Road cycling, at least in Arizona, is in a state of decline. This decline is not a new condition.
We have seen a general downward trend for the better part of the last six years, regarding both annual membership and racer days. (Racer days are defined as the number of times a member races — if you enter a criterium, regardless of the number of events you do, that is one racer day). Last year we saw a small increase in membership but in many cases, a decrease in racer days.
So what is driving the trend? There is not a clear-cut answer. Instead, we face what researchers call a “wicked problem,” or one that is difficult, or impossible to solve, because of the interrelatedness of the factors and overall difficulty in defining the contributing factors in the first place. The difficulty in merely describing the problem is one of the hallmark signs of a wicked problem, as Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber call it in their 1973 research “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.”
That I have to dive into academic research to even classify Arizona’s road cycling problem should be indicative enough of the tangled web of issues surrounding our sport.
With wicked problems, there is no testing and revising of solutions, as Rittel and Webber found, and each attempt to solve it is “one-shot” as it changes the conditions and thus impacts future considerations; with wicked problems, there isn’t an exhaustive list of solutions to try. It is even difficult to find best practices because our conditions in Arizona differ from other locations and local associations.
However, when we find ourselves with a wicked problem, the first step is to try to define as many of the issues and connections as possible. What I will attempt to do is outline the factors at play as I see them, how they relate and potential solutions. I’ve grouped the issues by teams, events and promoters, and other.
“What happened to all the big teams?” Large teams, which often consist of 100 or more members have long been the backbone of grassroots cycling. These teams often include juniors, elite and master riders — both male and female — across all categories and experiences.
These teams provide a nurturing environment for junior riders to learn from more experienced riders, often promote numerous events and support members who are traveling to other events. In Arizona, we can think of White Mountain Road Club as the prime example. We’ve had others in the past such as Tucson Wheelmen, Summit Velo (when in Flagstaff), Sierra Velo, etc. Other examples would be La Grange (southern California), xXx Athletico (Chicago area), Motivated Over Bikes (Indiana), CRCA (New York), Grand Performance (Minnesota) and so on.
Big teams provide the supportive environment that riders need to learn skills, such as how to paceline and corner, but also stay involved with the sport through social events and support at races. However, we’ve moved away from these large teams to smaller teams — regional elite teams or masters-only squads, teams where, unless you are already a skilled and experienced cyclist, then there is no room under the tent for you. The big cycling teams helped overcome the “elitist roadie” culture that makes our sport so unfriendly to new riders. Seth Davidson, a southern California bike racer, wrote an excellent post on this.
The decline of the big teams means a loss of community. How do we get new riders into the sport when there is no large family for them to join? How do they learn the skills they need to ride safely or learn about racing when there is no one to teach them? How do we ensure events continue and new officials join the ranks when there is no family to draw upon? How do we keep riders involved in the sport if they do not have a team to call home?
These are pressing issues. The social aspect of riding is a big reason why we ride and stay involved in the sport. If we are to grow as a sport, then we need to see the return of big teams — big families that support all riders of all ages of all abilities.
Events and promoters
Moving from clubs to directors
Up until 2014, clubs were required to promote an event to be an official club with USA Cycling. After 2014, there was a move toward race directors running events. There was an attempt to standardize race director education — everyone who promoted an event was required to take the same online course. The program was developed to defray the increasing event insurance costs by demonstrating a minimum level of education toward promoting an event.
For clubs, this meant anyone promoting an event had to go through the training. And while not overly arduous to complete, it is another hoop to jump through on the long to-do list of event promotion. For some, it may have been one hoop too many. Couple this with decreasing club membership, and therefore no one to pass the race on to, the race is dead.
Promoter education and certification is not a bad thing; however, it needs to demonstrate added value and not just a box to check. USA Cycling is working on revising this and the new promoter resources should add value to the training.
Hosting events was a crucial source of revenue for clubs. Proceeds allowed the club to support members racing at other events. If the event no longer turns a profit, or if we remove clubs from the picture and replace them with race directors, this source of funding dries up.
For the most part, Arizona clubs still promote events. Independent race directors promote only a handful of road or cyclocross events. However, the removal of the promotion mandate by USA Cycling increased the number of clubs that do not contribute to the racing calendar.
Insurance, police, and fees
Tangled into the loss of events is the escalating cost of insurance, local permits, police, and other bureaucratic issues. Local jurisdictions are increasingly more risk-averse and pass this aversion on to events by requiring higher insurance values.
The standard provided by a USA Cycling permit of $1 million per occurrence with a $3 million event aggregate is no longer enough for some jurisdictions such as the Arizona Department of Transportation, some city and county departments of transportation and some city and county parks and recreation departments.
Much higher limits, such as $5 million per occurrence with a $5 million event aggregate, are now required. The higher coverage is made available to promoters from USA Cycling on a sliding scale depending on participation size starting at $350 for events under 100 riders to $1,500 for events of 5,000.
The base policy does not cover support vehicles, nor are they covered by the driver’s car insurance. This coverage comes in at $45 per vehicle per event or $85 per motorcycle for the first five. As a quick example, a small (250 riders) local road race that utilizes a state highway would face:
- Base permit: $50 + $10 for each insurance certificate (usually landowners, the county, and so on)
- Additional insurance: $750
- Non-owned insurance: $45 per follow vehicle
This amounts to $800 to $1000 or more in insurance fees alone. For their part, USA Cycling negotiates an excellent insurance package. Costs in the fees have been driven up by an increase in claims (see: race director training above).
Police pose additional costs. In Arizona, many city and county police departments no longer accept being listed on the event permit as enough insurance coverage and require workers comp insurance. USA Cycling cannot provide this coverage because the police are not direct employees of USA Cycling.
Promoters must use a police staffing agency, often at a $5 to $10 per hour premium, to hire police for events. As an example, a Pinal County deputy when hired directly from the county costs $41 per hour versus $55 from a staffing agency. Most road events need eight to 10 officers for six to eight hours or $2640 to $4,400. For downtown criteriums, cities rarely subsidize the cost of police to staff the event anymore.
Finally, permitting agencies are requiring more signage – especially at road events. A few “Special Event Ahead” and “Be Prepared to Stop” are no longer enough. Message boards placed days before the event and signage along the entire course — not just intersections — are now the norm. While participant safety should never be overlooked to cut costs, the increase to an event’s expenses needs to be noted. Additionally, promoters are often not allowed to place their own signs and must use a certified highway control company.
In the past, local associations could provide signage to promoters to lower costs. This option is no longer the case. For the Oracle Road Race this cost was $3,629 for traffic control the last year we ran the event as a loop on a state highway in 2015. Revising the course to an out and back lowered the cost to $1,250 in subsequent years. However, revising a course to remove a costly road is not always possible.
In the end, promoters often face expenses over $10,000 for some road venues and downtown criteriums. Promoters can try to offset this by increased sponsorship, which can be hard to come by when compared to other means of marketing, or increased entry fees. However, if most events are facing escalating costs and answer it by raising entry fees, participation declines. Riders and teams can only pay for so much.
Loss of venues
While increased permit and insurance requirements have made some events cost prohibitive, urban sprawl and development have also eliminated venues. The iconic Bismark-Morgul Road Race near Boulder, Colorado is an example of an event once run through empty plains that now runs as an out and back due to new urban development along the course.
Locally, road races such as Colossal Cave face increasing pressure as development continues along the east side of Tucson. Increased traffic can be a death blow to road races, both regarding increasing traffic control costs and permitting agencies wanting to avoid congestion on the roads.
In our downtowns, the focus on redevelopment ends many venues. Redevelopment often means light rail tracks, closed streets, and greater business density — all of which are good things for cities. However, they mean we lose downtown courses, or they become too expensive to permit.
Enter the office park
Once the hallmark of the weekday training race, the office park is now the weekend race staple. The office park or empty subdivision provides a low-cost and easy-to-permit race venue. Costs often reduce from over $10,000 to under $1,000.
These courses are great for the promoting club or race director. But what we save in fees we sacrifice in visibility and course technicality.
We increase our sport’s visibility through spectators and media coverage. However, we must bring the race to the people. A non-racer will not make the trip to watch an office park race vs. a lively downtown scene that is open for business.
Along with the loss of spectators comes the loss of sponsorship. If no one, besides the handful of racers and their families, is present to see the banners and hear the announcer, to what extent are sponsors putting their name out in front of an audience?
The loss of sponsorship means events are reliant only on entry fees to break even. This lack of support makes it challenging to bring in ancillary event services such as music, announcing, and so on when covering the basics is already tricky. As mentioned above, entry fees can be increased to offset lost sponsorship revenue, but only to a certain degree.
In a separate vein, the events that are successful and growing in Arizona are the Mountain Bike Association of Arizona (the local mountain bike series) and the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (the high school mountain bike league).
One common thread between them is consistency in event quality. Participants are familiar with the setup of the events — well-marked courses, barriers, banners, a finishing truss, music, announcers, vendors, food and more. While the venue may change, the production value does not.
The same is not true for road cycling. Event quality and production value vary widely. This variability is partly due to cost, partly due to promoter burden, and partly due to no event brand standards provided by USA Cycling or the local association.
As a history lesson, up until the early 1990s, each region had a local coordinator — employed by USA Cycling — who was responsible for coordinating the race calendar, helping clubs obtain permits, and ensuring some consistency in event quality.
The coordinator helped establish a baseline that participants could expect at any event. It is difficult to expect each promoter to source all this material on their own. The local association can provide it; however, the difficulty becomes finding someone to maintain and bring the equipment to each event all season long.
We’re lucky to have fantastic spring weather in Arizona. However, this means our road events face competition from other events such as gran fondos, triathlons, mountain biking, gravel, running and so on.
This competition is not only for event participants, as many riders take part in multiple disciplines or sports, but also for sponsorship dollars and venue availability. Road racing is no longer the only show in town and finding weekends that do not overlap with other events is becoming increasingly more difficult.
A crowded calendar means participants must choose between events. A longer calendar means participants could burn out, either physically or financially, by the mid-point. It is important to remember the average participant in Arizona is not a young elite racer aspiring to turn pro.
Instead, it is Jane or John Doe Cat 4 who has a family, a job and other commitments, our demographic statistics show. They cannot, and will not, compete every weekend. They will pick the event that is more fun, or the event that is close to home, and will put time with family over traveling every weekend.
Marketing is also a factor here. In an increasingly crowded stage, how do we make our events stand out? How do we make sure we stay relevant to participants? In the past, reliance on word of mouth, the big clubs to bring riders (after all, we attended their race so they’ll attend ours), and our event’s name/prestige were enough. However, we’re now competing against numerous other events while our events face escalating costs, venue changes and other issues.
Online registration is a double-edged sword. Gone are the days of mailing in registration forms and checks, replaced with a quick and easy online system. However, most online registration platforms allow riders to see who is signed up. Here in exists the problem. Low registration numbers cause riders to “wait and see” who else will sign up, while their peers do the same.
The result is either a crush of registration before registration closes or no registration at all. The women’s Pro/1/2/3 race was canceled at Verrado Criterium in 2017 because only one rider had signed up. However, when talking to eligible riders, all stated they were, “waiting for a few others” to sign up before they did so.
Conversely, online registration can spur others to sign up when they see a large number signed up early out of fear of missing out or missing a start spot. We need to work toward signing up earlier rather than later to encourage others to do so as well. Refunds are easy to issue online if a rider changes their mind or becomes injured or sick closer to the event.
Many of the above issues with insurance and permit costs are entirely outside our control. However, we have little influence over cities, counties, and other agencies when it comes to insurance minimums, signage, curtailing sprawl or redevelopment. We do have some control over event quality, the calendar and online registration habits.
Beyond issues facing our teams and events, there are other things difficult to categorize but have impacts on road cycling nonetheless.
Texting and driving
Arizona has some of the highest rates of distracted driving in the U.S., and our traffic fatalities increased in 2016 by 8.7 percent, up to 952 from 897, according to Arizona Department of Transportation statistics. Cycling fatalities rose to 31 from 28 and injuries to 1,350 from 1,278. Texting while driving creates a dangerous roadway and increases the odds of injury.
It is unclear if the increased odds of injury or death have caused cyclists to either stop riding or choose another discipline (mountain or gravel); however, it is a likely connection.
Gravel and mountain events have taken off in Arizona. Riders may be seeking new experiences, or riders are seeking a safer discipline. The odds of being hit while mountain biking or riding gravel is substantially lower compared to the road.
The ‘Lance effect’
It’s hard to say if the fallout from Lance Armstrong’s doping admission is still turning people away from the sport. Most likely this had an impact closer to the admission, and the effect has since worn off.
However, the lack of an icon on the level of Armstrong is notable. Armstrong’s success drove bicycle sales and USA Cycling memberships in the 1990s and 2000s. The coverage of his success outside of traditional cycling media helped increase awareness of cycling. However, we no longer have such widespread media coverage.
The U.S. has tremendous success in women’s cycling in all disciplines, but unfortunately, this is underrepresented in even cycling media and almost nonexistent outside of that. There is real potential to grow the sport, especially the women’s side, through increased exposure and coverage.
The impact of Strava and Zwift on racing is hard to quantify. However, these services allow riders to get their competitive fix without having to spend time traveling to events and large sums of money on entry fees and equipment.
The race comes to you — in your living room or on your Garmin. Why pay for a time trial up Mt. Lemmon when you can see how you stack up on Strava for free (or a minimal fee)? Why risk training on the open road when you can Zwift? Why travel three hours for an office park criterium when you can race others in London or Richmond?
We can discuss how we took up cycling to the wind in our faces, the thrill of the descent and so on, yet these digital services are answering the above concern about safety and cost.
We can also discuss the potential impact of big group rides like the Shoot Out, Bicycle Ranch Ride, or Bicycle of Scottsdale on race participation. These rides often draw in 100 or more riders and sections of them are just as hard, if not harder, than a race and many riders treat them as such.
Of course, they have value for race simulation and practice; however, how many riders are using them as a race replacement? Why travel for hours and pay an entry fee when you can get the same competition for free?
We can encourage those group ride friends to try racing, but remember, there are few big welcoming clubs for them to join and racing unattached can be a cold and lonely experience.
What do we do?
A wicked problem does not have a silver bullet solution.
Some of the issues outlined are outside our control. For example, it is most likely impossible to get permitting agencies to lower insurance costs or to stop urban sprawl from consuming our road race venues.
However, we do have degrees of control over other aspects. Club structure and returning to those big welcoming clubs is one solution. Improving event scheduling to avoid overlap, increasing event quality, finding new venues, and registering earlier are other solutions.
Will these ideas solve our problem? Not on their own and perhaps not even together. However, remaining static and not acting will not solve anything. We also cannot rely on governance, either the local association or USA Cycling, to solve the problem entirely.
Solutions such as changing club structure require club leaders to seek out this solution and to understand the importance of it. Recruiting new riders and encouraging earlier registration is an individual act.
Governance can work towards solving the structural issues; however, individual action is needed to address the others. And that requires motivation — do you want to see the situation improved?
What will you do to remedy it?
Joey Iuliano is the president of the Arizona Bicycle Racing Association and president of University of Arizona Cycling.