My post the other day on "growing the sport" came up because our local association, the New England Bicycle Racing Association, has precisely this problem. They want to grow the sport, and they have money with which to grow it. It's just that the path to enlightenment is unclear.
The annual NEBRA - slash - promoter's meeting ended up a long discussion on Junior and Women's racing. Since I couldn't stay longer than the 90 minutes that the Jr/Wm discussion took (I never got to be part of the promoter's meeting), that's all I know about that meeting.
Although initially perturbed by the tangent off the meeting schedule (the Jr/Wm discussion erupted between the financial report and the Board elections, pretty much the first two items on the meeting after attendance), I realized that people had very strong feelings about the whole idea of growing Junior and Women racing. I also heard a lot of good ideas (and some that I would consider less useful).
And it made me think. I had a few hours of driving to think about things so ideas could really percolate. A week or so later things started simmering pretty nicely.
In a follow up comment to my "growing the sport" post/question, I put some solid numbers to the goal of "growing the sport". I just threw one out there, a nice figure, not too complicated. Double the number of racers in 3 or 4 years. Since the sport grows at about 3 or 6% a year, increasing it to 30 or 40% a year would be significant.
As someone pointed out, the largest segment in USAC membership is in the Masters ranks. And as someone else pointed out, that part of the population is the part that normally have kids. And if the parents (or, rather, fathers) aren't getting their kids into racing, who will?
Let's skip the motivation to race for a second. It's important, critical even, but I'll address that in a moment. Let's look at obstacles to racing. A few come to mind right away.
Obstacles to Bicycle Racing
First, the cost of equipment. Not just the bike (everyone focuses on the cost of a bike), but look at all the gear you need. Pedals (not part of a bike, not really anyway), shoes, shorts, jerseys, helmets, gloves. Now consider you're racing as part of a school (high school or college). This means winter and spring, and this means even more gear - tights, jackets, booties, warm gloves, head gear.
Oh, right, and entry fees.
Second, training time. As a cyclist a student receives no recognition for the amount of time and effort needed to train. It's easy to say to your mom, "Hey, I need to go to swim practice!", because it's official, there's a schedule, and a lot of other people show up. But when your kid tells you, "I need to do 2 hours today, be back at dinner!", you, as a parent, really don't know what's happening. No coach, no chaperone, not even the security of knowing exactly where your kid is riding.
Third, legal aspects and getting to races, especially for Juniors. I lump them together because Juniors cannot sign waivers alone. They must have a guardian sign for them. Back in the day, when I wasn't 18 yet, I'd get a teammate to sign my waiver, but I think that such things wouldn't fly nowadays. Likewise, a kid under 18 would have a hard time getting to races. Borrow dad's car for a whole day? Getting to races is tough because most Junior races are early in the schedule, with Masters (if Dad races) later in the day. The few hour gap between races kills a whole day unless, of course, it's used as bonding time between parents and kid.
Fourth, safety in training. A racer and a dad said that he felt unsafe allowing his kid to train on town roads. I suppose I understand that at some level - riding around in, say, the heart of Hartford would be no fun, no matter how much you may like riding in traffic. Other cities are better, but from a safety point of view, even such bucolic areas as Canton and Barkhamsted have their share of bike fatalities. Fine, in one case an underage kid mowed down two riders, and it ends up the kid was so drunk he didn't know he hit anything - not the two cyclists, not the 50 feet of barrier, nothing. But still, you get the point. A lot of parents don't want their kids out there riding their bikes around.
Fifth, there is a distinct lack of information out there on how to start racing a bike, or how the whole process works. A good friend of mine saw the Tour of TV back in high school, a novelty back then, and felt thrilled and fascinated by the whole spectacle. After the show ended... he didn't know what to do. He went to school the next day and everyone was talking about stuff like football and track and swimming and everything except cycling. I heard a lot of talk about "I have a great program" or "I have all the information" or "I've been doing it for years", so the information is out there. But I heard very little about where such information is available to anyone and everyone.
Everyone says Junior racing is important. Why so? I think the importance of Junior racing is a bit overplayed, at least in its present form. With a wide disparity in ability and small fields, a Junior race is about the hardest race you can enter. Single file, Cat 1s and 2s at the front, going ballistic until everyone is about to fall over from oxygen debt. Toss a Cat 5 in a Cat 1-2 race with a 15 rider field limit and you can imagine just how long that poor 5 will last. It doesn't matter how old you are - a Cat 5 or 4 simply doesn't belong in a Cat 1-2 race.
I experienced this phenomenon personally for three years. There'd be some hotshot junior killing the field, and we all prayed that he'd go to the OTC (Olympic Training Center) to give us some respite. Every time the current hotshot got snapped up by the National team, another kid would show up and kill us all over again. This way I had the privilege to get hammered on by George (Hincapie), Frank and Mark (McCormack), and by a host of kids that you probably never heard of, like Pat Morrisey or Rob Lattanzi.
So is Junior racing important?
Only if the Junior learns about racing. That means riding in a field, tactics, working together, not working together, moving up in a field, drifting back in the field, stuff like that. And you don't learn about racing by getting dropped 2 laps into a 20 lap race. Junior races are more like time trials. Naturally, with such events, the talent bubbles to the top - the Georges, the Franks, they would do the Junior race to warm up, then they'd do the Cat 1-2 race to win. Why didn't they do the pro races? Well, back then being a pro was illegal - yep, if you were a pro, you couldn't do USCF races.
But, really, Junior racing is more about raising kids to live in a respectable and dignified way. It's important to coaches, maybe, for discovering new talent, but that seems like less of a reason to focus on Junior racing. It's nice to say "Oh, Hincapie grew up racing around here" but it doesn't mean anything in the grand scheme of things. And, yes, it's important to raise kids in a respectable and dignified way, but I can't say I'm embarking on a nationwide program to teach kids that you reap what you sow, and sometimes not even that.
So what is important?
What's more important is to get folks into the sport who feel connected to it in some way, the ones that find themselves inexplicably drawn to bike racing. They're the folks that race no matter what, train, teach, promote, officiate, and volunteer to do things like marshal a turn or coach a team. Age isn't that important - the media made a lot of to-do about that "older" woman at the last Olympics. Guys like Mike Engleman got into the sport about when the regulars were retiring, so it's possible to find talent older than, say, 18 years old.
Passion, though, is key.
If you get kids into a sport, they may enjoy it for the structure, the discipline, the camaraderie, but take away those ancillaries and their desire to participate diminishes. Look at those Juniors that rode so well, so much, for a few years, then disappear from view. I look at pictures of the good Juniors in the fields when I was a Junior and hardly any of them are around now.
What's important is growing the sport, making it bigger, making it a lifelong sport, making it something that's big enough to permeate the hallways of the high schools.
I have a few ideas that could help address all these various things. All have their obstacles and I'm sure some will disagree vehemently with what I propose, but if we can implement even a little of the following, it can make a big difference.
A - Make cycling a scholastic sport. In Connecticut, according to a local shop run by a retired teacher, it takes seven (7) high schools to request a cycling league to make it a state-supported sport. The last time someone (said retired teacher) sent out letters regarding cycling, only four schools responded affirmatively (and two of the hits came from the sender and a school where one of his students now teaches).
B - Use running tracks or other fields as venues. Virtually all high schools have a running track, a football field, and/or a cross country trail. High school driveways and such work too, but I haven't done any surveys of high school driveways so I can't say for sure.
C - Mandate maximum gear costs and specifications. Helmets, gear, etc. This can be helped by equipment sponsors and such. This means that you can't use a top-line Giro in a high school race, but you can use any $50 helmet.
D - Mandate a high minimum bike weight, perhaps 20-22 pounds. This would make the bike reasonably competitive in USAC competition, readily so with a simple wheel swap, but allow students to use older, obsolete race bikes (not that the bike makes all the difference). Perhaps limit gearing, like the Little 500 (the race in Breaking Away), to limit gearing disparities. A freshman won't have the power of a senior, at least not normally, but aerobically will be closer in ability.
E - Link high schools with local USAC or collegiate teams. Cross polinate. The local club gets Juniors. The club, in return, provides some adult supervision, coaching, and event insurance (through USAC).
F - Draw in sponsors to help provide equipment to racers, perhaps on a website. Have an authorized, login-required website for schools to purchase equipment. Tax ID and all that stuff would be necessary. Equipment can be surplus or off-year product so it would be a good venue for manufacturers to clear out unsold equipment.
G - Have said site detail the basic process for getting into bike racing. Equipment, gear, license, entry, races, etc.
A - Link collegiate and USAC licenses so they're not quite so separate. This way it's clear that a collegiate racer can enter USAC races.
B - Draw collegiate racers in to local clubs. Those clubs will need to emphasize teamwork and camraderie much more than normal because, as a collegiate racer pointed out, collegiate racing really emphasizes that stuff. It emphasizes individuals much less.
C - Encourage promoters to have team oriented prizes and awards. This will help foster the team spirit that collegiate racers find lacking in regular USAC races and therefore help retain collegiate racers.
D - Have a similar site to the high school site to draw in sponsors and provide equipment.
E - Just like Juniors, have said site detail the basic process for getting into bike racing. Equipment, gear, license, entry, races, etc.
A - Need to get into the mainstream fitness magazines and online. Articles on racing etc. Cross promote with running races, tri- and dualthlons.
B - Encourage promoters to have separate women's races. Categorize if possible. The big issue is field size, or lack thereof. Emphasize entry level (Cat 3-4) women's races since that's where 80% of the racers sit.
C - Season long points series, especially for the Cat 3-4 women. Encourage steady participation instead of peaky participation.
D - Possible entry fee rebates from higher up organizations for steady participation, i.e. you must do 10 races to qualify for the first rebate.
E - Ditto on site. Sponsors (maybe "pay on the site, pick up at the shop"), info, etc. Women specific information.
A - Emphasize races which are beginner-friendly. Such races would be ones like time trials, allow lapped riders to stay in, long courses which don't force riders off who get dropped, etc.
B - Reward consistent participation, more so than winning.
C - USAC specific blow out product sites, similar to chainlove or other close out, super deal sites. A percentage of sales would be put into USAC's "grow bike racing" budget.
D - Share information. Don't hoard it unless it's a published, costs-money kind of thing. If it's advice dispensed freely, then freely dispense that advice. Use websites, maybe USAC could have a portion of their site devoted to uploading advice and such.
Things I don't think will help that much:
1. Free entries for whoever (Juniors, women, etc), at least those which are under $15-20. Although I'm sure everyone appreciates the gesture, bike racing is much more than just entry fees. Having spent $2000 or more to get into the sport, $20-50 in gas, food, bars, drink mixes, etc etc, getting $10 off of entry seems a bit ludicrous. However, perhaps USAC or NEBRA could implement a rebate policy - up to $10 rebate per race for Juniors, not to exceed the cost of actual entry. Seriously, though, the gas to get to a race will cost more, so I think this would end up nickeling and diming down the sponsorship budget significantly.
2. Giving product to Juniors. Sure, money is tight, and I've heard of some crazy things Juniors do to save money, but as I say, "Hey, they're Juniors". Learn to suffer, learn to make do. And don't make fun of them. Look, if you couldn't buy winter gloves, what would you do? So riding with garden gloves, sweatpants instead of tights, duct tape booties, that's all okay. Maybe a Senior (18+) rider will take pity and give the shivering Junior some booties or something. That's how I got my first set of booties - did a few weeks of group rides in sub freezing temperatures with only socks and shoes (albeit the thickest socks I had). One guy, after listening to how I liked when my feet started getting waves of pain as they thawed out 10 or 20 minutes after I got home, showed up with booties that cost 10 times as much as my toe clips and gave them to me.
Having said that, in the past Carpe Diem Promotions has given individuals money to help pay for racing expenses. And although this helped a few riders, and it makes me proud to think we could do that, I think that spending that time and money on organizations focused on development would be more efficient. Instead of a few hundred dollars to one rider, the money could be used to hold a clinic that benefits 10 or 20 riders. CDP has also given thousands of dollars to programs specifically geared towards growing Junior and Women's cycling, and I think that was a much better use of the money.
Most of these ideas percolated to the top of the pile recently. I'm not the contact point for money and (perhaps unfortunately) I didn't feel like trying for one of the NEBRA Board positions, but I really think that getting a plan in place is important. Then the powers that be can focus on accomplishing the plan goals/tasks, revising them as necessary, and therefore grow and hone a system that regularly feeds new racers into the system.
Unlike many of my posts, this one hasn't percolated in my Drafts section for months or years (yes, I have some posts started in 2006 that I have yet to publish), so it's by no means complete. But I think I have most of the important stuff in here.
Questions? Feedback? Contrary opinions?