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by Neal Rogers
September 29, 2018
Photography by Will Matthews; Cor Vos
NEWS & RACING BROUGHT TO YOU BY CHAPTER2 BIKES
When it comes to men’s road racing, the United States is not only a weak nation, it’s also in decline as teams are folding and events are disappearing. This article is an in-depth snapshot of where US road racing is at the moment, how it got to this point, and where it’s headed.
The tone among domestic pro riders and team staff at last month’s Colorado Classic was somber. Market forces that enabled the cast and crew of professional cycling’s traveling circus to pursue their collective passion were now conspiring against them.
After 19 years in the sport, the Jelly Belly-Maxxis team had announced that it was losing its title sponsor. The UnitedHealthcare team, which has run a powerful women’s program for five years and a powerful men’s program for over a decade, was facing extinction an unsuccessful search for a new title sponsor. After six years, the Canadian squad Silber Pro Cycling would be ending.
Combined, that’s 50-something jobs gone. The size of the traveling circus would be shrinking. Hard-fought dreams of a career as a professional athlete would soon be ending. Those who remained would likely be doing so on reduced salaries. In a cruel twist, UnitedHealthcare won both the men’s and women’s stage races in Colorado.
The bad news continued on September 10, when the Holowesko-Citadel program announced that it would not retain Pro Continental status in 2019; title sponsorship would return to its founders, Hincapie Racing. The goal of the program remains to make it to WorldTour, however it’s unlikely the team will be invited to any WorldTour events next year.
In one year, US pro road racing seems to have collapsed. Coincidence? Or something else at play?
— Robin Carpenter (@RobinmCarpenter) September 1, 2018
In one year, US pro road racing seems to have collapsed. Coincidence? Or something else at play?
— Robin Carpenter (@RobinmCarpenter) September 1, 2018
As the peloton dwindles, the North American pro road calendar is also in decline. In 2018, long-running events such as the Cascade Cycling Classic, North Star Grand Prix, and Bucks County Classic were either postponed or cancelled. The loss of these events comes after the termination of the Tour of Alberta, which ended in 2017 after five years, as well as the Philadelphia International, which saw its 32-year run end after the 2016 edition, and the USA Pro Challenge, which ended in 2015 after five years. The Tour of the Gila, one of the few mountainous stage races in the country, is on unstable footing heading into 2019.
“I feel like the lack of racing is scarier than the lack of teams,” said Mike Creed, an 11-year pro who now runs the Aevolo U23 development team. “I’ve never organized a race, I couldn’t imagine how difficult it is. I’d feel wrong giving my ten cents on it, but I feel like maybe the time has come where teams start supporting races more. If that means higher entry fees, then maybe that’s what it is to keep it going until there’s enough competition. As of right now, if every team has to pay $2000 to get into Gila, maybe it’s worth it.”
Fewer events means fewer opportunities for teams to provide their sponsors with exposure, and fewer examples for sponsors to point to a return on their investment. In turn, fewer teams means less prestige and less exposure for events, which means fewer events — which means fewer opportunities for the next generation of potential stars. It’s a downward cycle, and professional road racing in the US is currently in a tailspin. It’s not dead, but it’s certainly on life support.
“So then, what’s left?” said Axel Merckx, manager of the Hagens Berman Axeon development team that has graduated two dozen riders to the WorldTour since 2009. “You hav San Dimas, Redlands, Joe Martin Stage Race, California, Utah, Colorado, and that’s it. That’s not enough for a full program. And that’s why it’s even more complicated for teams, because then they have to start traveling, and traveling costs a lot of money, so you need more money from sponsorships on that side. If you could just stay in the US, it would be way cheaper, but you can’t, and then if you can’t race, you can’t develop.”
Domestic teams and events are on the decline, however it’s not a wholly better situation at the top of the sport for American road racers. Not for the men, anyhow.
In the UCI’s nation rankings — a rolling tally that covers the past 52 weeks, taking into account results from the top eight riders from each country — the United States is ranked 22nd. The top American rider in the world rankings, Tejay van Garderen, is ranked 116th, with overall podium finishes this year at the Amgen Tour of California and Volta ao Algarve. After his two stage wins at the Vuelta a España, American Ben King is ranked 257th.
Among the top riders in professional men’s road racing, the United States, a nation of 325 million people, does not have one rider in the top 100. Australia, also a non-European English-speaking nation, has a population of 24 million people and has four riders in the top 75.
At this weekend’s road world championship in Innsbruck, the US men’s team will field four riders; top nations will have eight. The American men fielded only a two-rider team at the 2016 Olympic Games; top nations fielded five. The best result an American man has had at a recent world road championship was Alex Howes, finishing 12th in Richmond in 2015. The best result an American man has had at a recent Monument was Taylor Phinney, finishing eighth at Paris-Roubaix in April. The best result an American man has had at the Tour de France in recent years was Andrew Talansky, finishing 11th in 2015. There were only three American riders at the 2017 Tour de France, and five this year.
An outlier, of course, is Chris Horner’s win at the Vuelta a España in 2013, at age 41. Though he raced one more season at the WorldTour level, the Vuelta win was his final professional victory.
Ben King (Dimension Data) won two stages at the 2018 Vuelta a España, both from breakaways. He was the first American to win a stage of a Grand Tour since Tejay van Garderen at the 2017 Giro d’Italia.
By contrast, over the past three seasons, American women have won nearly every major international race on the calendar. Kristin Armstrong took gold at the last three Olympic Games. Amber Neben was the 2016 world time trial champion. Megan Guarnier’s impressive palmares includes wins at Strade Bianche, Giro Rosa, and the 2016 WorldTour overall title, as well as a bronze medal in Richmond. Coryn Rivera has won the Tour of Flanders and Trofeo Alfredo Binda, among others. Evelyn Stevens won Flèche Wallonne and held the UCI Hour Record for over two years. Young riders Emma White, Alexis Ryan, and Chloe Dygert-Owen are all on the cusp of major international results.
Significant results for American woman outside of road racing include Dygert-Owen’s individual pursuit world record, set in March, as well as team pursuit world titles and consecutive Olympic silver medals; Kate Courtney’s world cross-country championship, taken earlier this month; and stellar results by cyclocross racers Katie Compton, Kaitie Keough, and Ellen Noble.
That said, there have been a few recent bright spots for American men on the road. Ben King’s pair of stage wins at the Vuelta a España tops the list.
Sepp Kuss, the 24-year-old former mountain biker, climbed on a level of his own at the Tour of Utah, winning three stages and the overall, and was brilliant at the Vuelta a España, his Grand Tour debut, riding in a support role for fourth-place finisher Steven Kruijswijk.
Americans Brandon McNulty and Ian Garrison finished first and third in the 2016 junior men’s time trial at the 2016 world championships in Qatar.
In August, Rally Cycling’s Colin Joyce, also 24, won a stage at the Arctic Tour of Norway. His 20-year-old teammate Brandon McNulty, the 2016 junior world time-trial champion, nearly won a stage at Dubai Tour in February, finished seventh overall at the Amgen Tour of California, and again nearly won a mountain stage at the Tour de l’Avenir in August.
Gage Hecht, 20, has an established pedigree in cyclocross and now on the road as well, soloing to victory on the opening stage of the Colorado Classic after bridging across to a breakaway group of WorldTour and Pro Continental riders, then riding clear and holding off the peloton to take the win for his Aveolo U23 development team.
Then there is multi-talented 20-year-old Christopher Blevins, the U23 national cyclocross champion, who recently took a silver medal at the U23 cross-country world championship; in May he won a stage at the Tour of the Gila for his Hagens Berman-Axeon road team.
And though it’s not a road result, 27-year-old American Ashton Lambie, a former gravel racer, recently set a world record in the 4km individual pursuit, an event where future road stars Bradley Wiggins and Jack Bobridge first made headlines.
Kuss, Lambie, Blevins, and Hecht are all exceptionally talented riders whose development was not in road racing. And given the direction the US road scene is headed, that may prove to become the norm, not the exception.
The United States has never been a powerhouse nation in professional road cycling; rather, it has yielded a handful of riders who have won major races. Between 1986 and 2006, before anti-doping agencies intervened, American riders won the Tour de France 11 times in 21 years. However that was on the back of three riders — Greg LeMond, Lance Armstrong, and Floyd Landis — and was not indicative of national dominance. Of course, Armstrong and Landis have since admitted to doping, and those results no longer stand.
Ten years ago, there were 35 events on USA Cycling’s National Racing Calendar, made up of marquee events across the country, as well as 15 on the USA Cycling Professional Tour, including the Amgen Tour, Tour de Georgia, and Tour of Missouri, for a total of 50 marquee events. There were several professionally run Continental teams, including Bissell, Colavita-Sutter Home, Toyota-United, Health Net-Maxxis (which became UnitedHealthcare), and Kelly Benefit Strategies (which became Rally Cycling). Membership numbers at USA Cycling were hovering over 60,000. Road bike sales were up year over year.
In 2018, there were 20 events on USA Cycling’s renamed Pro Road Tour, which incorporates the former NRC and Professional Tour; marquee events include Joe Martin Stage Race, Tour of the Gila, Tour of Utah, and Colorado Classic. USA Cycling’s membership numbers are around 53,000. Road bike sales are down, or at best flat, depending on which brands you’re asking. The size of crowds lining the course at the biggest races in the country is noticeably smaller.
So, what happened?
USA Cycling’s total race memberships, across all disciplines, since 2000. Membership peaked in 2012, plateaued, and began dropping in 2015.
A lot happened. There was no one event. Several factors have played into the current downward spiral. The cycling landscape has evolved.
Ten years ago, words like Strava, Zwift, gravel grinder, and eBike weren’t part of the American cycling lexicon. Road riding has become more dangerous due to distracted driving. As road bike sales have softened, so too has the way the industry markets, promotes, and sponsors road teams and races. High-school mountain bike leagues, organized through the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), have taken off.
Americans are still riding bikes. They’re just not racing road bikes. And they’re not paying as much attention to US road races, either.
Putting on a professional road race incurs costs — insurance, staffing, road closures, police support — as well as permitting, sometimes across several jurisdictions. Gran fondos, which may require the same road closures and police support, are able to offset the expense with, say, 1000 entry fees at $100 per rider; $100,000 makes a massive difference to a race promoter. By contrast, putting on a cyclocross or gravel event can be far less expensive, and also generates revenue through participants.
“There is a trend going on in the US, with the gran fondos,” Merckx said. “People and brands invest in the gran fondos because of the mass participation, and that’s what their market is. Those are the people they want to touch. Gravel events, the mountain-bike scene, it’s very low cost to organize, you don’t need all the permits to do it. It’s fairly easy and it can attract a lot of mass participation, which, as a sponsor, if you say you can attract 2,000 people, or 3,000 people, it’s way more valuable.”
Digital concepts that weren’t part of the conversation 10 years ago include Twitter, Instagram, and Tour Tracker — which might help explain why attendance at major US road races is down.
American cycling fans are passionate — in part because many of them are recreational cyclists themselves.
“Cycling has such a broad reach,” Merckx said. “That’s probably one of the reasons that people don’t show up as often to the races, because it’s on TV, it’s on social media, they can stay at home and watch. You can watch Tour Tracker to follow the race, and you’ll see it better than if you were at the race itself.”
The appeal of cyclocross, gravel, and mountain-bike events — more inclusive, less aggressive than road racing — while tangible, is difficult to quantify. Asked why he switched from road racing to gravel events, and ultimately to the track, Ashton Lambie, the new pursuit world record holder, told CyclingTips, “I got kinda jaded for the same reasons everyone else gets jaded about racing road. You get some dude in a Midwest Cat. 3 race yelling at you like you just burned his house down and you’re like, ‘Dude, calm down, it’s just a crit in some mall parking lot.’
Some events that have transpired over the past 10 years that might have been viewed as positive steps forward — USADA’s Reasoned Decision in 2012, the Amgen Tour of California becoming a WorldTour race in 2017— may have ultimately had negative consequences for the national scene.
While USADA’s investigation may have helped clean up the sport, it may have also driven casual fans and sponsorship money away, branding US cycling with the broad stroke of tainted brush.
“Our sport has gone through peaks and troughs,” said USA Cycling CEO Derek Bouchard-Hall, a former national criterium champion and Olympian who raced professionally from 1994 to 2002. “There’s no doubt that we had a peak that finished in 2012. And the end of that peak was the admission by Lance Armstrong that he was doped during his career, and sort of blowing the lid off of what was a huge driver of growth. Because we had not just a big star for cycling, we had an icon of sport. And that’s incredibly powerful, because he transcended the sport.
“It’s not just Lance, there are other factors going on, for sure. Road riding is getting more dangerous, or at least there’s a perception that it’s getting more dangerous. It’s getting more expensive to put on races. There’s a lot of things going on. But we’ve been in a period of decline since 2012. The whole industry has felt it, and certainly, USA Cycling has felt it.”
Evan Huffman and Rob Britton (Rally Cycling) finished 1-2 on Stage 4 of the 2017 Amgen Tour of California, the first year the race was part of the UCI WorldTour. Huffman’s two stage wins were the biggest victories in the Continental team’s history. Rally Cycling made the jump to Pro Continental in 2018 with an eye towards becoming a WorldTour squad. Photo Brian Hodes/Cor Vos.
Meanwhile, the upgrade of the Amgen Tour means that Continental teams with no chance of appearing in the country’s biggest race find it harder to justify their expense to sponsors. Already the biggest race in the US since its debut in 2006, it’s hard to argue that moving up to WorldTour has elevated its profile domestically. It’s less difficult to point out the impact it’s had on Continental teams.
“I think California going to the WorldTour level has really hurt a lot of teams,” said Gavin Mannion, the UnitedHealthcare rider who won the overall at the Colorado Classic and is transferring to Rally Cycling for 2019. “That’s the main reason behind Jelly Belly stepping back, and that was our longest-running team. That race was huge was for them. And while it’s a big race for the WorldTour teams, it’s not what it was for the Continental teams. I think that’s a big issue.”
A lack of American stars at the top of the sport has made it difficult to market pro cycling to a mainstream audience, as has the absence of a truly American team to rally behind. Armstrong’s unceremonious exit from the sport left a vacuum that has not been filled. And as teams and events disappear, it’s only going to be harder to develop the next big American star.
At the height of his Tour de France reign, Lance Armstrong dated singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow and counted celebrities such as Robin Williams and Bono among his friends.
After his fifth-place finish at the 2012 Tour de France, and white jersey as best young rider, the nation’s eyes turned to Tejay van Garderen. But the Montana native with a Dutch name has shown neither the consistency nor the disposition to become America’s marquee rider. He has never appeared comfortable in the spotlight, twice deleting social media accounts after receiving a barrage of criticism.
Taylor Phinney is talented and charismatic, but he is not a Grand Tour contender, and he has struggled to regain the trajectory of his career prior to the May 2014 accident that nearly ended his career. Phinney may be the closest thing American road racing has to a star personality, however, he’s currently ranked 595th in the UCI rankings.
Other bright prospects have plateaued. Joe Dombrowski, the winner of the 2012 Baby Giro d’Italia, has won just two races in six seasons as a professional — a stage of the 2015 Tour of Utah, and the overall victory. Greg Daniel, the winner of the national road championship and Tour de Beauce at age 21, has struggled during two seasons with Trek-Segafredo, and has not yet announced where he will ride next year.
When Andrew Talansky (right) won the 2014 Criterium du Dauphine, and Tejay van Garderen (left) finished second to Chris Froome in 2015 (pictured), it looked as though the US had two legitimate Grand Tour contenders. Three years later, Talansky is out of the sport and van Garderen is no longer a viable Grand Tour leader.
Others have simply walked away. Remember Andrew Talansky? He placed 10th at his first Tour de France, won the Criterium du Dauphine, and finished fifth at the 2016 Vuelta a España. In August 2017, as his Cannondale-Drapac team struggled for survival, Talansky announced that he was leaving professional cycling at age 28 and would instead pursue professional triathlon. He has not qualified for the Ironman world championship, held in Kona on October 13.
And before the near-death accident in July that cost him his right leg, young phenom Adrien Costa had decided that the hard-scrabble life of an aspiring professional was not for him, relinquishing his spot on the Axeon team in order to return to school and pursue other outdoor activities.
Peter Stetina, who played an integral role in Ryder Hesjedal’s 2012 Giro d’Italia victory but suffered a serious leg injury in 2015, is currently facing the prospect of early retirement at age 31 as his two-year contract with Trek-Segafredo has not been renewed.
“It’s true that Americans haven’t really performed at the Grand Tours lately,” Stetina said. “I don’t know what to chalk it up to, whether it’s pressure, unfulfilled promise, or whatever. I personally have had a rough couple of years. My whole career changed with that leg injury. This year has just been one bad thing after another. It’s one of those seasons to write off. And, I think a lot of guys have that.
“As a whole with American cycling, it really is hard to put a spot on it because we are a nation of strong riders. But, then you look at the WorldTour and we’re 22nd in the standings. I personally feel like we should be better than that. There’s a lot of really good American riders. But they’re not the big world champs. A lot of guys fall into that super-domestique role, in the mountains or whatever. You have a lot of guys that are right in the same caliber of rider as I am, like Joe Dombrowski, and Nate Brown, and Lawson Craddock. We’re all up there on our day. But, more often than not, with the way cycling has changed in the last few years, it’s the same superstars winning every single day, just duking it out in the final.”
Beyond Armstrong’s Tour de France victories and his improbable comeback from cancer, part of what made him popular in the United States was the Americanism of both his team sponsor and teammates. When the Texan won his first Tour in 1999, he did it wearing a red, white, and blue US Postal Service jersey. Seven of the nine riders on that team were Americans, including future stars George Hincapie, Tyler Hamilton, Christian Vande Velde, Frankie Andreu, Jonathan Vaughters, and Kevin Livingston. Having an American team to stand behind goes a long way to galvanize the average casual fan, and there’s nothing resembling that in today’s pro peloton.
In 2018 there were three WorldTour teams registered in the United States — BMC Racing, Trek-Segafredo, and EF Education First-Drapac. Of those teams, BMC Racing, registered in California, had three American riders on its 2018 roster: Van Garderen, Brent Bookwalter, and Joey Rosskopf. Trek-Segafredo, registered in Belgium, had three American riders on its 2018 roster: Stetina, Greg Daniel, and Kiel Reijnen. EF Education First-Drapac, registered in Colorado, had six American riders on its 2018 roster: Phinney, Dombrowski, Howes, Lawson Craddock, Logan Owen, and Nathan Brown.
The U.S. Postal Service team at the 1999 Tour de France, from left: Lance Armstrong, Kevin Livingston, Pascal Deramé, Tyler Hamilton, Christian Vande Velde, Frankie Andreu, and George Hincapie.
So, which team should an American fan rally behind? Insert shrug emoji here. In 2019, the BMC team will take on a Polish title sponsor, CCC, as well as Polish registration; so far Rosskopf and Will Barta are the only American riders on the 2019 roster. Trek-Segafredo has not yet renewed Stetina’s nor Daniel’s contract, meaning Reijnen could be the sole American on the squad next year.
EF Education First-Drapac, which nearly collapsed in August 2017 before taking on a Swiss-based title sponsor, would qualify as the most American of WorldTour teams, with American roots, the largest number of American riders, and an American bike sponsor. However the casual American fan needs to get behind a winner, and theirs is an underdog program, working on one of the smallest budgets in the WorldTour. EF-Drapac won its first WorldTour race of 2018 in September, and they’re ranked 16th out of 18 teams on the WorldTour rankings. Since Talansky’s win at Criterium Dauphine in 2014, notable wins have been few and far between, with just one WorldTour victory in 2015, none in 2016, three in 2017, and two thus far in 2018. On US soil, the team has never won the Amgen Tour of California, the biggest race in the United States, and never taken a stars-and-stripes jersey at a national road championship.
Fact is, none of these teams has truly projected an American identity the way that Mitchelton-Scott does for Australia, or Team Sky does for Great Britain — or USPS did for the US from 1999-2004.
Two of America’s most promising riders, Sepp Kuss and Neilson Powless, ride for the Dutch team LottoNL-Jumbo.
Perhaps the team that will rally American fans will one day become — pun intended — Rally Cycling. The 11-year-old program, led by manager Charles Aaron and director Jonas Carney, has a focus on hiring North American riders, with proven winners like Evan Huffman, Rob Britton, Robin Carpenter, and Brandon McNulty on its roster and an open ambition to get to the WorldTour in the coming years. Three of the top American eight riders in the current UCI nation ranking come from Rally — McNulty, Carpenter, and Colin Joyce.
That said, there is a significant gap between the team’s 2018 roster and the staff, talent, and funding needed to race at the Tour de France. As has been proven time and again, stating Tour de France ambitions is the easy part; successfully making the jump is something entirely different.
And while Rally Cycling is on stable ground — title sponsor Rally Health is owned by the same parent company UnitedHealth Group, which chose to divert its sponsorship away from the UHC team and into Rally Cycling — Carney acknowledges that the health of the domestic circuit is bad as he’s seen over a career that dates back to the late 1980s.
Jonas Carney, whose professional career ran from 1990-2004, has managed the Rally Cycling team, under different title sponsors, since 2008.
“Our team is growing really fast, and it’s a really exciting time for us, but that doesn’t change the fact that the landscape is bad right now,” Carney said.
“I spend a lot of time talking to the best young guys, the riders that we want to have on our team in two years. When we see the best 20-year olds out there not landing on their feet, that’s not good for anybody. We want to see those guys on a team that supports them and gets them to good races and teaches them the ropes so they can develop properly and then be ready to race in Europe in a couple years. If something doesn’t change, I think there’s going to be a lot of guys that are just left without a good program. Maybe they find a team, but they just don’t have a good race program.
“For the first time in a long time,” Carney paused, “I’m just really concerned about the health of the sport here in the States.”
In discussing the ebb and flow of marketing dollars supporting US cycling, it’s impossible to do it without mentioning Armstrong’s rise and fall. Perhaps the level of interest, excitement, and investment in road cycling in the US may never again reach the zenith of the Armstrong era, tainted as it was. Perhaps the USADA report, and Armstrong’s admission, didn’t pull the rug out from under American cycling as much as it rapidly returned it to its pre-Armstrong level.
“I think that those of us who have been fans of the sport for the last two decades were lulled into a sense that America is at the very top of WorldTour cycling because we had so many athletes performing at the very top,” said Derek Bouchard-Hall, CEO of USA Cycling. “But if you take the US Postal Service team out of that equation, what do you have left? You have Greg LeMond, and then a few special people, the Andy Hampstens, the Davis Phinneys, that come along. I think we’ll have that again. But this idea that we have a Grand Tour contender and classics stars on a regular basis? We were lulled into that sense through the Postal era. And I’m not sure, if you take out those data points, that it reveals that to be the case. We may not see another Tour de France winner in America for a very long time.
In 1989, Greg LeMond won the Tour de France and the road world championship, and went on to win the Tour again the following year while wearing the rainbow jersey. No rider has done that since.
“Just look at how many male athletes we have participating in the sport relative to the rest of the world. Why should the United States be at the top of the world when you compare how many young males take up the sport versus take up the sport in other countries around the world? Whereas on the women’s side, with Title IX and America’s greater acceptance of female athletics, we actually have a pretty deep talent pool versus the rest of the world. And lo and behold, we consistently do very well internationally.
“USA Cycling is part of a larger ecosystem — we’re a very important member in that ecosystem — but we have not been able to find what that big answer is. We know one answer is the best young athletes need to have the best opportunities to compete. They need to get to Europe, they need to get on teams, they need to get that racing stimulus, they need to compete at the highest level. And I would argue we’re very good at giving talented young American males an opportunity to get to the top level. But our pipeline of talent is a challenge.”
The pathway for American riders and teams to make it to the WorldTour has always gone through second-tier European races, and that will never be more true than in 2019, as the domestic circuit contracts. But what of those riders and teams that remain rooted in North America?
After two years with UnitedHealthcare, American Travis McCabe may be finally seeing the door shut on his ambition to ride at the WorldTour level. A winner of stages at nearly every domestic stage race, McCabe has been straddling the line to make the jump for a few years now.
As he gets older — he turned 29 this year — and job opportunities disappear, the likelihood that he’ll ever know what might have been fades away. His UnitedHealthcare team spent seven weeks in Belgium and France in the spring, a trip that saw McCabe crash eight times in 16 races and leave Europe with a concussion. He wants desperately to have another opportunity, but it’s unlikely. At the moment, he doesn’t have a contract for 2019, saying, “it’s looking pretty bleak.”
Travis McCabe won stages at the Tour of Utah and Colorado Classic in 2018, but is without a contract heading into 2019 after his UnitedHealthcare team folded.
As events and teams diminish, McCabe — a rider whose steady progression in the sport was through amateur teams, outside of the national federation or collegiate racing programs — says it will only get harder for American riders to advance to the WorldTour.
“I think you’ll see a lot of guys doing the U23 thing, thinking that they’re going to make it straight to the WorldTour, and when they don’t then they’re just done,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot more cutthroat, where you’re either good enough to do it and you can make it right away, or you’re not good enough and you need to find something else to do. It’s not gonna be like ‘Okay, we can still race in the US and do these local races and slowly progress and actually make it back to that level.’ Maybe there’s a resurgence in crits, but that’ll be just an American thing. You’re not going to go from being a crit racer to a WorldTour racer. That’s never happened and it never will.”
McCabe points to events put on by organizers of the Epic Rides Off-Road Series — races like the Whiskey Off-Road and 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo — as the way forward. Epic Rides describes its events as “a platform for personal achievement, camaraderie, challenge, life-driving motivation, and satisfaction.”
“I think Epic Rides has done an awesome job of turning the race into an event,” McCabe said. “They have the 25-miler, the 50-miler, and then they have the pro race. They have a band there, and a party at the end for everyone to hang out and drink beer. It’s not so Type A and structured. That’s where there is a disconnect in the US cycling world compared to the mountain biking world — there’s no after-party or anything. You get done with the race and you’re gone, you don’t see anyone, you’re off to the next one and there’s nothing even there to do or see. Even the local races, it’s like, ‘All right, good job, you got the race done. Here’s a medal. We’ll see you guys next year.’ It’s not bringing anyone in.”
Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo), who has raced professionally since 2006, is facing early retirement at age 31.
In a separate conversation, Peter Stetina echoed this sentiment, almost to a word.
“I won the Tahoe Trail 100 last year,” Stetina said. “It’s a Leadville 100 qualifier. I was in the local paper, getting interview requests afterwards. It was big. I mean, pro racing is important, on the WorldTour stage and on TV, that’s still the frosting on top of the cake. But when you go to a local event, and have a good result because you’re one of the few professionals there, and then you sit down with everyone at the campsite afterwards and have a beer and just kick it — you show you’re a real person and you’re humble — that sells Trek bikes. That’s huge, too.
“I think it’s just about having guys that are accessible and getting people stoked on seeing firsthand professional cycling. It’s something to look up to for younger juniors. It’s about being an ambassador for the sport, as a professional. It’s about reaching the masses.”
One veteran of the domestic racing circuit, who requested anonymity because his team is actively seeking sponsorship, suggested that potential corporate sponsors or wealthy benefactors consider investing in establishing a national race series, rather than sponsoring a team. Sponsor a team, and you get your name out there when the team gets results, the theory goes. Sponsor, say, a 10-event national series, and you get your name out there every time a series race is held. Exposure is guaranteed.
“I think we need a national-level sponsor for a series,” he said. “It’d be around the same amount of money. To run a good Continental program — pay guys well, take care of them, and have a good staff — you can do it for just about a million bucks. So you start looking at national-level events at $50,000 times 10, or $100,000 times 10 events… $100,000 is super significant. If you told Jack Brennan at the Tour of Gila you’re gonna give him $100,000, he would cry. He would openly weep. If you go up from there, then you could talk more prize money, and bring over teams from Europe to help pump it up and get more media exposure. We have the talent here, we have the terrain, we have the media coverage, we just need some events to actually do.”
Not everyone agrees. EF Education First-Drapac manager Jonathan Vaughters believes the idea of a self-sustaining American road calendar has always been flawed.
“There’s a reason the top domestic riders often don’t cut it in Europe,” Vaughters said. “It’s not the same level of racing, not even close. It’s a different landscape. US domestic racing should be 15 Aevolo teams, not a bunch of 29-year-olds who are either done with the WorldTour or are never going to get to the WorldTour. We need development teams, not Pro Continental teams that are just big enough to be expensive, but nowhere near doing the Tour de France.”
So where does all this leave the US as a cycling nation? Where will future Tour de France contenders or Paris-Roubaix winners develop?
USA Cycling CEO Derek Bouchard-Hall (right), with TJ Eisenhart and Taylor Phinney at the 2018 Colorado Classic.
While USA Cycling doesn’t have the means to influence market forces such as corporate marketing budgets or the cost of municipal road closures, what it can do, Bouchard-Hall said, is provide resources for what he refers to as Super Regionals — amateur events that galvanize cycling communities across the country, such as Redlands Cycling Classic in Southern California, Tulsa Tough in the Midwest, or the Green Mountain Stage Race in New England. A list of potential Super Regional events, he said, has not been finalized.
And while a sponsored national series, or federation-backed Super Regional events, will help foster along traditional road racing, perhaps the US is simply not the environment for a full calendar of European-style road races. American culture is not, and has never been, one that embraces road racing. It’s a culture that embraces stars, and the success of those stars has spurred on bike sales, which in turn has generated interest in competition and participation.
Compared to Europe, where road racing has deep history and bicycles are more commonly used as transportation, the US remains a nation of endurance cycling enthusiasts who appreciate road racing in the context of their own experience. The average American cyclist may not care who won at Redlands or Joe Martin, but perhaps recognizes and wants to compete in mass-start events such as Dirty Kanza, Crusher in the Tushar, the Belgian Waffle Ride, or one of the many Leadville-branded events.
LifeTime Fitness, which has acquired both Dirty Kanza and Leadville in recent years, clearly sees these high-profile participation events as an opportunity for revenue and growth. Consider it the New York City Marathon or Ironman triathlon model, applied to cycling. Perhaps it’s the time for traditional road race organizers, as well as domestic teams and sponsors, to accept and embrace this model as well. Winning pro-only road races is always a good thing for riders and teams, but what it means to be a successful, sustainable pro cycling team in the United States in 2018 is changing, and rapidly.
Brain McCulloch (KHS-Elevate) won the 2018 Belgian Waffle Ride.
“It seems to me that sponsors, especially big-money sponsors, don’t care about exposure anymore, because there’s so much noise out there, it gets lost,” said Creed, who runs the Aevolo U23 development team. “I think what they care about now is the messaging, and how it makes people feel — goodwill efforts and charities and public outreach. I feel like cycling is changing from that old-school, ‘Oh, you guys won stage at the Tour of Utah so you get more sponsors next year’ mentality. That might be a thing at the WorldTour, but that’s definitely not a thing at the domestic level. I think we have to find a way to court money sponsors better.”
As the calendar continues to shrink, and the industry fragments, pro road teams may need to evolve into pro cycling teams, their team trucks filled with road, gravel and mountain bikes, targeting the most widely attended cycling events in the country. Most road bike brands also produce gravel and cross-country models, and would presumably be happy to see their sponsored athletes riding different horses for different courses, as we saw when Joe Dombrowski finished second in his Leadville 100 debut in 2016.
“We talked about it a little bit with [Crusher in the Tushar],” Creed said. “It’s definitely on the table. Cannondale, as our bike sponsor, was into it, but we just ran out of time. Ultimately it’s about getting these kids race days. If it means that we’ve got to show up to gravel races with a bunch of aero bars and screw with people, I don’t know, that’s the grifting system. You find the grift and you go for it.”
Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale-Drapac) finished second in his Leadville Trail 100 debut in 2016.
Vaughters suggested that his EF Education First-Drapac team would be doing more mixed-terrain events in 2019, and added that he sees the junior mountain-bike league to U23 development team to WorldTour team as the pathway of the future for American riders. “Racing local crits to becoming a domestic pro to going to the World Tour — I think those days are over,” he said.
McCabe sees it the same way. “Teams need to start having more diversity,” he said. “You have a team that goes and does Dirty Kanza, Belgian Waffle Ride, Whiskey 50, Leadville 100, all these gran fondos that have blown up. I think cycling is healthier than it’s ever been, it’s just that a lot of American people can’t really relate to the sport of professional road cycling, unless they just ride road bikes. Teams need to look at that and be like, ‘All right, we focus on these races, but when we’re not racing we’re sending you guys to promote cycling and healthy lifestyle,’ or whatever their message may be.”
What’s clear is that US road racing is in a state of transition. What it was once, it may never be again. The paradigm has shifted. The change that is underway may some day be looked back upon as simply part of the sport’s evolutionary process. Americans will continue riding and racing bicycles, but the traditional road racing format may not prove to be a model with lasting power in the US. The United States will still produce riders into the WorldTour, but their path to the podium will likely look very different than it has in the past.