The wheels are coming off pro cycling in the United States.
This week, we learned that the venerable Tour of California is officially taking a one year hiatus. Which is a euphemism for “never coming back in any form we’d recognize.” That’s an unlucky 13 years running and then not.
It would seem that a well-run race in the beautiful state of California that was a favorite with both riders and fans would have the strength to continue. However, once again, the deeply flawed financial model on which pro cycling is built is simply not a sustainable proposition.
Even with the support of ASO, the organizer of the Tour de France, Paris-ROubaix and other major events, California rides off into the sunset. And in a piece of disturbing irony, ASO announced in the same week a new stage race out in, of all places, Saudi Arabia. While it is inordinately hot in the Middle East, it’s not exactly a cycling hot-bed.
Out with photogenic California, in with the sand dunes and human rights abuses. The UCI has mastered the art of following the sponsor money no matter where it leads and under what conditions. As a fan and someone who has been to every Tour of California since 2010, it boggles the mind.
The same unsustainable business model killed off the wildly popular US Pro Cycling Challenge in 2015. Coloraro has a long history with bike racing and the early editions of the race were highlighted by massive, Tour de France-deep crowds on the summits of the major climbs. It was an exciting race that was replaced by the Colorado Classic, a four day event where each stage starts and finishes in the same place — Denver, Golden, Avon and Steamboat Springs. Stripped down, somehow underwhelming.
That leaves the lean and mean Tour of Utah as the last stage race standing. Unlike California or Colorado, they seem to have done a better job at paring back costs — although I’m sure that road closures and insurance in Utah are not the expensive, logistical nightmare that are in Cali. But hats off to them.
This is to say nothing of Team Ineos buying their way to seven Tour de France victories and wrecking any sense of competitive balance. Honestly, I’m ready to give up on grand tours and focus on the Classics where even the strongest teams can’t consistently dominate the race.
And while we’re in full lament and reaching for another Kleenex, this is the same year we lost the biggest bike trade show in North America, Interbike. It moved from Vegas to Reno in an attempt to trim costs but died anyway.
These damn unsustainable business models are a pain in the ass. Guess that’s why EF Education First boss Jonathan Vaughters has gone on record in all the cycling media that yes, California can come back but it needs re-invention.
In particular, he makes that distinction that US cycling fans are different than the European fans. We don’t have the long history of storied events, it’s not an integral part of our culture — and isn’t supported at a high level of government like in France and Italy. According to Vaughters, the future of pro bike racing events in the US demands for fan involvement. We don’t just want to stand on the side of the road, we want to ride that climb ourselves.
In a sense, pro bike racing is living through what every other business is dealing with: disruption and transformation. New tools, new models, changing audiences and interests. As Specialized once said in their advertising, Innovate or Die. Things are dying now and something new shall come to pass.
Sadly, I’ve reached the grump stage (Ok, Boomer!) and want my stage races just like they used to be. That’s not happening. Maybe the future is Dirty Kansa, with pros and fans all riding. That sounds interesting but maybe I need to move to France where cycling is a national treasure.