Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Bike racing in America

Every year I am told, USA Cycling adds more members. Every year, optimistic messages touting the growth of cycling in America arrive in my mailbox. Yet, I have a hard time shaking the feeling that -if anything- bike racing in America is in serious retreat. I remember the days of Greg LeMond, quite possibly the height of cycling over here and I can see that things are worse today.

That wasn't due to Greg's retirement, or to Lance, who certainly inspired many more to join and whose dominance prevented a total meltdown. No, those great numbers were due to the wave of baby boomers who happened to be at the right age. Now those baby boomers are getting old. Many are still racing -at least those 55 and under- but they are not being replaced by new blood.

The hard numbers don't tell a good story. Look at the 2008 membership of USA Cycling.

Roughly 63,000 people are licensed to race in the US. For a population of 300 million that is a shockingly small number. Belgium with only 11 million citizens has more racers than that. But it doesn't end there: take a look at the make-up of this membership. More than half are masters. Barely 7% fall into the 10-18 category; 11% in the 19-24; 21% in the 25-34 group, for a grand total of 39%. That amounts to less than 25,000 cyclists in the open category. That is not good news.

Or here is another example. Last weekend I traveled with a team to the Valley of the Sun stage race in Arizona. VOS is a major race. People travel from all over the country to attend it. We traveled 1,740 miles (2,800 km) for a total of 3.5 hours of racing. The field size in what would be called the nieuwelingen group (15-16 yr olds) was 27 racers. Few if any nieuwelingen races in Belgium are that small.

During the season, on any given weekend day, you may find 2-4 races with over 100 participants within a 60 mile radius, in Flanders alone. These guys will race for over an hour per event. And most important of all, there will be plenty of spectators because the races are held in the center of town at a convenient time during the afternoon. To avoid confusion there will be only one event (one category) and in most instances, a rolling road closure will accommodate the needs of both the racers and the local population.

Don't get me wrong. I am not faulting VOS or the White Mountain Race Club. Those guys do a terrific job putting on the race. It is a well-organized event and everyone is doing the best they can. But the realities cannot be ignored. Field sizes are small, individual events are short, and there are no spectators other than direct family members of the racers. Most of those leave as soon as their racers finish.

In the West, individual events are held in remote areas that are not spectator friendly. There is barely any parking, let alone food, drink or entertainment. Many races start early in the morning and the whole event is a seemingly never ending string of different age and performance categories that can last from dawn until dusk. Even a dedicated spectator would soon lose track of who's who and where the individual participants are at any given time, let alone how many laps they have gone or need to go.

The individual groups will meet each other on the road, resulting in confusion and forcing neutralization of the race, often at critical times. I have witnessed many instances -not just at VOS- where one group finishing up ran into a slower, earlier group just before hitting the finish line. The chaos results in botched sprints, crashes and placement errors. Contesting one's results is routine in such events.

Scoring is primitive and one often has to wait days before results -that are often wrong in many places- appear on the internet. Whereas my wife can get my splits in the Boston marathon on her cell phone in real time, some cycling races held in 2009 in Northern California only post results after two weeks!

Cycling clubs and districts stubbornly refuse to use chips or access internet technologies, claiming it is too expensive for their members (who, ironically enough do not seem to mind spending lots of cash on gas, and many hours driving to events). Officials claims chips do not work well. Given how poorly the current system works, it is hard to see what could be worse!

Tuesday, 20 miles mountain biking
Wednesday, 10K run in the hills
Thursday a 20 mile ride in Palm Springs on the way to Phoenix
Friday, a 25 mi bike ride in Buckeye Arizona. I rode the TT course (14 miles) fast.
Saturday, a 16.25 mile run in Casa Grande, AZ (one loop of the road race)
Sunday, rest and travel
Monday, 10.5 mile run (the Shepherd loop)

1 comment:

Jimbo said...


Time trial photos are available here, and more photos from the other stages will be up soon on James Rickman Photography.

Congratulations on your race!