American Cycling Healthy????

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I saw this article over at Cyclingnews by Peter Stetina.  It is titled American Cycling is in a Healthy Spot.   I can’t go with it.  And I don’t fault Peter for writing this from his perspective.  He has only seen an upward trend since he started racing.  He isn’t old enough to be able to compare the sport to where it was 40 years ago.

But if you go back to the 70’s, or probably better yet, the mid 80’s, then if you looked at the trend line, it would be on a horrible downward slope.  I’m not sure cycling is that healthy anywhere, but it isn’t especially here in the US.

It costs now more to race bicycles proportionally than ever before during my time.  Promoters are having rough times making ends meet, so they pass the charges through to the riders via higher entry fees.  They also face nearly impossible odds of securing good road courses because of the red tape and public outcry against road closures.  It is harder now to promote a good bicycle race than anytime in US history.

Peter talks about how many US riders are lining up at European Races.  Back in the 80’s, the best Pros that won the Tour, Worlds, etc. came to the US a couple times a season to race against us.  7-11 was nearly a whole team of Americans racing the Tour.  Now, at best, there are maybe 2 US riders on any Tour team.

Entry fees have become absurd.  Entry for a stage race can be close to $200 and to get that back you have to finish on the podium.  Local criteriums are $35 and you race for nothing.

And let’s not even address the prize money differences.  Back in the 80’s, there were years were a good rider on a relatively good domestic team would clear close to $30000 a year in prizes.  I very much doubt most domestic US pros pocket a tenth of that now on a yearly basis.

Andy Hampsten finished 4th in his first Tour de France in 1986.  Americans won stages in the Giro and Tour relatively often.  The difference between the ability of European and US domestic pros was very slim, if any.  That all changed with the doping culture and the relationship has never come back to close to being “normal”.

I don’t understand why there are so few US riders racing in Europe, not so many as Peter thinks.  There are how many US registered Pro Tour teams, 3 or 4?  And how many US riders on each, maybe an average of 2?  That is out of whack.

The bicycle companies from here, the US, don’t seem to care about the health of the US aspect of the sport.  Specialized is probably 4X bigger than when I rode for them 20 years ago and now they sponsor 3 Pro Tour Teams.  They are probably giving Alberto Contador more money than their whole domestic road budget.  The same with Trek.

If all were perfect in the sport, there would be 100’s of guys that could live off racing bicycles. And how pitiful is that statement?  Out of all the people you see riding around on bicycles here in the US, the sport would seem healthy with 100 US riders making a living off the sport.  Adding every American pro’s salary total, would be that of one back up pitcher in the major leagues.

Cycling isn’t healthy here.  It is harder for everyone involved.  Harder for the promoters and the riders.  Luckily for everyone involved, most of us involved, love the sport enough to persevere.   But let’s not fool ourselves that that any aspect of the sport is healthy.  That just isn’t true.

These are the benefits of cycling that might be classified as healthy.

These are the benefits of cycling that might be classified as healthy.

Tucker posing for being the TradeWind Energy calender puppy.

Tucker posing for being the TradeWind Energy calender puppy.

35 thoughts on “American Cycling Healthy????

  1. Bolas Azules

    Was this a story from The Onion??? “Healthy place?” This has to be a parody piece.

    His laundry list of tainted riders – George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde, Lance Armstrong, Jonathan Vaughters, and Levi Leipheimer, Tejay Van Garderen, Chris Horner as his heroes and flag bearers for leading the US charge in Europe… Maybe someone should tell old P.S. who these guys are.

  2. Mark Kerlin

    I have to agree. When you consider the cost, inherent danger or racing, inconvenience of travel, and prevalence of doping what parent would deliberately steer his or her child into cycling? And what’s the upside? If you make it as a pro, which is a very selective, difficult thing to do, what’s the payoff? On the road constantly, exposed to higher levels of danger and increased incentive to dope, very little recognition. You’ve got to be crazy (for the bike) to want to do this.

  3. Zach

    American cycling is where it is because talented athletic youth end up on the basketball, baseball, soccer, track&field, and to a lesser extent, football tracks. There’s very little cycling talent nurturing happening — in my experience, cycling talent usually comes out in the collegiate intramural racing scene when some kid rockets from D to A in a year or two.

    The first problem is getting those kids on the bike in the first place — it’s a lot easier to get into a running group and do half marathons in your own city than it is to go to some lousy road race in the middle of nowhere.

    I remember when I got into racing 12 years ago, the Ohio Valley scene was bumping with tons of road races — now there’s just a handful of pavement races — with a lot more attention paid to CX where it’s easier and cheaper to hold a race.

  4. jc1

    do these races – great food (free), great beer (free), great single track, great aid stations (pizza at 4000ft), great racers, great camping etc…

    something like bcbikerace or transrockies or LaRuta (www.adventurerace), you’ll be paying upwards of 2000 for 3-7 days of racing. When I was racing these stage races, I was spending upwards of 20k a year and biking 25000km of riding (around 650km a week in summer and 400km in winter). Like a bad crack habit.

  5. mark

    Maybe making a living off of riding your bike is not that realistic here in the U.S. but take a look around. Cycling is everywhere with loads of people doing it and the majority of those people aren’t even thinking about making a dime from it. Both paved and MTB trails are going in everywhere! Bike races are all over the place! From that perspective I would say that yes indeed, cycling is alive and well here in the U.S. Otherwise, Specialized wouldn’t be as big as they are.

  6. channel_zero

    Both paved and MTB trails are going in everywhere! Bike races are all over the place!

    USA Cycling has ignored access issues forever. You can thank the bike industry for getting Congress to fund multi-access projects. It turns out that voters mostly like them too.

    Please define “bike races.” If you mean organized rides, then yes, probably more of those, maybe even with timed segments. If you mean events sanctioned by USA Cycling, the numbers are mostly declining.

    National elite at this point are mostly paying to ride. Eric Marcotte, former national champion, is a chiropractor that was on a team that didn’t pay riders and USA Cycling was fully aware of it.. Our “pro” ranks aren’t professional at all.

  7. channel_zero

    Something is going on at USA Cycling that is not yet public. First Vaughters writes a long rambling article about competitive cycling in the U.S. and now Stetina, is doing the same.

    If only there was some transparency at USACDF we would know why the federation is projected to lose over $1 million in 2016.

    USAC members certainly don’t seem to care.

  8. davidh

    I think there is a distinction to be made between cycling in the USA and racing in the USA (which is what Steve really seems to be writing about). Anecdotal evidence suggests that cycling maybe is pretty healthy, with more people riding to commute or for recreation, but never dipping their toes into a race sanctioned by USA Cycling or anyone else. I’d like to see some real data about this, but I don’t think racing is an accurate proxy for the health of cycling in general. There’s good and bad to that. Racing is in lousy shape and the participation of American riders at the WT level seems to be ebbing. On the other hand, when cycling is perceived to be the exclusive province of the extremely fit/lunatic/spandexed, it is a real barrier to entry for the mass public. It’s not a bad thing if that barrier is lowered, if we can accept the new participants view riding a bike as more of an activity than a sport.

  9. Krakatoa East of Java

    Stetina: Get on your bike and ride home little boy. Tell whomever asked you to write that crap that it’ll take more than the Stetina family name to lend credibility to the narrative you’re trying to push.

  10. Robo

    Why does their have to be a payoff? I won’t deliberately steer my children into any sport. But if they discover it, I will encourage them and foster their interest so they can learn the value of hard work, discipline, teamwork, humility, etc. To me that is a far better payoff than any professional prospect. And legitimately, how many sports are there were there is a significant potential for payoff? Sure, major American sports have ludicrous salaries, but the odds of making it to the bigs is so infinitesimal. We should race our bikes for fun and/or personal fulfillment, not for money.

  11. Robo

    I don’t know what the appropriate level of compensation is for a professional cyclist, so I don’t know if I can make the argument that they are underpaid. But I surely can make that argument that other professional athletes in major american sports are grossly overpaid. But that’s a reflection of the market: there’s consumer demand for high-profile major american sports (and their start athletes). There’s next to zero demand for cycling. If Americans were more interested in bicycle racing, there’d be more money it. So for now, if you want to be a professional cyclist, you should probably have an alternative source of income to support yourself.

  12. channel_zero

    Money. Don’t forget the money. USACDF has made junior development into a nice revenue generator.

  13. channel_zero

    There’s next to zero demand for cycling. If Americans were more interested in bicycle racing, there’d be more money it.

    There is no interest in developing a domestic anything and hasn’t been for over a decade. They HAVE developed new ways to get paid. The worst of them being the insurance scheme.

  14. AdamM

    Agree that to label competitive cycling in the US as healthy is nuts.

    Non-competitive cycling may be relatively more healthy, but I bet it’s primarily depending on a bunch of geezers reconnecting with the bike riding they did as kids. Today almost none of my kids friends ride bicycles even for trip over to a friends house. The young generation doesn’t have that same connection to the bicycle. The answer from the industry seems to be raise prices and squeeze that last dollar out of the old folks before they age out for the market.

  15. Zach

    Those programs are awesome — but like youth racing in cyclocross — I bet that most of the participants have a parent that is also racing the same day.

    Imagine if cycling took a few cues from soccer and had some serious grade school/high school after programs in places outside of Boulder. Here in Chicago where I live, there is an opportunity to do something pretty great with bikes and kids — it just takes money because decent bikes can be expensive — and it also takes good infrastructure. I could do a lot with 5-6 cyclocross bikes in small sizes and a grassy loop that could be shared with the HS cross-country team.

  16. Tripod Ron

    Thought: It’s the Master’s class fault for all of this. It leads to taking racing seriously into your 60’s. Most other sports fade out once you hit 22 or so and then maybe you join a beer league to hang out with your friends. This leads to getting involved with youth programs and helping them develop, rather than being in your 40s-50s-60s and still trying to chase glory for yourself.

  17. El Tarangu

    Now for some generalizations…and opinions…

    I was once a top Cat. 1 with some pro offers in the US but decided to head to Europe to try to find another way. It is hard to explain to most people what this is really about, but I totally understand why there are not more Americans racing in Europe, as you ask in your mail. It has little to do, I think, with faulty genetics or Europe not being a nice place. It is wonderful.

    The reality is that the payoff even if you become a pro seems precarious at best. Cycling is home to a lot of good people, but also quite a lot of douchebags, both in the US and Europe. American cyclists integrate very poorly in Europe and in order to race full time there, among all the other normal immense difficulties of pro cycling, you must also have a life. From what I can see from friends here and cyclists I know is that most basically have no life other than the tiny little expat racing community and their spouse.

    Few speak the languages well, if at all. Phinney speaks Italian quite well, though. The lifestyle is precarious at best, even if you are paid fairly well. It goes beyond money. Pro cycling is its own little world and has little to do with the real culture of Europe. Have you ever read much from Ted King? If you read between the lines, he says as much. Then, even if you are lucky after a full pro career, unless you can direct a team or work in the car or something, you will again be at an odd life transition point.

    This is getting long so to summarize…I guess cycling´s issue is all those things you speak about, for sure, and more…precarious existence, difficulty living a more ´full´life (unless you marry a European or speak the languages very well), a sport which seems to have plenty of weasels, a sport that is dying (racing-wise, even in Europe), a tremendous opportunity cost and a lack of mythology. The era of mass-media combined with doping revelations has killed the mythology for many young racers on the cusp of turning pro. These hunches that I have are also the result of conversations with many of my French cycling friends, who also talk about how much the sport has dwindled and even they concede that other than the Tour and some large races, the sport is dying a quick death at the local level. People are just not that interested in it anymore…for a variety of factors.

    And finally, not to trash Stetina specifically…but how many American pros are really inspiring? Not just fitness-wise, but in terms of personality? How many of them have a nuanced view on what is going on? Gone are the days when people saw pro cyclists as though they belong to some part of some mysterious world. And many young racers on the cusp of turning pro or making their way to Europe pretty much know the story before it all starts…they know how it ends almost before the journey begins. Phinney and Stetina, Teejay Van Leipheimer et. al. have tremendous talent, etc…but something is different.

    But something has changed…

    Seems to me like cycling is just becoming more of a participation sport. Road racing does not command the attention it once did. It is a marginal activity, basically, other than the major European road races. Here in Spain all of the people pine for the days of Indurain, or Delgado or earlier eras of cycling. Was their doping? Yes. But there were more stories. More mythology. Indurain was huge. He was symbolic. But local racing in Spain has also died now.

    So your post is right on. And Stetina is basically just a talented kid who will have to figure out his life after cycling and then he will realize, though a beautiful activity, that it did not necessarily prepare him well, existentially, for life after racing. He will come to understand also that the wider public does not really care all that much about pro cycling as he assumes they do. Cycling won´t die, but it will continue its morph from what it used to be to what it is now…an expensive participation sport, much like triathlon and golf. It seems very doubtful, even though it does sadden me, that cycling will be able to keep inspiring in the same way as a sport.

  18. Dave King

    This opinion piece was clearly written from a narrow perspective, that of a successful male U.S. pro living and racing in Europe. I believe that Mr. Stetina is mistaken, not just in his assessment that the “State of the Union is quite healthy” in general but that US pro racing is healthy in particular, which is his world.

    While there might be more U.S. riders in the WT and there are 3 U.S. WT teams, those WT teams have very, very few Americans on them. Yes, California and Utah have been around about 10 years or so but I would not call them stable. US Pro Challenge is off the calendar this year because of lack of sponsorship and I imagine California and Utah would be in a similar predicament if they lost their sponsorship. Jelly Belly has been around since 2000 – quite a long time, yes but the Jelly Belly riders make a pitiful salary. In fact, most domestic pro riders make very, very little money – certainly less than those in the 1980’s and 1990’s did. Same goes for prize money – there is much less prize money on offer for domestic pro racing than there used to be.

    However, what’s most glaring and concerning in Mr Stetina blog post is the total absence of discussion of female professional racing, junior development, local and amateur racing in the U.S., and doping in professional and amateur ranks. The salaries and teams of U.S. pro women are even more pathetic and precarious than the domestic men. U.S. pro women’s race calendar is also very meager with NRC races – last year the last race on the NRC calendar was in June 2015. And while there are a number of men’s NRC races they are scattered around the country in a geographically non-sensical manner making it difficult or impossible for many domes U.S. pros and aspiring Cat 1’s to compete at that level beyond a few races.

    Junior road racing in this country is a joke these day. It’s nothing like the heyday of the 1980’s. Meanwhile, master’s racing is awash in races and sponsorship money (at least here in NorCal).

    The local road racing scene is diminishing here in NorCal and I would be surprised if that wasn’t the case throughout the U.S. Entry fees are regularly $40 – 50 for a 45 min criterium and road races are disappearing off the calendar. And prize money is almost non-existent and is often below the level of 1990.

    And that leaves us with doping, the elephant in the room that Mr Stetina does not even mention despite bringing up the names of so many confessed dopers. He could have at least mentioned that their confession of doping lead to the opportunity to have cleaner racing in Europe and U.S. pro racing – which is arguable but nonetheless an argument that can be at least put forth. However, he fails to do even that. Doping exists even in amateur racing in the U.S. and to ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist on an amateur or professional level does nothing for prevention or reassurance that the sport is now clean.

    Also, I haven’t even touched on mountain biking, cross racing, recreation riding, gran fondos, trail and road access and rights, etc. Some of these areas have seen tremendous growth while others have diminished but they don’t even get a mention here.

    Unfortunately, Mr Stetina’s blog post reflects the perspective of someone with a very narrow world view that has little relevance for the typical US domestic pro, female pro, amateur racer, recreational rider – really for about 99% of cyclists.

  19. Rich

    Hey Zach, I think we used to ride together. You rode some vintage Schwinn, if I remember right. And, always rode a ridiculously big gear. Even if not, totally agree with your experience, points here.

  20. Nathan Guerra

    Vision Cycling
    “New Generation for Cycling”
    “Make cycling a traditional sport”
    The solution is good hard work in developing a sports tradition. It is long-term, local, and generationally focused. A magic pill did not build all the basketball courts, football fields, baseball diamonds etc or create the long lasting belief and purpose found in those sports through team building and coaching from one gen to the next. Those thongs happened over decades, but we can take their model and accelerate it with focused strategy. That is what Vision Cycling, NICA, and other orgs like them are trying to do.

    Individualism/independent attitudes found in cycling do not help it, I do see a tendency of cyclist culture seeing their cycling just about them, maybe no team sacrifice in the hobbybof cycling causes the attitude to permeate much of the culture. Having team structures with sacrifice of time and efforts at practices on a massive scale will build value in next gen cycling as well as create the much needed cycle of athletes into coaches locally as well.

    Be a NICA coach, start a Vision team, or cast your own mission for a new tradition in cycling, but tradition is the answer to making sport household and have value.

  21. Nathan Guerra

    Apologies on posting from a phone failures…..thongs…hmmm not sure how auto correct came up with that one, yea always ordering thongs around here….

  22. mark

    When speaking of bike races I am thinking more along the lines of MTB, CX and Tri’s I guess. Off-road racing in particular is growing in our region. Hell, cycling period is booming around here.

  23. Zach

    I think we did — Athens crew in 2006-2007?

    Yeah, I had some vintage Schwinns that I rode the crap out of as a poor graduate student.


  24. Krakatoa East of Java

    The funny thing is, I’ve met lots of people who either raced, or still do “race” (in their eyes), but have never even heard of USAC. I’ll be at a party, and someone will introduce me to their “bike racing friend”, and we’ll chat. Some of these people never had ANY exposure to the influence of the UCI and USAC, but they still trained and “raced”. And who the hell was I to tell them “Oh yeah, all that stuff you did? It wasn’t really bike racing.”? The fact was, THEY considered themselves racers. Who the hell am I to judge?

    Just like you can find a 10K event (or triathlon), compete for years, and not ever have anything to do with the actual organizations that might lead you towards a slot in the Olympics. There are plenty of these kinds of athletes that have completely bypassed the structure we have all come to know (and stay within).

    I think the sport is healthy, but you’ve got to be willing to look outside the walls of the box.

    Yes, I’m talking Fondos (and the like). Bike racing has become a sport that can’t really be contained or controlled. And you know what? Who gives a shit if it can’t. People used to talk a lot about forming breakaway federations, and some even did. And it still didn’t matter, because plenty of people

  25. Krakatoa East of Java

    … because plenty of people have come into cycling and found their own ways to compete against other like-minded people, completely outside of the confines of “official” structure. Look at alley-cats, messenger races, gravel races, independent MTB races, etc.

  26. Nathan Guerra

    Sure people are racing, that is not a measure of health or traditional influence, which is where Steve took the theme of “health” in this post. I guess that is another subject then, whether or not the health of a sport is based on it pull as a tradition. I would say it is part of that measure for sure, with perhaps a few other factors.

  27. dave

    In general, I think the competitive side of the sport has declined since the 80’s early 90’s. Why ? It hasn’t adapted with the social/sporting culture as the years go on. Bike racing’s various disciplines need to change their event modproo. Look at other sporting events. Start with a corporate sponsor promoting a charity/benefit cause(health related). A common cause draws in a wider attention from the public, creating something greater than just the bike race that the general public will get behind and support. Corporate sponsors are more likely associate with this type of event and fund a good prize list. Now, another part of the puzzle is the race event structure itself. I was at Richmond VA WORLDS last year to watch and observe and it was similar to my idea of a “road bike racing event of significance”. A Sunday schedule of races on about a 6mi to 8mi circuit with a S/F line in town that went out a ways to include some variety in the course. It would have less cornering, more open stretches for the pack to move around giving all individual riders more opportunity to race upfront. It would also be safer if it’s raining. Start junior boys first, 5 min gap then girls, maybe 4 laps. Then cat 3, 4’s, Masters men followed by cat 3, 4’s, Masters women. Finally, the main events pro 1/2 women and pro 1/2 men. On a large circuit like this, two separate category races could be run at the same time, just start the faster group first then a 5min pause til the other group goes. 3/4’s, Masters could go 5 laps, main races could go 7 to 10 laps. The whole event would be between 9am and 4pm. Think of a running marathon. I think the combination of ( corporate sponsor, benefit/cause/charity, and race course layout), lends itself to being a ” racing event of significance”. And keeping it to the same week on the calendar each year will allow a tradition to develop(corestates, msr, Flanders, Roubaix, giro, tdf). Finally, I think this type of road bike racing would develop riders better than all those criteriums. Crits are for track riders, it’s like track racing without the banking. No disrespect to that kind of racing but what’s the big picture here? The general public see’s a crit as just monkeying around in a cute little amusement. A big course with a little longer distance would have a more serious image to people. Then, duplicate that around the country, each city having their own traditional date on the calendar, and it could be a real race series to make up the bulk of the schedule. MTB & xc could use a similar model. Track too if there were more velodromes.


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