Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Is Cycling Dying? A look at the data

A local race promoter recently implied our sport is on the decline. It's unclear if this is mere promotion of his events or a genuine worry.

I admit, I've had the same thought.

According to USAC, licenses issued nearly doubled from 2002 to 2013. From 2013 till today the number of USAC members has declined.

Note, the 2015 value is certainly an underestimate, since it does not include riders yet to become members in 2015.

However, the general arc of membership has obviously flattened, if it is not in outright decline.

Especially troubling for the future of cycling is its aging membership--half of members are between 35 and 54. Less than 20% are under the age of 25.

Our sport, just like most of us, is also failing at attracting women. Only 16.8% of USAC members is female, only a slight increase over last year's 16.3% gender ratio.

Generally, I'm not overly concerned. Do I really want the sport to continue growing? Bike racing isn't District Taco--the world isn't made better when office parks around the globe become the complete dominion of bike racers.

On the other hand, the sport is much like Sophia Loren--it is, at its best, a vision too beautiful to be enjoyed only by crusty old guys like me.


PJ said...

Uncle, you may be interested in this analysis:

On aggregate, our region is aging faster than it's replenishing, and as a sizeable part of the replenishing comes from a big junior program, it's unclear whether they'll stick around more permanently as they go on to college or "real life," or even another more competitive region or setting. One thing I think worth noting is that in the '80s, bike racing used to be a truly young person's game, with big membership spikes in the late teens and peaking in the late twenties. Much different these days, with many more masters.

To me an underlying issue remains that 20-35 demographic. I know I'm biased being one of them, and being on a team with its roots at that age. Yet with the influx of young people to the DC region, and a rise in transportation cycling (men and women), we ought to be seeing many more millennials taking on the sport. Instead, the increasing arms race expense factor (i.e. Cat 4s with carbon wheels), plus other more convenient/less dangerous fitness or competition alternatives taking hold, seems to nullify this potential advantage. MABRA is now largely populated by guys who have been around the area a while and put down roots, or older folks getting into cycling as budgets actually permit.

At the MABRA meeting, Jim Patton presented stats from 2014 race days vs. 2013. I hope that data becomes available soon too. Maybe we can bug our friends on the board.

Kevin Cross said...

Excellent points, PJ. Your thoughts seem to echo those of this WSJ article entitled "The Slowest Generation" and about your people.

Karsten said...

Another thing that I would like to see would be an analysis of yearly license holders across a period of years. I can count on my hands the number of riders that still race whom I raced with back when I started. I think we both know probably a dozen riders that no longer race, but might still ride.

I posted a longer response on the MABRA list summarizing my experience racing across a lot of different regions. My personal opinion is that repeat memberships are biased towards masters racers and my guess would be that category 2-4 riders would likely be low across several years. Many reasons:

1. Its increasingly clear that there is little glamour in pro continental level cycling and increasingly few team spots. Furthermore, its also quite obvious when one makes it to the Cat 1 or 2 level the differences between the truly elite and those that call themselves elite so they can segregate their teams by license numbers. At a point it becomes difficult for many 2s and most 1s to ever be relevant in a race. On my current team I race with a cat 3 who used to actually be a 1. He was a good sprinter and TT'er in a flat, sparsely populated region and raced for 8 years as a 1. When he moved to CA, he quickly found that his past locale's races were not nearly as long, hilly, or fully of top level competition. Off the back for 2 years straight and he found that a 75mi cat 3 race was more than enough of a challenge and he now does 2-3 races a year depending on how he feels that week or month. A friend back in MABRA who will remain nameless recently downgraded from 2 to 3 and found the same given his skillset.

2. Building off of 1, lots of geographic regions offer races that are all very similar in terms of raw demands. You are either good at climbing, sitting in and sprinting, or time trials/GC results. All arounders, which are probably the highest percentage of amateurs, don't really stand a chance accept to accumulate points here or there, which isn't very rewarding. Given the thousands of dollars a race season can cost, the ROI diminishes significantly after a while. Plus, why race the same course 5 years in a row.

3. On the contrary to point 2, riders are also afraid of hard races. Look at Lost River- NCVC riders who were volunteering that day wouldn't race their own race for fear of getting dropped. It was truly an awesome race and one in which I only finished with the lead group once, but absolutely loved. In CA there are a number of tough early season road races in the most beautiful areas of mining country that are about to disappear. Riders don't want to drive 2 hrs for fear of not winning or finishing off of the podium.

4. Grand fondos, gravel races, and large organized race/rides are attracting more people who want a physical challenge, want to compete against others, and don't want to be limited by a pretty obtuse category system. They cost about the same to enter, often feature incredibly scenic and challenging routes, and aren't the same merry go round as the weekly group ride. Moreover, they have a much different atmosphere in many cases, which attracts all different types of cyclists.

5. This is a personal opinion, but I believe that racing its more even, but more negative than ever. Every single cat 3 and 4 has a powermeter, TT bike, race wheels, and a coach. By and large riders are faster, lighter, and more well equipped, but at the same time it seems more hesitant to race their damn bikes. I recall racing with many of your teammates in 2011 and although a lot of our cat 4 tactics didn't work, there were more races that finished with riders off the front or a break of some sort than the last 2 years of racing combined. Speeds in a lot of races are unbelievably slow overall, yet variable as riders pounce en masse on anything that inches off the front, yet hesitate to commit. There really isn't a race dynamic, its a long group ride with a Hains style sprint at the end. So why come back?