Kabush in his prime. Photo: Getty Images

Geoff Kabush: Athlete or influencer? Can athletes just be athletes anymore?

I hope there is still room for young athletes who have performance goals without follower or subscriber goals.

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Geoff Kabush is a legend of North American mountain bike racing. He’s won 15 Canadian National titles, five US National MTB Series titles, has a cross country World Cup victory, and raced in three Olympic games. He’s also outspoken – notoriously so, particularly against doping. He once stood on the podium at Sea Otter in a Dopers Suck T-shirt, as one small example.

He filed the following opinion piece in response to the six-race Life Time Grand Prix gravel and mountain bike race series. That series opened an application process for 40 (later increased to 60) total athletes who would race for the $250,000 in prizes. The application process and rules of the series have since become a topic of discussion within the gravel and mountain bike communities.

I hope there is still room for young athletes who have performance goals without follower or subscriber goals.

You’d think every athlete would be psyched to hear about the announcement of a new big-money off-road series in North America, right? A $250,000 prize purse sounds awesome on the surface but as I read through the details of the recently announced Life Time Grand Prix I started to see a few issues and ideas that raised some concerns.

Life Time’s excitement was great but I felt they had fumbled a chance to fulfill their stated goals to create opportunity and grow professional racing at the highest level in North America. From an athlete’s perspective, I had some feedback that I felt could help improve these goals. Some of the commentary from Life Time was also problematic to me as an athlete and I saw some consequences that I felt could be unhealthy.  

Among my biggest concerns was corrupting the democratic process of entry to the top level of sport and turning it into a somewhat divisive application procedure. Instead of working hard to prove themselves athletically, riders would now be asked to first apply, promote themselves, and submit a video describing why they deserved a spot in the new series. On the application, one of the first questions asked was what I felt I could bring to the Life Time Grand Prix? My answer was constructive criticism.

They didn’t ask for my opinion, nor that of many of my experienced peers, but from what I saw Life Time could have used a few different outside perspectives. I answered the questions honestly on the application, shared some of my opinions publicly, and waited to see if I would make the cut. (I did not.)

The debate about whether I “deserve” a spot is irrelevant to me. My question is: should athletes even need to apply?

I’m most concerned about the consequences for the many talented up-and-coming young riders that have been excluded for unknown reasons. I’m not afraid to share or discuss my opinions and it’s not the first time I may have upset a few in the cycling community. Sometimes it seems like people are afraid of any personal confrontation or uncomfortable with public debate these days.

Sometimes I’ll use my sarcastic Canadian humour but it is all in an effort to push the sport in the right direction. I’ll listen, evolve my opinions, and admit when I am wrong. If other pros would just admit they care more about winning mass start events with aerobars than other people’s safety, that would be great as well.

Kabush as his alter-ego, Deaner, providing some Canadian sarcasm. Photo: Courtesey Geoff Kabush

It wasn’t just the need to apply and get selected – a major concern to me was that part of the Life Time application included a section on social reach and self-promotion. Especially for young athletes, I believe the drive online for likes, subscribes, and popularity can be mentally unhealthy for many.

Social metrics are a component of athlete sponsorship these days, although not nearly as important as many people think. I think many marketing teams are realizing that getting to know the people behind the metrics is more important. Online metrics only go so far and personal interaction and judgement goes a much longer way to determining if athletes are a good marketing fit for a brand.

If I get a lot of likes posing under a waterfall in my speedo, does it really market anything? If my humorous video, or funny meme, gets thousands of views does it really sell a company’s product? To an extent, online followers and interactions, if they are authentic, give athletes a platform, but is it healthy that athletes now must worry about those numbers now just to compete?

Some athletes just want to race, and I think that is great if that is what’s best for their mental health. The major concern is athletes feeling more pressure and concern because they will be excluded from competition. Will they be judged on their reach and sponsorship more than their athletic talent?

Not everyone is cut out for the online drive and pressure. As an introverted quiet young athlete, I’m not sure I would have survived if I was just starting in sport these days.

I’m worried about the implications of this trend and don’t agree with an application process for “pro” racing which already has enough barriers and is selective enough.

There is a good use of an application process, of course. I encourage and love seeing applications or entries set aside for events that give opportunities to some more diverse or underprivileged riders. There have been great inclusive ideas pushed forward for some Life Time events, and others like SBT GRVL, but I’d love to see more. We still have a long way to go, judging by the diversity of athletes selected to participate in the Grand Prix.

Athletes left out

Over the course of my career I’ve also seen women in the sport have to fight for equality and I think it is amazing what progress has been made. At this point, however, it had better be a given that prize money is equal and women do not need to be saying thanks anymore. Can you imagine the uproar if a new series launched without equal prize money for men and women? I don’t think using equal pay as marketing earns you any extra credit these days.

I’ve seen public complaints and arguments that inviting more “pro” riders is taking away from public lottery spots. This has been used as a justification for limiting series entries to what is now 60 spots. This argument is a little flawed as a substantial number of these entries will be received through event sponsor exemptions anyway. It is all an important part of the symbiotic relationship between the race, sponsors, and athletes who all need to be present to activate projects, media interest, and onsite events for a successful weekend.

If you want more opportunities to race, and you want organizers to be successful, which I do, then everyone should be happy that these relationships and entries are allowed.

A series like the Life Time Grand Prix definitely wants to ensure it has certain popular and positive personalities with a large reach committed, and I don’t fault them at all for that. Creating a narrative and outreach is important for marketing as well as the media coverage. What also creates a good narrative is open access and allowing any competitive rider into the series.

I don’t know how you explain or tell the story that the top riders in the series are not actually the top riders in the series because other riders weren’t selected or aren’t participating. What happens when the winner at Sea Otter doesn’t then become the leader of the series because they weren’t one of the chosen 60? I know a few unselected riders that are more than fired up to prove a point next year and will challenge for that podium. How do you balance those two priorities of securing an athlete narrative and open competition?

My suggestion is to work to entice targeted riders to commit to the series, maybe add some diversity, and then let any competitive rider earn their spot based on performance. I would expect the first event of the series, Sea Otter Classic, to have an open pro category registration and you could easily guarantee the top riders from Sea Otter gain entry moving forward.

Photo: scottharaldson.com

What’s a good number? I’m not sure but it is not a money-losing proposition to increase the number of series athletes further, or just leave it open to everyone, as they are expected to pay for entries anyway. It would sure make the story easier to tell if the top riders in the theoretical series were the top riders in the actual series at all times.

I’ve seen so many times how hard it is to predict who the top riders will be, especially coming out of COVID, and in such a diverse off-road series. Hands up how many people would have predicted this past year’s breakout performances from Moriah Wilson, who will almost surely be a top women’s series contender next year? Some people will come out of the woodwork but despite that, there are already many proven riders on the outside looking in.

Sandy Floren has put the boots to Pete Stetina and I at many of the popular NorCal Grasshopper events, has won U23 mountain bike Nationals, and this year finished second to Stetina at the gravel monument BWR San Diego. He has been a little busier working on academics than posting on Instagram during his young career. Should he be excluded from a great shot at the series overall because he didn’t get selected?

How about Cory Wallace who is currently the defending 24-hour world champion, has won BC Bike Race multiple times, finished 11th at Leadville on dropbars this year – which I obviously loved to see – and is always a contender in any endurance event? Do you think he should also be denied the legitimate chance to compete for the overall?

How about Ryan Standish who is universally liked by everyone in the off-road community? He probably got more cheers than anyone at the last World Cup MTB event in West Virginia. His dad has MS and he’s worked hard to fundraise for more research during the last couple of years. There are probably a lot of great characters like him that don’t promote every good deed they do. Should he and others get denied the opportunity to earn a spot and platform in the series?

What I do think really makes an event interesting is when a diverse set of riders and personalities from different disciplines compete together. I think adding even more WorldTour pros is great to add to the buzz! That is unless you are trying to limit the competition for the already established “retired” gravel pros. A diverse field of riders was one factor that really made the storied USGP of Cyclocross compelling.  Do you think some top European riders or cyclocross superstars like Kerry Werner or Curtis White should be excluded from the competition? They didn’t make the cut either.

Athletes are understandably excited that they got “accepted” but I really think they need to take a step back and look at the consequences of this model for other athletes in the future. I’ve talked to more than a few riders that are bummed and disillusioned by the selection process. In the cycling world there are riders I’m not good friends with, and disagree with politically, but should a race organization be able to deny entry because they lean the opposite way?

Drug testing at gravel races

It is well known I have very strong opinions about former dopers when there has been no truth or reconciliation. I do, however, still believe that even they should be able to enter a race if there are no sanctions currently in place. If someone’s history or political beliefs don’t harm anyone in the community then I also don’t believe they should be denied entry. Inclusiveness should mean everyone – even if organizers don’t like them – is allowed a chance to compete.

That should be true, of course, up to a point. If they start targeting and affecting people in the community like we’ve seen at recent US cyclocross events, then action is warranted. Don’t hate the players, who are doing nothing wrong; hate the game and take your protest up with the rules or USA Cycling instead of targeting individuals in our community. It’s their prerogative but I just really encourage race organizers to not actively promote riders that have damaged the sport, not to have them on discussion panels, and don’t highlight their appearance unnecessarily. Don’t expect me to work with Tom Danielson if I’m in a breakaway with him either.

My career spanned some dark days of doping in cycling and I care deeply about clean sport. When I listened to comments from Life Time stating they would love to see cycling brought back to where it was in the Lance Armstrong era it was pretty offensive. Not sure they have any idea what it was like for clean athletes in that era because I do and I can tell you it sucked. If you want to cash in, sure, but as an athlete, I’ve always said I would much rather have a clean sport than one with a lot of money in it. I’m pretty sure the cycling industry is doing just fine right now anyway and doesn’t need another glorified doper and narcissist to be successful.

This brings me to Life Time’s suggestion and goal to have independent drug testing, which is still to be confirmed. Sounds great to me but they should probably ask the Enduro World Series how easy independent testing is to implement. I’d love to hear what they find out when they investigate sanctioning for a positive test, legality, liability, and testing protocol. Maybe they come up with some form of independent testing but will they be putting themselves at risk? I wonder if it is even plausible to have any consequences.

There are myriad reasons that Enduro decided that involving the UCI and WADA to test athletes was the best way to address this issue, including the sport’s credibility. Is anyone doping in gravel? I can’t tell you but when the money starts to flow, the limits and rules start to get pushed as we have already seen this year. Gravel jumped the shark years ago and telling people to “just be cool” only goes so far when money or prestige is on the line.

Everyone needs to help to make an event a success but judging by athletes’ reactions some context around who it is benefitting is needed. Selected athletes need to be aware of the value they bring and will be providing to the series as well. Don’t get me wrong, it is awesome to see the prize money put up but for athletes it is important to have their eyes wide open as to the relationship and reasons behind it.

Life Time have stated that they are going to lose money on the series and they are doing it because of their love for the sport. Sure, I love the sport and riding my bike too but I don’t lose money doing it and neither does Life Time. Losing money on the Grand Prix series is like a company stating they are losing money on advertising. How much do you think it would cost to hire 60 of the top athletes in North America to promote your product? Realize as an athlete 40 of you will not be getting paid any of that cash. If athletes decide to do a race they should promote their experience and bring awareness to the event but it isn’t very authentic if they need to tick a box and commit to being a good ambassador to gain entry.

Kabush is not a fan of aero bars. Photo: Courtesy Geoff Kabush

The $250,000 in prize money is fantastic, sounds super impressive, but that could also use some context when it is called game-changing. I’ve seen a lot of big-money series in my career and as recent as 2019 the Epic Rides Series was paying athletes well over $150,000 in prize money over only four events.

Epic Rides had a great event format but unfortunately, COVID killed the momentum as they were poised to add more events and money that any motivated rider was free to sign up and chase. I hope they, along with many other great organizers, return in future as unfortunately, most weren’t multi-billion-dollar companies that could afford to weather the COVID storm or buy up successful events like Sea Otter under financial duress.

One-day events like Iceman Cometh have for years paid out over $60,000 in prize money. If we just had six events like Iceman Cometh that would be quite amazing. I think most athletes would be much more appreciative if Life Time had invested most of the $250,000 in prize money at the individual and premier events like Leadville and Unbound. An overall prize would still be great but Leadville costs over $500 just to enter and none of that is returned to the event field in prize money. Unbound costs hundreds as well with the same $0 payout.

I’m sure athletes that can’t commit to the series, riders like Ian Boswell, Lauren De Crescenzo, and others with prior commitments or priorities, are pretty bummed they could win one of the biggest races on the calendar and receive no payout. It will also be really strange from a marketing perspective, and media narrative, that the defending champions of the premier Life Time event, Unbound, will not be taking part in the series. I hope their stories and other race winners won’t be pushed to the side because of a focus on the series narrative.

Maybe I’m too pessimistic, but is their aim to grow professional cycling and take it to new levels or is it to monopolize the top athletes to exclusively commit to Life Time events and get a competitive advantage over BWR, Epic Rides, and other event competitors?

Points to tell a story

If the intention is to create an exciting series and narrative, I certainly wouldn’t recommend the current linear points structure either. The consequences of this – 30 points for first down to 1 point for 30th, will reward average results and participation, but maybe that is the goal? Do Formula 1, MotoGP, World Cup MTB, SuperCross, Alpine Skiing, or any other top series have a linear points structure? No, and for good reason.

Is outsprinting someone for the win as significant as rolling across the line in front of someone for 29th? Do you want the possibility of an amazing rider winning multiple races and still finishing off the overall podium? How about someone who never stands on the podium to win overall? If the goal is to reward athletes for performing well, taking risks to win, and creating a dramatic storyline, or a compelling finish to the series, I’d highly recommend changing this to a points structure that is more rewarding for top finishes.

At the end of the day, even though I’m not selected for the series I’ll still be excited to attend and race some of the individual Life Time events. Hopefully, this article will generate some points of discussion among athletes and race organizers that I think are important to consider for the future. I think many ideas that have been glossed over in all the excitement need some sober reflection.

Maybe some think I’m a salty gravel troll yelling on the internet, but I’m always happy to chat or discuss ideas in person. Mostly, I am hoping to provide some critical, constructive feedback so Life Time doesn’t ruin gravel before the UCI even gets a shot at it. (Spoiler, I don’t think they will, and they might even create some new opportunities for the next generation of UCI riders that haven’t already “retired”.) 

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