What Happened to Bike Racing in the US?

Peter Abraham
Nov 1, 2019 · 5 min read
The sprint finish on Stage 1 of the 2018 Tour of California

On Tuesday of this week, the Amgen Tour of California, owned by AEG, announced that they were canceling the event for 2020. They called it a “hiatus,” leaving open the possibility of bringing it back in 2021. But it’s clear that the only WorldTour bike race in the US may be gone forever.

Since AEG offered no background information on the cancellation, many people are guessing as to what the story is: the high cost of producing the event, lack of sponsorship, problems with other AEG properties, etc. These things may or may not have played a role in the decision to cancel — I have no inside information — but it’s worth looking at the context to understand how we got here.

The Tour of California was conceived in the early 2000s, and the first edition took place in 2006. That was almost a generation ago. Think about where we were at that time: the iPhone had not yet come out, social media meant MySpace, and Lance Armstrong had just completed his improbable run of seven straight Tour de France victories. The world has changed dramatically since then. Importantly, over the last 20 years, the world has transitioned from the industrial age to the information age.

Why the sport is in decline:

  1. Generational change. Millennial/Gen Z is not as motivated by purely competitive participation sports; digital media, social engagement, and adventure are all at least as important as winning. On top of that, attention spans are shorter now, so spending months to train for a singular sport is less appealing than it was for Boomers. This phase shift is not limited to bike racing: triathlon, golf, marathons, tennis, and even college football spectating have all been trending downward for 5–10 years.
  2. There’s no business model for traditional bike races. Road racing events typically need a lot of operations support from cities and counties: roads need to be closed, police and safety personnel need to be hired, and media broadcasts need to be produced. This stuff all costs money. And yet there are relatively few participants to pay entry fees and offset costs. As an example, take the San Dimas Stage Race. It’s a three day event that is a staple of the Southern California cycling scene. I counted 476 entrants at this year’s event, with each paying $160 to enter. There’s a time trial, a road race, and a criterium. If you do the math, they took in about $76,000 in entry fees. They do have some sponsors, but I can’t imagine their overall budget was much more than $100k. How does a race director put on an event of that size and compensate him/herself for their time? A gravel event is different: fewer paved roads to close, and an event might have over 2,000 participants. And in Europe the production costs of races are typically covered by the municipalities. So the bike race business model is viable in Europe and on gravel but not on the roads in the US.
  3. Road safety and lack of women are big issues for cycling. At the grassroots level, riders are opting for gravel and mtb events because they feel safer being away from the roads. In addition, traditional road cycling, whether in a race or on group rides, is not welcoming to women. Compare the San Dimas Stage Race (11% female/89% male) to a typical running event (57% female/43% male). Cycling has been blind to the gender issue for years, and it’s now paying the price for that. The Tour of California, which to their credit does have a smaller women’s race, is critically missing female fans, sponsors, and athletes.

Where the sport is going:

  1. The continued explosion of gravel. As I’ve written about before, gravel is appealing due to the sense of fun, community, safety, and welcoming attitude towards women. Lifetime Fitness, owners of the Leadville 100 and Dirty Kanza events, just announced a new gravel race in Bentonville, Arkansas. Expect lots and lots more events in this space. Events are consistently selling out and demand is high. That won’t last forever, but I believe the space will grow for the next three years at least.
  2. More and more pros making their living full time on the US gravel scene. Being a pro cyclist will move in the direction of being a pro runner: you could do your own thing here in the USA without being hired by a team. This opens up a season of gravel races as an option for enterprising pros with marketing skills. Ted King, Rebecca Rusch, Phil Gaimon, and some cyclocross/mtb riders have been doing this for awhile. But this trend will accelerate as gravel picks up steam.
  3. Fewer and fewer bike shops. Direct-to-consumer business is having a huge impact on bike shops. All of their customers are under attack: service (from VeloFix, Beeline Bikes, and others), new bikes (from Canyon, YT), and parts (Amazon). Bike shops often serve the role of community center for cyclists within a geographic area. Many retail businesses are dealing with the same challenges, and I’m not sure if any physical location will step into the void to replace the community component of shops. Perhaps online spaces are the permanent replacement.
  4. Consolidation of pro road racing in Europe. I now think of pro cycling like NBA basketball or NFL football: sports that mostly happen on one continent. And pro cycling happens in Europe. While the UCI has put races into China and even Saudi Arabia, the big time part of the sport is based on the other side of the Atlantic. US-based pro cycling teams like Rally-UHC and Axeon Cycling now have to spend most of their time in Europe; there simply aren’t enough races in the US anymore to support a domestic program.
  5. The rise of Zwift and other eSports platforms. One cannot ignore the influence and popularity of online/offline platforms like Zwift and Peloton. I had a pro cyclist admit to me this year that she trains on a Peloton three days per week. Zwift has hundreds of thousands of users and has taken in $164 million in venture capital funding. I consider these to be positives, because they broadly get more people on bicycles. And with Zwift now recruiting cyclists for the Canyon-SRAM women’s team, don’t be surprised to see online cycling in the Olympics.

I look forward to seeing cycling brands, events, athletes, and governing bodies adapt to these seismic changes. There’s lots of opportunities for those who do, and danger for those who don’t.

Peter Abraham

Written by

Founder, Abraham Content Marketing Studio

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