Tomorrow the Valley of the Sun (VOS) race starts around Phoenix Arizona. Last year we made the long trek south. This year we decided not to bother. It simply does not make much sense to spend thousands of dollars and travel thousands of miles for 3-4 hours of cycling.
Not everyone shares that opinion.
The race appears to have expanded especially in the youth fields. Fully 49 juniors (17-18) are registered and this has everyone electrified. Some are so exhilarated they have drawn analogies to Nationals. It all goes to show how relative everything is. Forty nine juniors -give or take a few that may not show and a few that register on site- is nothing to write home about. In Belgium it would be considered a failure if only 49 juniors showed for any event. The most insignificant local kermesse may have to settle for a race like that, but most villages or towns probably would not bother if that was all they could muster. I heard races have been canceled because they failed to attract field sizes of at least 75.
In the US, 50 is big news. People are flying in from all over the country to be part of it. No doubt the closeness to some of USA Cycling most prominent coaches plays a role here. People want to be seen so they can be selected to be part of the National Team. That team will then take them to Belgium, a place they could easily visit on their own and for a whole lot less money. Even for left coasters a trip to Belgium will give more miles raced per miles traveled than VOS does.
I suspect Americans are afraid to travel to other countries. They do not feel comfortable in foreign countries, especially those where English is not a first language -Mexico being the exception. The recent worries about terrorism have only made the situation worse.
There are no official government statistics on passport ownership and the quoted numbers vary from a low of 7% to a high of 25% according to this website. A very optimistic publication, "debunking the passport myth" puts the number at 30% quoting State Department data. The site makes the argument that Americans are not insular, but rather that they cannot afford to travel abroad. But many recent articles quote both lower numbers and point to an aversion to visit foreign locales.
Compared to Americans, a whopping 52% of Canadians and nearly 3/4 of Australians have passports. Even if you take the most inflated numbers (37% according to one site, most stick to less than 25%), Americans are way below what is normal in other countries. The economic argument does not make much sense either. Americans have comparable or better incomes than Canadians and Australians, and their geographic isolation is the same or better (meaning the threshold amount they would have to spend to travel).
37% is very low by European standards. And I should add that, even if true, the number is hugely inflated because of recent changes in the law, requiring Americans to get passports to travel to Canada and Mexico, both countries that were once accessible without passports (the law changed as a result of 9/11). Without those recent changes the true number -meaning those who will go abroad- lies somewhat closer to 10%. That is an amazingly small number. Travel angst is for real, whether people want to acknowledge it or not.
I have recently experienced that travel-angst first hand. I was able to secure some valuable team slots for a stage race in Belgium. It is the kind of race that the National Team sends "selected" people to. The same people that travel all across the country to go to VOS or Sea Otter, or any other race with a competitive (i.e. 50 juniors) field. People will easily spend thousands of dollars to go there. So for these people at least the economic argument does not hold water. They have the money. Yet many of them do seem to worry about traveling or having their kid travel to Europe. A substantial number of cancelations cited costs, although I doubt that costs are a factor. If so, I think a reshuffling of priorities is required, especially for those who aspire to a career in cycling.