Thursday, February 18, 2010

Natour criteriums, a solution for US cycling's woes?

In my previous post I highlighted some of the problems facing US cycling. Membership in USA Cycling, though growing, is aging fast. There is a lack of enthusiasm among younger people. Cycling is not taken seriously. Schools and colleges do not support it. There is little or no upward mobility or career opportunities.

The sport has gotten tons of bad press due to doping scandals. While nobody complains of baseball players or football players using steroids and other performance enhancing drugs, cyclists are subjected to a real life witch hunt with overly eager officials and the press in tow. While steroid-using baseball players are entered in the hall of fame, cyclists who commit even the smallest misstep are labeled cheaters and their livelihood is threatened or taken away. The anti-doping crowd has muscled its way into their lives with no respect for privacy, let alone civility.

Bike races attract few if any spectators. Races are hidden from view to the extent possible. They happen in remote locations, preferably at the crack of dawn, before anyone hits the street. They present a confusing array of skill levels and age groups, all intermingled on the same road. The various groups often interfere with one another in competition. Scoring is stuck in the 19th century and errors are the rule rather than the exception.

Yet there are some hopeful signs. Lance Armstrong has attained a star status that transcends cycling. Wherever he shows up, impromptu rides materialize and thousands of enthusiasts crowd the streets and bring traffic to a virtual standstill. At the Boston marathon a few years ago, Lance attracted more spectators than race favorites and the rest of the field combined.

The Lance example shows a way forward. What do you do when you want people to follow your lead? You bring out the star power. When the Navy tries to recruit people, they bring out the Blue Angels. They don't show the grunt work or tedium associated with service. They have a simple and straightforward message. Show the excitement and the glory.

US cycling could do the same thing. Even in the crowded (European) calendar there is room for short star-studded races in mid-summer. Mid-summer happens to be the time kids are off from school. Families are on vacation, so every day is a holiday. People crowd scenic venues such as the Sierra's, the wine country, and gold rush towns, ideal locations for afternoon and evening bike races.

US Cycling should help organize natour criteriums (natour is Flemish for "after-tour"). These types of races are held all over Europe right after the Tour de France. They take place in early August, at a time when cycling is front page news but the race calendar is empty. The criteriums are a way for people to see and meet the Tour stars in a smaller and more intimate setting. A way to watch a short but intense race followed by autograph signing and parties. The events are also the best way for professional cyclists to cater to their fan base.

Natour criteriums would be a bonus to US professional teams on their return from Europe. Lance, Levi, Tyler, and others could woe the crowds instead of hiding in the Bahamas or at home. These races would also attract extra crowds to smaller towns in tourist spots, while presenting only a minor inconvenience to local residents. But most importantly, the criteriums would expose children and adolescents to the excitement and glamour of the sport. What better recruiting tool is there?

Tuesday, 9.25 mile loop in the hills
Wednesday, 10.25 mile run to Redwood and back.

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