Right about now the hangover from this past weekend is juuuuuust about starting to diminish. Everyone I talked to was on a high watching the culmination of an amazing 2011/12 season with the World Championships streaming right into the comfort of all of our living rooms. It’s amazing this thing called the internet. It wasn’t too long ago that we all had to (literally) give a secret password to some guy in Seattle who had a pipeline to bootlegged copies of races on DVD ripped from primitive DVRs in Belgium and had to wait weeks after the event to get our copies. It’s that much easier now to see your heroes on your flat screens nowadays. As it’s happening. It’s that much easier to see more, be inspired and repeat what you see.
This season was pivotal…truly a tipping point…in terms of our sport’s visibility and growth. The racer-participation numbers were staggering…most demonstrably in the junior and youth categories. As I keep repeating, we’re witnessing ‘the new Little League’ begin to cut its teeth with kids pouring in. All so they can ride their bikes around in circles, in the mud, over boards about a 1/3rd of their height with crazy people screaming their guts out for them. How incredible that must feel.
So, as I lean back and observe, the state of our sport in the U.S. is healthy and showing green sprouts of success.
But what is ‘healthy? And what is our definition of the sport’s ‘success’? Does success begin and end by statistics entirely driven by and dependent upon “racer-spectators?” Another way of saying that is our racer-cum-spectator community is applauding only itself. We race, we change clothes, we stay a bit at the venue and spectate other categories…and we marginally grow in this closed-circuit system. Net-net: if a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear it?
I tend to break down success into two categories…but categories that are mutually dependent upon each other if not inseparable:
Exhibit A: U.S. racer success
Exhibit B: Success of the the sport here in the United States
Let me walk you through my thoughts here…
U.S. Racer success
I am going to focus my attention here on the ‘elite level’. Let’s start with this past weekend at the World Championships. 18th place. That was Ryan Trebon’s scoring at Koksijde and the best ranked U.S. rider on the day. One of the last to sneak through the 80% rule of not being counted as a lapped rider. And honestly, an incredible result in the grand scheme of things. I am sick and tired of seeing yet another tweet or hear another comment of ‘pathetic’ or ‘we should be ashamed’ or any number of completely idiotic, naïve and otherwise uneducated reactions. It is a result that was well earned if not miraculous when you step back and see the bigger picture. Were there better results historically? Sure…Page’s silver in ‘07 and probably most impressive and similar to Ryan’s was Marc Gullickson with his 13th in 2001. Everything is different, folks, from this side of the pond to that side. Everything. About the only ‘constant’ between us is the equipment we use in this day and age. It wasn’t always like that either. We finally have top notch supplies…tires, frames, etc. But all of the rest is completely foreign to us. Unknown with the exception of what can be gleaned from YouTube. What’s misunderstood and different? Seasonal build up and training: different. Racer incentives: different. Racer motivations: different. Competition: completely different.
Let’s talk about incentives and motivation. Take a guy like Tim Johnson. By all definitions, other than perhaps Mark and Frank McCormack, he has been ‘Mr. Cyclocross’ of the most recent generation here in the States. He is a champion if there ever was one. But is the archetypal example (if not the painfully true example) of the necessary struggles a U.S. racer passionate for the sport must do to build it and make a living at it for he and Lyne. It is he who must hunt. Hunt for sponsorships, for escalating visibility of himself and the sport. He is creating a new model of professional (cycling) athlete in the U.S. I like to call them “athletepreneurs”. Athletes who must build a personal brand, spend inordinate amounts of time maintaining their brand…and in the case of Tim along with Stu Thorne…the brand and image of the ‘team’ at large. It’s an incredible amount of energy and with that likely a pull from the focus required to do one thing: go fast when it counts.
Abroad, it is quite different. Why? There are far fewer ‘professionals’ who are vying for spots on well-funded trade teams and by extension the ever so critical ‘start money’ received for simply toeing the line by the event organizers (more on this in ‘Sport success’ below). The sponsorship and lucrative start money is there in spades and these European athletes are carefully grown, groomed and then chosen from their youth…a youth which is effectively all about their sporting development (and that is in and of itself a larger sidebar story). This is not the case at any level in the U.S. Not even for our bat-and-ball style sports let alone wheeled sports. We have no ‘Sporting Schools’ that the general populous can attend (P.G. years at Choate do not count, folks). Tim’s manger/handler (a.k.a. himself) isn’t being handed a check from the local newspaper supporting the event in Fort Collins Colorado USA for $12,000 to show off his shiny legs and Red Bull helmet. Quite the opposite. It’s his sponsors who have carried him there to rep the brand, image, etc. Tim, in turn is on the phone with marketing managers and PR reps at Red Bull and a phalanx of other sponsors 300 days a year wherein he must perform ‘duties’ to get paid. PR events, social media, and on and on. All a distraction in my opinion from the quiet focus we see these European athletes exude and are able to maintain.
In addition to the professional deviations between the continents, we have…the riding and racing itself. It’s…fast. It’s different. And it’s simply not the same style. Racers even in the earliest category are trained in tactics. Group racing is the norm even in the younger categories and these continual lessons teach ‘smarts’. We simply don’t behave that way here…with the exception of the 5-7 or so ‘elites’ we have pushing the pace at the fronts at USGPs. It’s about as close as we can get.
Courses are radically different than what we know here as well. They are racing on courses built for professionals. Koksijde is a great example of that. It’s an historic landmark used only for elite-level World Cup and World Championship racing. Compare that to ‘any given Sunday’ in the United States where we have every single age group from Aiden Keller (age 9) to Tim Johnson riding on virtually the same course. That concept simply does not exist in Europe. Masters/Juniors/Amateurs have their race events and respective courses…professionals have their own. Build up for these races is entirely different as well with the majority of the cross peloton sponsored to appear in highly lucrative Kermesses (circuit races) with blistering paces but longer ‘base-centric’ endurance being the side benefits these crossers reap before they plow into the dog days of November and December in the low lands.
Lastly, when you take these elements above, there is one key ingredient to combatting all of that above: being there. Geoff Proctor has created an incredible system vis-à-vis Euro Cros Camp. I will say this out loud: if I win the lottery, I will volunteer ALL of my time to stay there and do what I can to help Geoff. He’s a saint. But it isn't enough to quite literally change the DNA of our young riders to race and compete at the level their Belgian, Dutch and Czech counterparts do weekend in and out. We need riders who can compete alongside them all season…earn points…negotiate start money…get faster…learn tactics...become hard. But who could blame a kid for not wanting to spend all that time away. A high school student simply couldn't (unless they had unique support from their parents and good schooling at ex-pat schools). And it’s not clear to me who in our U23 ranks is dedicated enough to the sport to actually try it. I mean from August to February. Alone. In shitty weather. Underpaid (at first) all in pursuit of being and beating the best.
So before you ever dare mention another foul word about the performance of our boys and girls in the hardest races on earth, think. But before we can think big and reap the rewards of success, we need to pull up our big boy undies and take the plunge. Full stop. And actually be there. Not go on a vacation and have an appetizer.
The Sport’s Success in the U.S.
‘Sporting success’ consists of a wildly ranging set of opinions, data points and variables. I’ll walk through a few of my viewpoints but again, success has many definitions. It’s also the one aspect where my doubts truly get the best of me. Why? Well I think we can draw parallels to the basic ‘dud’ that Major League Soccer has gone through here in the U.S. I am of the generation that remembers seeing and cheering for Pele himself when he was on the Cosmos. Nothing has really changed. Soccer remains a very small fringe sport that is entirely misunderstood by the average U.S. Joe. A Joe who would WAY rather sit and watch a sport in his living room…a sport that by its very nature was architected for television. Time outs, replays, and games where there are ‘plays’ versus constant movement (think players on a field passing a ball or cyclists climbing a stage) are the key pillars of ‘TV sports’. The ‘Joe’ goes narcoleptic with continual movement it appears. And that’s no good to sell beer in the U.S. Joe has no patience for it and therefore Budweiser doesn’t either. Entertainment for the Joe comes in 2-10 second ‘bursts’ and then…whew…a funny Bud Light commercial to bring the heart rate back down. The part we must evangelize is the drama of cross. You do not have to understand much about cycling to simply witness the drama…for VERY short periods of time. It’s tuned for the Type A in all of us…and Narcoleptic Joe. Anyone can empathize with someone trying to pedal their bike on sand or through mud and try to keep it together. It’s a spectacle…and it’s the key thing media and advertisers need to be educated upon to have any hope of drawing in the big sponsors.
And speaking of Joe…it’s average Joe who is important for the next item…Spectatorship. And Spectators = cash money. Entry fees, ecosystem revenue (like the frites and beer guys) and follow on merchandising. Cross is a spectators paradise.
The Belgian ‘Politie’ (police) who managed the event in Koksijde estimated 65-70,000 spectators had squeezed themselves into the airfield and surrounding community where the historically famous course lives. It was a record even by European event standards. The average Joe in Belgium is not a racer-spectator. They are a FAN! A cigarette smoking, frite eating, Jupiler swilling, Sven Nys-talking, no bike riding, factory-working FAN. A fan who is willing to pay the required 15-25 Euro (depending upon caliber of event) to get inside the event and line the tape to see their heroes in action. Contrast that with the United States where local race event organizers have to beg and plead to first secure an area to lay a course on, pray they do not get sued for destroying the land (or erode profits re-establishing grass), pay out obscene amounts of cash for liability and then market to an audience of…you guessed it: racer-spectators. All 200-1000 of them on average. The Europeans have it nailed. Land owners fight to have their land used for events versus their neighbors farm fields a town down the road. Fans can come and enjoy beer, music and lastly…a chance to win! In other words, gamble…
Gambling at this level and with this amount of ‘entry level gambling fun’ is simply not allowed here in the U.S. (lest we ‘cross on an Native American reservation…hint hint, promoters). ‘Making it interesting’ at races by putting a few Euro down on ‘your guy’ is like a cultural birthmark in the countries where cycling is an ‘important’ part of a national identity. Beer, bikes, bucks. It’s a beautiful system.
There are a zillion perspectives on the state of cyclocross here in the U.S. I’m merely providing my personal views, counter-examples and perspectives from having been able to go abroad and race my bike at a master’s level…and making great friends who I remain in close contact with to learn what I can about ‘their system.’ U.S. cross is growing well. It’s growing exponentially in Europe as well. But here in the U.S. we can not have our cake and eat it too when we constantly complain of results of our U.S. elite heroes, entry fees being too high for competitors, courses that are too hard…or too mountain bikey…or too easy… or too snowy…or too dusty. The sport needs to professionalize and do so in a manner that demonstrates value outside of us…the racer-spectator. We need to show Narcoleptic Joe that spending a Sunday off the couch and at the course with a beer in hand is fun. The drama is real and quite compelling if not addicting. That race organizers can turn the corner and stop charging racers and start charging spectators to witness the action. That the characters being built like Jeremy Powers and Tim Johnson and Ryan Trebon are true heroes and modern day ‘action figures’ who any kid will know by name and attempt to emulate on their bmx bike.
Sound X-Game-ish? Well maybe there’s a business model there worth looking at.
Stop complaining. Start innovating. Continue evangelizing. The green sprouts are just forming.