, and the smattering of other bright spots of American presence on World-level podiums. But in terms of American interest, they are on the fringe of a fringe. The approximately seventeen minutes that America was interested in cycling occurred during the dominance of a certain mono-testicular Texan at a quite popular race in France.
Since that star went supernova, no American has had a whiff of a podium in a race that anybody outside of our sport has heard of. For that matter, they’re barely even being invited any more. Last year, only five US men raced in the Tour de France. The year before, it was only three. Lawson Craddock’s gritty and inspiring last-place finish at the 2018 Tour notwithstanding, Americans aren’t exactly making the headlines at the top levels of road racing.
There are a lot of excuses to make for this reality, but none of them will make the truth less truthy. In order for the long shot of top-down growth and legitimization to work toward making our niche sport more popular, we need Americans shattering records and on the front page of mainstream news sites. That doesn’t happen without Armstrong-esque talent, charisma, and results, and we just don’t have them right now.
Reality #3: Racing is expensive.
There is an old joke: How do you make a million dollars in racing? Start with two million.
Bike racing, like most other sports, is becoming more expensive by the day. Equipment, nutrition, permits, police presence, logistics, insurance, media coverage, advertising, and the rest all continue to rise in cost for riders, teams, and organizers alike. There just aren’t enough dollars to go around. Most race directors I know make little to no money on their events, and rely almost entirely on volunteer labor to pull it off, year after year. They work themselves to the bone until they just can’t take it anymore, then sell the race (or series) or scuttle it altogether.
Riders and organizers alike beg, borrow, or steal to get what they need. When they don’t, their events do without, quality suffers, and attendance declines. We have become particularly good at robbing Peter to pay Paul, relying on bike-industry sponsorships to subsidize bike racing, which just drives up equipment costs for everybody even further.
In a sport that has a traditionally high financial barrier to entry and razor thin margins, many races and teams have been shuttered over dollar amounts that would be trivial in a more mainstream sport. The high school marching band down the road from me has a tractor-trailer and a tour bus. By contrast, some of the most elite riders in the country drive themselves and their ten-thousand-dollar bikes to their races in rented vans.
Reality #4: Recreational competition is fierce.
I don’t mean the savage final sprint at your local 1/2/3 crit last summer. The recreational fitness landscape has never been more crowded. Marathon organizers are struggling with the same reality, as attendance at their events has declined precipitously over the past several years. The best events have adapted and innovated to stop the bleeding; others seem content to shrink, or stagger toward the grave.
Part of the reason for declining participation, of course, is that America keeps getting fatter. But there are also many more things for the few remaining fit people to do. There are obstacle course races, and CrossFit, and competitive kickball leagues, and frisbee golf in every major city. On a given weekend, the prototypical weekend warrior might have a couple dozen different events to choose from, assuming they aren’t carting their kids to lacrosse, or taekwondo, or a Pokemon tournament (no really, that’s a thing).
Even assuming somebody has a bike, and some fitness, and the desire to compete, cycling doesn’t traditionally provide a lot of value for the recreational dollar, and Americans love few things better than a bargain. For $35, Jane Athlete can sign up for a local charity 5k/10k, show up in $40 shoes, and run her brains out against a mass of people that probably includes a few her own age and shape. Then she can hang out for her free beer, in her free t-shirt, with her finishers’ medal, and watch her kids play in the bouncy house while she listens to the live band cover Don’t Stop Believin’.
What would motivate the casual competitor to invest a couple grand on a bike and gear and train for months, only to have to spend $80 on a USAC license (that inexplicably expires at the end of December, instead of a year after purchase), then another $50 on registration, just to get dropped or crashed into seven minutes after their race started (because #cat5problems), and then pack up and go home because there’s nothing to do after the race? I wrapped myself in spandex for this?
Reality #5: Whining won’t help.
Desperation and failure have a particular odor that can be detected from miles away. That smell drives off interest faster than a teenager’s armpits. While addressing the challenges faced by our sport, it might be prudent to consider the image we’re creating for our sport. At the risk of being insensitive, stories about the personal crises of people who get paid to ride bicycles suddenly not getting paid to ride bicycles don’t exactly resonate with the general public, or indeed the vast majority of the cycling public.
“11-year professional bicycle rider becomes unemployed, goes on 10-day dream backpacking trip to find self” is not exactly a sympathetic narrative in an economy that seems to lurch from recession to recession.
Whatever we might think about the relative merits of talented cyclists versus talented people who can hit balls with sticks, the current market says that the latter is valued and the former is not. The reality is that your ability to create monetizable value is what determines if your chosen path is a viable profession, not your particular talent (I should know, I’m a writer).
While I understand and appreciate the kind of hard work and sacrifice it takes to reach the pinnacle of any pursuit, especially one as time-consuming as cycling, it just isn’t enough. You also have to create value for race promoters, sponsors, and yes, the fans.
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