Cycling wasn’t always like this. Back in the day (before the early 1990’s) an amateur code was enforced which prohibited non-professionals from receiving money. Once you received a dime for participating in your sport, you were considered a professional. Once you were a professional, you couldn’t qualify for the Olympics.
The Olympics were a goal for any athlete and keeping amateur status was important to be able to compete. The decision between being amateur or professional status was largely influenced by the desire to qualify for the Olympics, or to make a pittance of a living out of racing.
Prior to the 1990’s, race organisers held separate professional and amateur races where the prizes would differ. In amateur races, the organisers could only give trophies to the place-getters. In fact, the rule stated that the awarded trophy could be pretty much anything, but it had to be engraved with the result. This meant that some unique trophies were given out. Engraved barometers, clocks, teaspoons were a popular at the time.
There were ways around this however. Winners could ask the club to bank the equivalent trophy’s worth (maybe 2£ at the time) and a larger trophy could be purchased at the end of the season. Malcolm Powell (a 71yrs old and still racing) told me that he once bought a refrigerator and transistor radio with his earnings – but his winning results had to be engraved onto them!
It became common practice that amateur athletes would accept endorsements, token jobs, gifts, and other methods of payment to get around these rules to keep amateur status. The lines between amateur and professional were very murky for a long time.
Olympic regulations regarding amateur status of athletes (or the facade of this) were eventually abandoned in the 1990’s (with the exception of boxing and wrestling). Soon after we saw the introduction of prize money being awarded at local races and the decline of trophies. For some reason cycling took off in this direction more so than other amateur sports.
I quite enjoy receiving $100 and taking my teammates out for breakfast after a win, however I see it as being unnecessary. Yes, cycling can be an expensive sport and it’s difficult to compete if you’re not relatively well-off, but receiving a token amount of money for placing will never cover the cost of racing. I often see it as a negative influence on people’s motivations and behaviors. I know of a few people who say they race only for the money.
In higher level racing, prize money can lead “a joke” and “the chop” where collusion occurs amongst riders who split the prize money. Deals are made out on the road that can go against the spirit of bike racing.
I often hear people whinging on how lousy the prize money is, and that it’s barely worth showing up. People question why entry fees are so expensive and assume that race organisers are lining their pockets. Did you know that the Melbourne to Ballarat traffic management fees are $10k, and the Melbourne to Warrnambool is over $20k? Do the math and you’ll see that race organisers are hardly making a penny after prize money is given out.
Personally, I would prefer to see the entry fee money going towards growing the sport or making the events better (e.g. timing chips) rather than going towards the winners. After all, aren’t we supposed to be doing for fun?