American Bike Racing: Where’s it Going?
During the pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of bike racing. What we’ve seen over the past year is that only the highest level of racing (UCI World Tour, Elite European Cyclocross, a few other top European races) have continued. The rest of the sport, around the world, has been completely shut down for what looks like about a year and a half. The comparison would be if basketball only happened at the NBA level in the USA. And that all other versions of the sport (high school, NCAA, European & Asian leagues) went dark for two seasons.
Despite this interruption and all of the changes that will come of it, I’m very optimistic about the future of competitive cycling in the United States. And not only because of the unprecedented bike boom that has put more people than ever on bicycles. If one looks past the decline in traditional road racing, there are a lot of very exciting developments going on.
If you look at the big picture, there’s actually more competitive cycling happening in the US than ever before. While I’m skipping over MTB and cyclocross (I don’t have enough experience in either to have an opinion), here’s where I think we’re going:
Traditional Road Racing: It will continue to shrink in the US.
- There is no business model to support expensive, operationally complicated events with very few participants. A couple hundred racers paying a modest entry fee cannot support all the police, equipment and logistics required for a road or stage race.
- There is not enough participant density to support road racing in the US. The country is too big, and people have to travel too far for each event. Former European pro and Olympic medalist Roy Knickman, who runs the successful Lux Junior Team, explained it to me this way: “If you’re a 17 year old in Belgium, there are five different stage races every weekend within a 3-hour drive. And those are just races for juniors. Here in the US we have to fly all over the country to find one of those per month.” It’s no surprise Lux is now setting up a permanent base of operations for American juniors in Europe.
- Masters racers like me, formerly a key customer of road races, are increasingly choosing gravel events due to the inclusion, safety, fun and community that are lacking in traditional road events.
- I recently saw a tweet by former World Tour pro, now gravel racer, Pete Stetina. He was sharing a new gravel event that was coming this year in Utah. I’ve seen many, many such announcements over the last year for gravel races. Then I tried to think of the last time I heard an announcement about a new road race, which was in October, 2019 when the new pro race in Baltimore was unveiled. I’ve not heard of any other new American road events since then.
- Young cyclists who do want to make it to the big leagues will need to get over to Europe as soon as they’re done with high school. You see this same phenomenon happening in soccer: the really talented young Americans — Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Josh Sargent — all moved to Europe as teenagers. Here in LA I’ve recently met some young American pro cyclists who are here training: Simon Jones & Sam Janisch (Axeon Cycling), Finn Gullickson (Sojasun Espoir) and Henry Lutz (UC Cholet). They all told me, “I’m moving to Europe and going for it.” Even before the pandemic, there weren’t many opportunities to build a pro cycling career domestically. Unless you get a ride on the Rally Pro Cycling team, like Magnus Sheffield did this year, you either sign on one of the very few slots with Hagens Berman Axeon, or perhaps with Aevolo Cycling. Otherwise you have to get on an airplane and ship out to the minor leagues of European racing. Imagine that you were a talented young baseball player from Australia. If you wanted to try and make a career out of the sport, you’d need to come to the US to play for a college team or play in the minor leagues. I think of pro road cycling that way now: one must go to Europe.
Criteriums: These have potential
- Due to their limited footprint and simpler logistics, criteriums make more sense than road races from a promoter point of view. A race director can actually make some money on these events.
- Because spectators are concentrated in a small area, often in a city center, it’s easier to activate sponsors around a criterium.
- They’re fast and exciting, therefore attractive to fans who are not insiders. When I was 14, my father took my brother and I to see a criterium in Santa Cruz that was part of the La Contienda de las Colinas stage race. I’ll never forget the speed and energy. That one afternoon hooked me on bike racing for life.
- I like how Justin Williams and his new L39ion of Los Angeles cycling team have committed to domestic criteriums. They can create tons of compelling media (like their riveting helmet cam videos) and take their story (and sponsors) to different cities.
- There is huge potential to create more weekly, low-cost, inclusive criterium races in cities. The Driveway Series in Austin is the prototype for this model. At about the 1:00:00 mark in this Payson McElveen podcast interview with Justin Williams and Colin Strickland, the discussion gets into the potential for developing criteriums all over the US. Worth a listen.
- They’re much easier/less expensive to broadcast due to their short length (1–2 hours) and radius typically within a few blocks. A producer does not need to hire helicopters and airplanes with crews traveling great distances alongside a race. Live streams of bike races are absolutely critical now to reach fans who are widely dispersed around the globe and difficult to reach via traditional cable tv networks. Over the last couple years, viewing bike races from anywhere has gotten much easier due to OTT networks like GCN Race Pass, FloBikes and NBC Sports Gold. Criteriums can leverage these platforms with lower production costs than road races require.
Gravel racing: Still booming
- As I’ve written about before, gravel events provide an irresistible combination of fun, adventure and community. That’s what’s made them so popular. In addition, race directors can make money on them because a lot of participants pay entry fees while the operational costs are much lower than a road race. Dirt roads require fewer police, street closures and city fees.
- During the pandemic, most of us have been deprived of community contact. Because of this, all kinds of in-person events — concerts, marathons, bike races — will come roaring back as soon as they can be done safely. The SBT GRVL event, which happens in Colorado in August, recently sold out in a few minutes in spite of the fact that there’s no certainty it can even take place on that date. The bike community desperately wants to get back together as soon as possible.
- Expect an increasingly competitive group of pros racing at the front end of gravel events. We’ll see more and more athletes (like Colin Strickland, Payson McElveen, Amity Rockwell) short cutting around traditional road cycling and going directly to a career in gravel. We’ll also see some talented young athletes come right out of NICA and start succeeding in gravel events and graduating from there into European road racing. USA Cycling Head of Elite Athletics @jimmiller gets into this in his recent podcast interview with @ianboswell.
- Gravel’s attraction, however, is not unlimited. It appeals to a certain demo: those who can ride (at least sometimes) on gravel at home, those who have the means to travel to events, and those who are called by the spirit of adventure. So far that has meant a community that is overwhelmingly white and over 35. I know that most gravel events are actively working to be more inclusive and broaden their reach, which is great. The more diverse any discipline (gravel, road, MTB) the bigger and stronger our community will be.\
NICA racing: So much growth on the way
- NICA (National Insterscholastic Cycling Association) is arguably the largest grassroots cycling program in the world and maybe also the largest racing league. With over 20,000 kids racing mountain bikes in 30 states, it’s hard to deny the impact of this organization on competitive cycling. Some of the top young American riders on the World Tour — Sepp Kuss, Megan Jastrab, Quinn Simmons — started in NICA. Not to mention MTB world champion @katecourtney.
- Because it’s based on fun and inclusion first, and not competition, NICA does a great job at getting teenagers excited about bikes. This is a critical first step to building the bottom of the pyramid for bike racing: make it enjoyable! Once kids start riding, some of them will find their way into serious competition.
- NICA is creating cycling communities nationwide in places one would not otherwise consider bike racing hotbeds: West Virginia, Montana and Arkansas, for example. The cumulative effect of building these bases of support all over the country will not be fully understood for years. The potential impact, not just on competitive cycling, but on a healthy and growing bicycle economy could be massive.
eSports: Huge growth potential
- Even before the pandemic, Zwift was growing quickly. Once lockdown started, their participation went stratospheric. While there are other virtual cycling tech businesses — Rouvy, TrainerRoad, Sufferfest, RGT, Bkool, others — I believe this is going to be a winner-take-all category. The network effects are important; the more riders on the platform, the better the experience is. And Zwift is clearly leading the race by a mile.
- There are now sponsored teams, like Canyon ESports, who only ride in virtual events. With the growth of Peloton as a mass-market indoor cycling platform on one end, and more and more competitive events like the UCI Zwift World Championships on the other end, there is something for everyone with indoor cycling. Expect more teams, more events and more sponsors in this space.
- How many of these riders on virtual platforms will transfer to outdoor riding? I have no idea, but I’m hopeful that the entire cycling category grows due to everyone trying out pedals (even the indoor kind) for the first time.
College Cycling: Tons of opportunity
- Racing a bike on a college team is a great way to get into cycling in a fun environment with your friends. I did this at UC Davis as a freshman, in the very early days of university cycling programs. I believe that USA Cycling will put a renewed emphasis on trying to grow this category. Some terrific pro cyclists like Katie Hall (UC Berkeley), Coryn Rivera (Marian University), Ted King (Middlebury College), Sepp Kuss (University of Colorado), Phil Gaimon (University of Florida) and Sam Boardman (UCLA) all came out of college programs.
- While promising, this category needs some infrastructure — consistent coaching, recruiting, funding, race production, equipment — to thrive. And more support from the universities themselves.
- There’s a huge opportunity in college cycling for diversity. The recent arrival by St Augustine’s University, the first HBCU school with a cycling team, is very exciting. (Full disclosure: I’m making a video series about the team, sponsored by Canyon Bikes and Bicycling Magazine) I know that other HBCU schools are already planning to start cycling programs after seeing what SAU is doing. Looking ahead five years, I could see a much bigger college cycling landscape that reflects the diversity and scale of the United States.
Women’s Racing: Only upside
- While there are promising developments in women’s racing, like gender equity in most gravel prize purses, there is still a long way to go for this part of the sport. With the growth in NICA and more inclusiveness in gravel events, I’m hopeful that the number of women racing bikes begins to increase dramatically.
- I still don’t see enough grassroots support with local clubs to get women out on bikes and into group rides. It’s not enough for a club to say, “Hey, our rides & races are open to anyone.” Specific onramps, like NICA, must be built in order to broaden the base of any sport. I know that FatCake Cycling in San Francisco started a special Monday women’s only ride just to onboard female cyclists into group rides in a way that was not intimidating. It’s a great idea, and I hope more of this happens.
- We need more women’s-only races and events. The Colorado Classic, while postponed until 2022, did a great job of building a single-sex event. The fact that there is no women’s Tour de France is sad and makes me embarrassed for our sport. ASO, the largest and most important event owner (TdF, Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix, Le Dauphine, many others) in cycling, has lagged far behind in boosting women’s cycling. They deserve a fair amount of blame in their willful neglect of this side of bike racing. But it’s not too late to fix it, and I’m hopeful that their upcoming Women’s Paris-Roubaix (pandemic permitting) is a good place to start.
Overall, I’m really positive on competitive cycling. One just has to look at the big picture.