Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Rise of American Amateur, Decline of the American Pro

The Air Force Classic put MABRA's best against the professional peleton's best crit racers.  While I was happy to see guys I know doing more than hanging on (Ryan McKinney taking a serious prime and Rugg lapping the field), I was somewhat discouraged by the quality of the field.  Four years ago when I first watched the race, it included a winner of Paris-Roubaix and nearly every racer was a professional.  For the first time I can recall, the race was largely amateurs or that new underclass of American bike racer, the unpaid professional.

The National Criterium Calendar, formerly a professional series, is now mostly an amateur event.  Most participants are unpaid.  Even events on the National Race Calendar are no longer dominated by professionals, with several exceptions: the Tour of California, the US Pro Challenge, and the Tour of Utah.

Domestic professional bike racing is suffering.  Is this a problem?

Growth for the Globally Competitive
First, this is not solely the fault of Lance and doping.  What's happening in domestic cycling is happening generally and seems to be the result of globalization--wealth and rewards are concentrating in the 1%.  Those able to compete on the global stage take all the spoils.  Those very few riders who find themselves under contract on Pro Tour teams are paid well, and the events they attend continue to grow in popularity.  Bike racing at the very top level continues to earn money for the UCI, ASO and sponsors, despite seemingly debilitating drug scandals, race fixing, and corruption at the top level.  In fact, in the past three years the total budget for the 39 pro teams rose from €235 million to € 321 million--a 36.5% increase

Bicycle sales are also on a gradual rise, the data show.
Bike racing as a whole, just as the global economy as a whole, seems to be growing.  

Decline for the Nationally Competitive
While cycling has grown on the global stage, on the national stage it has declined.  The number of professional teams racing domestically in the US--Pro Continental and Continental-- has declined precipitously in the past few years.  The domestic peleton has been halved in eight years.  

As if needed pointing out, that's a serious decline.

Amateur Bike Racing Continues to Grow
While professional American bike racing has declined, amateurs continue to race and take out licenses.  The chart below shows the inverse relationship:  pro riders numbers (blue line) decline, amateurs (red) rise.
USAC-registered membership, events, and clubs have all continued to increase in recent years. Much of this growth can be attributed to interest in cyclocross and mountain biking, which are admittedly growing more quickly than road racing; still, there is little evidence of a common decline in bike racing generally:  in fact, the American amateur peleton continues to rise, even as its professional peleton declines.

So we can't blame the decline of the domestic American professional peleton on disinterest in bike racing or on the global economy, or even on a global decline in the sport of bike racing (since the number of US Pro Tour teams remains the same).

One explanation for the decline is Roland Robertson's idea of glocalization, in which an effect of globalization is the receding of nations and national identity and the rise of the local and the global.  Sponsors once marketing goods to solely American audiences now find themselves having to appeal to a global audience to sell goods.  Why bother putting your brand on a kit worn at an East Troy crit, seen by a few hundred physically present spectators when you can put your logo on a kit in the Tour de Suisse and be seen on streaming video around the world?

Does the decline in American professional bike racing matter?
Some have argued the pro peleton's decline hurts the development of promising American bike racers.  This may be true, but there's also evidence that amateurs can still compete on the global stage.  Japanese marathoner Yuki Kawauchi is an example of an amateur finding a niche on the top level of his sport.

Amateur squad Kelly Benefit Strategies-Lateral Stress Velo has sent a squad around the country to race NRC and NCC events.  While they would clearly benefit from funding--they crashed at my parents' place for a night--they, like other amateurs, are finding a way to compete at the top level with domestic professionals.  The risk and cost of doing so (Tim Rugg quit his job and risks serious financial difficulty if he is injured or has a health problem) are tremendous, however--risks sponsors in previous eras would have gladly covered.

To me, as a bike racer with no aspirations of become professional, the decline of the professional American peleton does not matter.  Americans bike racing existed before the professional peleton arose in the 1980s, and it can continue to exist.  As long as clubs and individuals like Jeff Travis, Joe Jefferson, and Chris Gould are around and putting on races, I'll have great venues.  As long as the Air Force is generous enough to sponsor us, I'll race in Clarendon and Crystal City.

Still, I hate to see bike racing go the way of so many other pursuits these days and sacrifice the good for the great.  In the music world, this same trend enriches artists on the global stage (e.g., Justin Bieber and Kanye West) and impoverishes those on the margins.

If there's some consolation in the decline of the American professional peleton, it's the rise of the amateur one.  We're able to cheer on local guys, our friends--Rugg, McKinney, and Scott Giles--as they compete against the best. This is akin to growing your own veggies rather than buying them from some global corporation importing them from overseas.  Buying local, cheering local, racing local--there's value and pride in it.

And every once in a while, one of our local guys makes it onto the true global stage where we get to see how our own representative--I'm thinking of Joe Dombrowski and Nate Wilson--stacks up against the world.

The loss of domestic professional opportunities for our best local amateurs weighed against the gain of global opportunities for the very best of us--that's the bittersweet effect of glocalization in cycling

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