What’s wrong with this picture? Canada, whose population is one-tenth that of the United States, has two UCI WorldTour classics, held in Montréal and Québec, that are broadcast all over the world. In contrast, USA Cycling has no WorldTour races and, after the pre-season cancellation of three of the four single-day races on the 2013 National Racing Calendar, there’s just one remaining American road race: the low-key Thompson Bucks County Classic in Pennsylvania, which has no television coverage.
It’s a sorry picture, especially when you consider that in the fairly recent past, American pro cyclists raced in major one-day races in cities as diverse as Atlanta, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Richmond and San Francisco. Yes, there have been road stages of current multi-day races that ended in places as big as Denver, Los Angeles and San Jose; but there is nothing like a major annual event to popularize our sport in major population centers, gain greater media coverage and attract new sponsors to the sport.
At the same time, this country doesn’t have a problem organizing criteriums. There are no less than 27 crits on USA Cycling’s national calendar, including those in metropolitan areas as big as Boston, Charlotte, Las Vegas and St. Louis. So what can be done—not only to increase the number of major road races but also to develop American racers capable of winning races as big as those one-day races in Canada?
The perfect example of an American big-city classic has been the Philadelphia International Championship, which started life as the USPRO Championship and has enjoyed tremendous support from the city, the fans and sponsors for the past 28 years. But race promoter Dave Chauner announced earlier this week that the 29th edition would not happen in 2013—unless there is a miraculous turnaround. That may come at a meeting Chauner is due to attend this Friday (January 25) with the Manayunk Development Corporation and Philadelphia-based U.S. Representative Bob Brady in the hope of saving this year’s event.
Chauner believes that that will be a difficult task only five months before the race’s scheduled June 2 date. He told local media that no replacement has been found for title sponsor TD Bank, which funded the race for four years, while an estimated $321,000 is owed the City of Philadelphia for police, sanitation and traffic control services—an annual cost that the city did not charge before the country’s economic downturn in 2009. However, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who’s a cycling enthusiast, issued a statement this week, saying: “We are a first-class city and we deserve a first-class pro cycling race that is fiscally sustainable and professionally administered.”
Philadelphia knows the benefits of hosting a major one-day bike race, especially the Manayunk neighborhood, whose commercial and residential status has been transformed since pro racers first scaled the steep grades of the infamous Manayunk Wall in 1985. If the Philly race cannot be revived, or cannot be replaced by the proposed Keystone Open that another Philadelphia group is trying to launch, it will be a severe blow to pro cycling in this country.
It would mean that, other than the Bucks County event, the only major single-day race will be USA Cycling’s national pro road championship, which is being held for the first time this year in Chattanooga, Tennessee, sponsored by Volkswagen. Chattanooga has a population of 170,000, which is more than twice the size of Greenville, South Carolina, where the nationals were held for the past seven years, but only a fraction of the size of Philadelphia, which hosted the championship for it first 21 years. And the cost of a race restricted to U.S. riders is much smaller, especially in a small city, than an international race, like the one in Philadelphia (which had an estimated budget of between $1.2 million and $1.5 million).
In order to create a national calendar that includes a healthy number of single-day road races, USA Cycling has to encourage organizers to raise their sights. This could be done by turning crits into classics, or by adding a road race (preferably for elite women as well as pro men) to a weekend program of criteriums—using the same start/finish setup for all the events. A viable road race can be held on a circuit as short as 8 kilometers (5 miles), especially if it has one or two hills to make the racing exciting for the fans and more challenging for the racers.
At the moment, entry fees for various-category crits provide most of an organizer’s budget, supplemented by local sponsors and in-kind support. More funding can come by adding a gran fondo or other citizens event, and if the race takes place in a big media center (such as Boston or one of the other large metropolitan areas that presently host national-level criteriums), the event can become big enough to get full backing from the city, warrant regional TV coverage, and attract long-term corporate sponsors.
Montréal and Québec race organizer Serge Arsenault has adopted a reverse of that plan. He’s a broadcasting impresario, so he first guaranteed TV coverage, then got financial backing at the federal and provincial level, obtained WorldTour status from the UCI—and then signed up sponsors at various levels and obtained the necessary logistical support from the cities.
Organizers don’t have to start out with that degree of sophistication to create a series of U.S. classics. The seed could be sown by first going to a city such as Greenville, which already has the knowledge and capability from hosting the nationals, to create an annual pro classic. Next, USA Cycling could go to cities that have created local organizing committees to put on stage finishes of major events such as the Tour of California, Tour de Georgia or Tour DuPont. And then comes the opportunity of encouraging a handful of those 27 national crit organizers to also include a road race in their plans.
Annual bike races can help define the character of a town. That’s the case of Somerville, New Jersey, which has a population of 12,000 and has hosted its 50-lap, 50-mile Tour of Somerville criterium for some 70 years. Promoting a major road race is a much tougher and costly proposition, of course, but if pro cycling wants to become a major American sport it can only happen if we have the events to showcase our racers.
To paraphrase Mayor Nutter: “Every first-class city deserves a first-class pro cycling race!”
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