Recently, I came across an online post about starting something called “Major League Triathlon,” (I’m going to abbreviate it as MLT) which you can find here. The overall idea is to create a version of the triathlon which draws in people from outside the sport to spectate and take part in an event. The idea centers around spectator-friendly courses with 4-person teams (2 men and 2 women) competing in a mixed super sprint relay (swim, bike, run, run) combined with a weekend of amateur racing and a large festival-like atmosphere. Each team is to be affiliated with a city so that each one has a “home city” and each city of those will host a race each year, to make people feel like they have a hometown team.
I have actually been thinking about the way that the top level of cycling is run for the past couple of weeks and have an idea for how to improve the format of the sport. I promise that I’ll get back to carbon fiber eventually, this is just what’s on my mind right now
State of the Sport
The National Racing Calendar is and has been shrinking for the past few years; in 2007, there were 95 race days on the calendar (including the crit series) compared to 22 NRC days and 24 NCC days this past year. The closest thing we probably have to “Major League Cycling” is USA Crits. USA Crits is a series of criteriums around the country, some of which overlap with USA Cycling’s NCC series and it includes the Athens Orthopedic Clinic Twilight Criterium, which is estimated to get between 20,000 and 30,000 spectators each year.
As Jonathan Vaughters, Oleg Tinkoff and other high-profile players in the sport have said, cycling has a lot of important history but we need to start thinking about how to improve the sport and develop a stable platform for growth. At the UCI and WorldTour level, there are a lot of dynamics in play that I am unfamiliar with, so I am going to discuss something that I’m a little more familiar with: the american criterium and how we can start to grow cycling’s appeal in the United States.
Major League Cycling (MLC)
I like the concept that MLT tries to introduce with assigning athletes to franchises in different cities and I think that in the future, cycling could be like that. However, currently most pro cyclists will have obligations to pro or development teams so it would have to be an event-based things that make pro teams want to attend the events. And what do pro teams like: Money. The Abu Dhabi Tour proved this when they struck a deal with Velon to pay teams to bring their star riders in order to attract more eyeballs to the tour. I doubt that Philipe Gilbert, Fabio Aru or newly crowned world champion Peter Sagan were jumping out of their socks to race in 50 C weather in October.
In order to make money, these races need to be more than just races, they need to be events that cities will want to host and that people will want to attend. This is where MLT hits the nail on the head: beer garden, concert series and things that other people might want to participate in (like the Athens Red Bull Chariot Races). Charging for things like beer, up-close concert and race seats and eventually, maybe even TV rights, will allow these events to have some level of longevity. Duke University hosted a race called the Bull City Grand Prix last year and their report at our conference meeting was that businesses around the course were begging for them to bring the race back. Many of them had record sales on the day. That is the kind of atmosphere we want to foster, where communities want to host this kind of event.
How it should work
So, this is what I am imagining: a 12-race series with enough prize money (maybe appearance fees) that the top racers and top teams, men and women, are able to be there each time. Each one should be a circuit that has high exposure in a population center (not necessarily a big city) with local businesses that would benefit from a large event. In order to form something of a “brand” like Ironman, it would be ideal to have equal prize lists between genders and start solidifying teams. Like everyone on the WorldTour says, there needs to be a narrative through the season: is one guy having a hot streak? Is there an amateur who’s been up there consistently with the Pros? How many races can Hilton Clarke win?
The NCC and USA Crits are both bike bike race series but I feel like we need our sport to have more “events,” like Athens, in order to continue to grow the sport and make it more appealing. There needs to be a big social media presence constantly touting the narrative, talking about the racers and the results. Did you know who won the Rochester Twilight Criterium right after it happened? Probably not. I did, but only because I was there. Even competitive cyclists hardly care about who is winning the NCC. This is a huge opportunity to really capture the imagination of the amateur cycling audience and create a brand that makes people realize that cycling is not just a hobby for some, it’s a way of life.
I may just be some college student with a category 3 license and a big mouth, but I think that Crit racing has the potential to go big time if someone is willing to invest the energy.