Commentary: The US domestic road scene must adapt to a changing cycling landscape

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A small American team collected its limited funds to brave the brutal weather, small roads, and seasoned competition of Europe in search of road racing glory.

No, this isn’t a story about a U.S. team from the 1980s, gathering up its money and equipment, hoping to barnstorm their way through the European peloton. This was the 2016 race season.

A stalwart of the New England amateur race scene, the Boston-based Team CCB Velotooler recently announced its decision to leave the amateur peloton and join the professional cycling ranks, in an attempt to gain access to the plethora of low-level UCI races across Europe and Asia.

This would have been a common move 30 years ago, but not in 2016, after years of ebbs and flows in the professional North American racing scene.

However, Team CCB doesn’t see the value in chasing points in the UCI America Tour, or showcasing its young American talent at Stateside Pro Road Tour (PRT) races. The way team management sees it, the team’s needs are better served abroad, escaping the expensive, sprawling pro-am North America race scene, to line up at UCI races in Europe and Asia.

Along with the demise of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, the continued struggles of traditional cornerstone races, and three U.S. Continental teams folding, this doesn’t bode well for the health of racing in North America. It can leave U.S. racers, and cycling fans, asking where things have gone wrong in recent years, and if there is a chance to right the ship for the future of road racing on the continent.

The CCB team was started on the north shore of Boston in 1979.
The CCB team was started on the north shore of Boston in 1979. Photo: Alexandra Lachance.

Amateur or Continental? A cost-benefit analysis

Using their designation as a tax-exempt non-profit charity organization, and solicitations for donations from equipment sponsors and private individuals, Team CCB is attempting to save money by maximizing trips to Europe and Asia, where race organizers cover most of the costs associated with racing.

CCB plans to skip Oregon’s Cascade Classic and California’s Redlands Cycling Classic, historically two centerpieces of the Pro Road Tour (formerly the NRC) and can’t-miss races for U.S. Continental and elite amateur teams.

In the past, both races have been golden opportunities for teams without a professional license to test themselves against bona fide pro teams; both have hosted the world’s best riders while giving young amateur riders a chance to shine. Dave Zabriskie rode out of obscurity for a small Colorado team at the 2000 Redlands Classic, and Lance Armstrong won the Cascade Classic in 1998, a year before he ran his run of seven straight (since vacated) Tour de France wins.

But in regard to these centerpiece races, Team CCB manager Tim Mitchell told VeloNews, “We could get on a plane to Europe and do multiple races for that cost.”

In Mitchell’s mind, a cross-country trip, with a team of riders and truck full of equipment, to race a series of events that garner little to no media coverage just isn’t worth it, not when low-level UCI professional races in Europe and Asia will cover the team’s travel cost, race entry, and housing. The team will not pay riders’ salaries, instead covering the cost of travel, housing, and race entries, and will use unpaid volunteers to fill out staff positions.

Using this model, once they have acquired a UCI Continental license and gained entry into international races that would be off limits to an amateur team, they will likely end up spending less money than a top-level U.S. amateur team with a schedule of domestic racing.

A significant number of U.S. elite amateur teams, with budgets in the $100,000-$200,000 range and a focus on traditional pro-am North American races, have fallen by the wayside in recent years, unable to satisfy their sponsors’ desire for even minimal media exposure.

By jumping from amateur to Continental, and looking outside of the PRT calendar, CCB seeks to avoid becoming another victim of a domestic race schedule stretched out over a massive continent. What they’ve done is a savvy way to get young riders abroad and racing at the highest level while they make their sponsors (donors) feel good about their investment — but it doesn’t speak particularly well for the health of American cycling.

For years, UnitedHealthcare has dominated the U.S. criterium scene, however the team will change its focus in 2017, instead looking to take results at international stage races. Photo: Dejan Smaic.

Paradigm shift

USA Cycling’s national race series, formerly known as the National Racing Calendar and National Criterium Calendar and currently known as the Pro Road Tour, functions on the idea of filling fields with a mix of UCI Continental teams with high-level elite amateur teams. Ideally, this would give teams such as CCB an affordable way to test themselves against top competition without having to make an expensive trip abroad.

In recent years, a spate of UCI 2.HC and 2.1 races have emerged on the U.S. and Canadian scene, but have proven issues with long term stability. Gone is the USA Pro Challenge, an amazing race that suffered significant cash losses over its five-year period, as well as former weeklong stage races in Georgia and Missouri. The Philadelphia International Cycling Classic, which has gone through changes in ownership and management in recent years, has experienced a fall in status since its glory days in the early 1990s as a stop on the Thrift Drug Triple Crown, which boasted a world-class field and a $1 million grand prize.

North American gems such as California, Alberta, Beauce, Utah, and Gila continue to run, and appear secure for the near future, albeit some at a diminished level.

Despite these long-running events, the domestic scene is leaving many U.S. teams wondering if a North American racing calendar will continue to be a viable marketing strategy for sponsors. For the 2016 season, the Pro Road Tour featured only four road races and five stage races, with criteriums filling out the rest of the schedule. For 2017, it’s been pared down from 25 events to 20; the stated aim of this move was to eliminate conflicting dates and create a structure where an all-around rider can win the overall Pro Road Tour. The 2017 PRT includes four road races and eight stage races.

To compound the problems with the domestic calendar, there is a large, growing divide in quality, exposure, and participation between the Tours of Utah, California, Alberta, and the criteriums and single-day road races that haven’t made the jump to mainstream media and TV.

While exhilarating to watch, and a great tool for building bike-handling skills, criteriums are becoming tertiary in the world of international cycling. A schedule chock full of criteriums and light on stage racing and classic-style road races simply doesn’t serve racers that want to hone their skills for an eventual jump to the European scene.

The most telling sign regarding the fall of criteriums is that the behemoth of the North American criterium scene, UnitedHealthcare, has discontinued its vaunted criterium squad and is giving up on its pursuit of domestic race series points altogether, realizing their energy and money is better spent focusing on attaining a Grand Tour start in the coming seasons.

UHC manager Mike Tamayo told Cyclingnews that his team would not be chasing the Pro Road Tour points series in 2017, adding that the team’s focus will shift to one-week stage races around the world, including California and Utah in the U.S., in order to build for a potential Grand Tour in start in 2018.

Another red flag for the health of the domestic racing model is that three U.S. Continental teams — Jamis-Sutter Home, Astellas, and Lupus — have announced they will not be continuing their programs next season.

Sutter Home decided not to continue its financial support of Jamis-Sutter Home, and the team was unable to find a replacement. Astellas Pharma, the title sponsor for Astellas cycling, decided not to continue its financial support of the team, referring to it as a “purely business decision.”

No reason has been given for the discontinuation of Lupus, but one would guess that the lack of invitation to the Amgen Tour of California, even with the 2011 winner on the squad, and the extremely low interest rates worldwide that are making the current professional investment climate incredibly difficult, made owner Archegos Capital reconsider the money it was putting into the team.

While each team has its own individual troubles, it’s clear all three of the teams ceased to continue due to a difficulty in finding a sponsor willing to put a sustainable amount of cash into a pro cycling team. Given these troubles, it’s fair to ask if the current domestic racing scene provides a reasonable return on investment for potential sponsors. The free market is infamous for correcting itself, and the scarcity of money in domestic racing possibly means that companies are just unable to see the value in sponsoring a team that races a schedule without any significant media coverage.

Salaries among Continental pro teams have dropped significantly in recent years, with teams cutting payroll without losing talent. A former Lupus rider revealed that his contract for the 2015 season totaled $3,000. Compare this to the $30,000-$40,000 that was being paid to riders just a few seasons ago on the now defunct Bissell professional team.

The continuous dropping of the bar for Continental teams’ budgets and payrolls makes an apples-to-apples comparison to the past difficult, but there has clearly been a downward trend in the number of teams, along with their budgets, throughout the past five years.

Team CCB is technically stepping up to the professional level, but at their core they are firmly an amateur team, with riders racing without salaries and the absence of any full-time team staff. Even with Team CCB stepping up, there are currently only eight U.S. UCI Continental teams, along with three in Canada, slated for the 2017 season. In 2009, there were 12 registered UCI Continental teams in the United States alone, with many of those paying reasonable salaries.

To add to the squeeze, the Amgen Tour of California has been elevated to World Tour status for the 2017 edition. This will lock domestic Continental teams out of a race that offers far more media exposure to their sponsors than every other race of the year combined, making an already difficult funding landscape even more foreboding.

The city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has rallied behind the Tulsa Tough, including gran fondo events on consecutive weekend days. Photo: Bo Bickerstaff.
The city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has rallied behind the three-day Tulsa Tough, including gran fondo events on consecutive weekend days. Photo: Bo Bickerstaff.

The mass-participation model

It’s not all doom and gloom for American cycling, however. While Canada offers the Tour of Alberta and the long-running Tour de Beauce to lower-tier pro teams, interested parties in the United States are looking to match our northern neighbors.

New UCI stages races in Colorado and Virginia have been announced for the 2017 season. The Colorado stage race will be shorter than in years past — only four days — and will reportedly use one centrally located hotel as a base, utilizing surrounding towns for stage starts and finishes, rather than travel from town to town. This hub-and-spoke model is most likely the future of American cycling, as the traditional stage race model used by the USA Pro Cycling Challenge is incredibly expensive outside of Europe.

Stateside cycling fans have high hopes for the financial viability of these new events. To keep these recently announced races running and part of a viable domestic professional scene, operating costs need to be kept at a reasonable level, sponsorship revenue must be generated, and most importantly, they need to be community assets where locals can invest emotional and financial capital.

While the Tours of California and Utah have great support locally, as well as wide media exposure and race owners who don’t need to turn a profit, a majority of Pro Road Tour races do very little to enfranchise the residents of the host town, and are at the mercy of a corporate title sponsorship for year-to-year survival.

The ability of the American race scene to foster sustainable events hinges on a number of factors, but a good first step would be uniting the tribes of cycling in the U.S. Racers who attend USA Cycling sanctioned races, and the massive and affluent crowds of the growing Gran Fondo scene, currently exist in two different worlds with seemingly little overlap. The racing community has a tendency to turn its nose up at the well-heeled weekend warrior crowd that traditionally patronizes more laid back, completion-oriented events such as gran fondos.

These participant events have the ability to serve as great promotional events for a series of criteriums and road races, as well as providing a reliable and significant cash flow that can secure the future of a race. Ironman events have been using this pyramid participation model to buttress their pro level events for years and have experienced massive growth and success because of it. A gran fondo run in conjunction with a race allows a smaller Pro Road Tour level event to gain support from the community, provide a civic benefit, and secure its financial future.

Tulsa Tough started as a simple weekend of criteriums, but has become overwhelmingly popular due to its ability to secure centralized racing venues and foster a fun, inclusive atmosphere, while running an incredibly successful gran fondo in conjunction with the race. The gran fondo gets the city of Tulsa behind the event, by bringing in a sizeable number of participants from out of town, while also delivering a mechanism for locals to get involved with and become engaged with the race weekend. The new Colorado and Virginia races are said to be employing this mass-participation model as an integral part of their events.

Finally, USA Cycling must lean into the new gravel boom. In Europe, races like Tro-Bro Leon have become incredibly popular, and in the States, there are also incredibly popular gravel events all functioning outside of the traditional USA Cycling umbrella. If there are a fixed number of bike enthusiasts, racers, and fans in the country, it would stand to reason that these events are pulling away participants that might have previously patronizes the lower categories of an NRC-level race. USA Cycling has to be successful in bridging this divide.

T.J. Eisenhart finished seventh overall at the 2016 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah while guest riding with BMC Racing; in 2017, he’ll ride for the Continental team Holowesko-Citadel. Photo: Casey B. Gibson.

There is work to be done

It is difficult to see how the U.S. can produce an entire generation of successful racers by relying on the crucible of the brutal European racing landscape and employment by foreign teams. The generation of American riders that came of age in the 1990s and early 2000s North American professional race scene had a full schedule of high-level road and stage races with a cheap and small barrier to entry, on which to hone their skills.

It is possible for young American riders to gain experience in Europe with the USA Cycling Development Program, which does a great job of getting young riders over to its host house in the Netherlands. The success of riders like Larry Warbasse and T.J. Eisenhart is tangible evidence that program can put riders into cycling’s top-tier. However, without a significant funding boost the model has scalability issues, and riders have an extremely short window to be noticed by and involved with the program. This system also tends to leave riders such as Robin Carpenter and Travis McCabe on the outside looking in, despite having proven success against WorldTour-level competition.

Once the USA Cycling Development gets American riders on a European WorldTour team, it can often be an uphill battle to carve out a place, as the Americans can find themselves in a last-in, first-out position. Most title sponsors for European teams have no business interest in the United States and often don’t feel the need for major exposure here. This makes it hard for riders such as Warbasse, who found himself without a WorldTour contract for 2017 despite two strong seasons on IAM Cycling, and another two years at the WorldTour level with BMC Racing.

And while BMC Racing has been a reliable landing spot for U.S. riders in years past — Warbasse, Brent Bookwalter, Tejay van Garderen, Taylor Phinney, to name a few —  with the recent addition of Switzerland’s Tag Heuer as a sponsor, the focus of the team is likely to become more Swiss-centric and allocate fewer spots to up and coming Americans. The 2017 roster has just three Americans — Bookwalter, van Garderen, and Joey Rosskopf — down from five in 2015. The increasingly international Cannondale-Drapac squad will be home to six Americans next year.

Without a strong base of riders incubating and improving Stateside, it is going to be difficult for U.S. cycling to reach the level as countries like Great Britain and Australia. Almost every major race throughout the season deliver see an Australian winner, while it has been five years since a rider from the U.S. — a country with a population more than ten times the size of Australia — has won a stage at the Tour de France.

Team CCB’s concerted move to focus on an international racing schedule should be seen as a signifier of the problems that have bubbled up within the U.S. cycling scene. For the sake of American cycling talent, domestic racing needs to find a way to steer out of this skid. A healthy domestic racing scene can widen the talent-finding pool, and hopefully give a generation of young riders a platform to succeed in the world’s biggest races.

To do this, it’s imperative that those involved — USA Cycling, race organizers, and sponsors — recognize the differences between the realities of fandom in Europe and the United States, and embrace the participatory event as a gateway for fan education and indoctrination to the intricacies of the sport. Without an aggressive pursuit of new fans and a concerted effort to retain current ones, we may continue to see iconic American cycling events become irrelevant to wider audiences, and new events continue to drop off the calendar as quickly as they appear.

About the author

Spencer Martin is an elite road racer, and evangelist for the sport of professional cycling. When he isn’t creating content for cycling brands in his day job, or breaking down European classics for his own amusement, he is busy enjoying the riding from his base in Boulder, Colorado.

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