What is the NCL? The latest roll of the dice to revamp American cycling

The first majority-minority owned sports league is looking to shake things up in the USA.

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“There are 100 Rusty Woods out there,” Reed McCalvin says, before re-considering the statement. “There are 1,000 Rusty Woods out there! There are 1,000 female versions of him, in running, rowing, triathlon. Football…West Texas Football probably has 100 kids that could win a Grand Tour stage right now but they’ve just never thrown their leg over a bike. Now we’re out there, they can see us. And [they’ll be] like, ‘man, maybe I should try this bike thing’.”

From the embers of the domestic USA cycling scene comes a new kid on the block trying to breathe life into it.

The National Cycling League reckons that American professional cycling is “positioned to become one of the most popular sports in the world” and by following the tried and tested acronym method of the NBA, NFL and NHL, the NCL has at least started in the right place to get mainstream America to care about cycling again.

McCalvin is the cycling guy in the room, a former soigneur and logistics manager for Axeon Hagens Berman, who was also Taylor Phinney’s personal soigneur for a while and managed Legion of LA. The other people involved have a net worth that means this is a serious project, one that is also being passed around Fortune 100 and 500 companies with talks in advanced stages in some places.

Paris Wallace, co-founder and CEO of the NCL, founded the women’s health technology company Ovia Health, which in 2021 was valued at just under $50 million. David Mulugheta is also involved, he is the No.1 NFL agent who has negotiated contracts worth a total over $2 billion. These are serious people and there are even more serious ones whose identities are being kept under wraps, for now at least. But the names being passed around in off-the-record whispers would make you sit up and spit whatever beverage was in your mouth directly onto the floor.

The essence of the league will be 1-2 kilometre criterium races in iconic American cities such as Chicago, Atlanta, Miami and Denver, with parity of competition between men and women as well as working on how to get a pay scale that works for everybody.

“I’ve been in cycling a long time,” McCalvin begins, “and I won’t speak ill of anybody. But there are a lot of people that talk about parity that then don’t do parity. And so we’re going to get away from that.

“We need some fans in the sport, especially in America,” he continues. “Americans understand American things, so we need to modify the sport for America a little bit. That’s what criterium racing is, it’s predominantly an American and English-speaking sport. Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, then randomly Estonians and like Swedes and a few other countries out there.”

The NCL (National Cycling League, Inc.) announced the launch of a first-of-its-kind professional cycling league. Launching in 2023, the NCL will organize a series of closed-course 1-2 kilometer criterium races in the most iconic locations of major cities around the country including Miami, Atlanta, Denver and Chicago, with a championship team decided at the end of the season and awarded the largest prize in the history of criterium racing.

The other by-product, McCalvin hopes, is that the competition helps to raise the next generation of American WorldTour riders.

“The only thing in the world I care about is developing the next generation athletes,” Reed McCalvin adds. “I literally have the flags of the countries of the kids I’ve worked for [at Hagens Berman Axeon] tattooed on my body. It’s very important to me.

“That’s our next sort of step as well as basically, you know, talent ID and bringing more and more kids up. Think about Rusty Woods, he was a good runner at a good school. Won a stage in the Tour and he’s been on the podium of the World Championships.”

Every year there were two or three to two kids, at least, that didn’t make it because you know, like CCC folded and so now there are 30 World Tour guys free. ‘Sorry, kid, you’re screwed’. So we have to have another place for those kids to go. The scene’s been dying in America with the loss of all the big stage races. We want to help grow the profile of the sport so that Amgen goes ‘well, damn, let’s do this again’. Or Toyota wants to do it, or there’s gonna be a Tour of Ohio and then a Tour of New York and then a Tour of Georgia. In all these things, if you build it they will come. Rising tide lifts all ships, all that stuff. That’s what we believe in, top to bottom. We want to grow the sport in America and make it huge and give people opportunities. Like, all this $0 contract stuff, double contracts, all that stuff is not okay.”

NCL have enlisted the Medalist Sports, who’ve pretty much put on every major cycling event in the United States for the last 30 years, and have acquired the safest barrier in the world for the competitors “because safety is always number one”.

They’ve been working with USA Cycling for a number of months to sort their rules and race format, and are currently in the approval process, the plan being to slot their events in the calendar alongside the existing races. Further details of what to expect and the names of who will be racing will no doubt be drip-fed to the public over the coming months as the machine whirrs into gear to get America caring about cycling in 2022.

“But you know, ‘Murica with a U is criterium racing,” McCalvin says. “That’s really important for us because it’s the most sustainable business model, and it’s a way to get in front of the most people and get people excited about bike racing again.”

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