Are Bike Races Broken?

I didn't want to write this. Ever since my retirement from the very glamorous and very unpaid gig of promoting bike races for the Century Road Club Association (CRCA) I have been luxuriating in not having to worry about permits and budgets and rider registration trends. It has been glorious.

Unfortunately we're entering peak season for bike racers complaining about races and race promoters. So as I observed a recent Facebook comment from an elite racer criticizing the ratio of registration fee to prize payout for the upcoming Bear Mountain Classic I attempted to ignore it. But eventually frustration got the best of me and I decided to do what millennials do when they're outraged: write a Medium post. Just kidding, I can't figure out Snapchat and I'm certainly not going to go through the process of signing up for yet another platform so I decided to dump my response on my team's website instead, where it is decidedly off-topic but also easiest to disseminate.

Of course I should note that as I'm not longer part of the CRCA Board I am in no way speaking for the Club (or for my team for that matter). Likewise since I am no longer on the CRCA Board I am making some assumptions around the latest numbers on the event budget but having spent five or so years constructing race budgets I'm fairly certain the numbers cited below are accurate.

BIKE RACES ARE BROKEN

From the perspective of the race promoter, especially those that don't have the organizational backing and non-profit structure of CRCA, there are three key issues with bike races pertinent to this discussion:

  1. Monetary compensation is at best minimal, at worst non-existent: it's difficult to concisely articulate the challenges and time intensity involved with promoting races, particularly in the dense urban environment of New York City. But needless to say the hours are exceedingly long and depending on sponsorships and the scale of the event, monetary compensation for event organizers is minimal at best. For the volunteers who serve on the CRCA Board it's even worse: monetary compensation is non-existent as any event proceeds are rolled back into the club and ultimately back into the cycling community. Thankfully every year some charitable individuals step forward to serve on the CRCA Board but they're certainly not getting appropriately compensated for their efforts, making for a challenging recruiting pitch while searching for the next generation of race promoters.
  2. Costs are fixed. Supplies, staff, race officials, police. For most events the expenses are fixed in nature and don't change if there are ten riders per field or one-hundred. This is great when the weather is perfect and participation is high. But it's brutal if turnout never materializes and it economically disincentivizes promoters from running fields likely to have lower turnout, as can be the case with certain Master's and Women's fields. Thankfully, reflecting its mission statement to support the development of cycling, CRCA strives to run full days of a racing with the broadest field structure possible - this is good for the sport, but tough on the budget.
  3. Late registration. I don't begrudge riders for registering late. I do it all the time, including this coming weekend where as of Thursday morning I still haven't determined when and where I am racing. In New York City we're lucky to have a plethora of racing options, but with riders registering later and later it's all but impossible for promoters to accurately forecast participation in advance, leaving great of uncertainty in race budgets and placing significant financial risk on the race promoters, especially for events with significant costs and no sponsorship like the upcoming Bear Mountain Classic.

IS IT REALLY THAT BAD?

Each race is different. But for a road race like the Bear Mountain Classic, the costs are quite significant and fixed months in advance. Some of the larger line items, in round numbers:

  • Officials and moto officials $8,000
  • Police support $6,000
  • Park permit $3,000
  • Medical support $3,000
  • Neutral support $2,000
  • Lodging for officials and staff $1,000

For the Bear Mountain Classic the budget totals to $30,000 in expenses BEFORE getting to the prize pool. Toss in the 2016 prize pool of $3,000 and expected USAC insurance costs and the total bill for a single day of racing is in the $35,000 range. This figure would actually be even higher if not for the free labor of the CRCA Board and CRCA members who perform team duties and marshaling as part of the event.

So simply to breakeven the race needs to bring in $35,000 in revenue. Unfortunately for the first time since the Bear Mountain Classic returned to the race calendar there is no event sponsor, so 100% of the revenue has to come from rider registration. However, going back to #3 from above, we're currently two weeks from the event and according to Bikereg there are ~225 riders registered. Given significant early registration discounts and free registration for kids and juniors the event probably has $12,000 of revenue give or take. Registration will definitely increase but with just two weeks to go the event is probably running at a $23,000 loss (despite benefiting from the volunteer hours of the CRCA Board and CRCA Members).

Will the race get the 325 additional registrants over the next two weeks required to break even? I think the probability is pretty good. CRCA race budgets are constructed with that goal in mind: get to breakeven and if the event does generate a profit the proceeds are retained by the club and ultimately invested back into the race and coaching schedule. But even for a club with a one hundred plus year history, sitting on a $23,000 loss just two weeks from your biggest event of the year is a frightening proposition. Nevermind what it would feel like as an individual race promoter personally assuming that financial burden.

CAN THE STRUCTURE OF BIKE RACING BE FIXED

As racers the best possible outcome is a vibrant racing calendar that promotes the growth of the sport. That in turns boosts race participation and helps insure the calendar remains viable over time. Unfortunately as of late things have been going in the opposite direction. USAC membership and racer days are down and everyone in New York can call out races lost to history - the Bethel Spring Series, Housatonic, Pawling and soon Battenkill.

Given a seemingly strong economic proposition I'm not surprised to see Gran Fondos and Gravel Grinders stepping in to fill this void. Generally higher registration fees, mass starts vs. multiple fields and participation from a broader demographic of riders all help balance the budgets for these events (it also doesn't hurt that they can also be really fun). But as a racer I'd be sad to see the trend of fewer and fewer road races continue. So what are the solutions?

  1. Sponsorship - sponsorship revenue goes a long way toward reducing the initial financial risk associated with hosting a race. And for CRCA sponsorship has historically allowed the club to invest in additional racer benefits including larger prize pools, free pizza at the Orchard Beach Crit and coffee at the Grant's Tomb Crit. But as the lack of title sponsors for both Grant's Tomb and Bear Mountain highlights, these scant dollars are increasingly hard to come by..
  2. Cut event expenses - while park permits and police fees are required for the Bear Mountain Classic to happen, in theory CRCA could reduce some of the other significant expenses. But cutting corners on moto officials and neutral support to reduce registration fees by $5 or $10 seems like a questionable decision in the long-term, especially given how motos officials and neutral support have played an important role in rider safety in recent years.
  3. Reduce/Eliminate prize pools - while the criticism that sparked this post focused on the ratio of registration fees to prize payouts, in a world where race viability is being called into question and the club is looking at a $23,000 loss two weeks from the event I think the better question is whether an event like the Bear Mountain Classic should even include a $3,000 prize pool. It's an amatuer focused race being hosted by a not-for-profit organization with no sponsorship revenue where the goal is simply to host the highest quality event possible while breaking even. And if things go better than expected, any money left over goes back into the club.

I recognize this third option is controversial. And I’ll acknowledge that I certainly don’t understand what it’s like to be an elite racer selecting races on the basis of prize payouts. But the reality is that the vast majority of race participants in CRCA’s events aren’t racing for big payouts either. Typically the largest fields (M4 and M5) have the smallest or no payouts. From where I sit bike racing is expensive enough for racers – there will probably be upwards of $2M of bikes at the Bear Mountain Classic. If a not-for-profit like CRCA can modestly reduce the financial barriers to entry for the sport by reducing or even eliminating prize pools for events where there aren’t sponsorship dollars to support those expenses, I’m all for it.

Alternatively I’d argue that prize pools for these events should at least be variable in nature: $X from each rider who registers is set aside for prizes. USAC frowns upon this structure for a whole variety of reasons, but against the backdrop of a shrinking race calendar and exceedingly late registration trends simply structuring prize pools so that they reflect actual participation levels seems like a step in the right direction.

For the race calendar to exist we need events to be economically viable. That means striking an appropriate balance between financial risk, registration fees and expense structure. It’s a very fine line to walk and to be entirely honest I’m glad to no longer be walking it on behalf of CRCA. At this stage, as I attempt to get back to being a racer and not a racer/race director I just hope CRCA and other race promoters can continue finding a reasonable path forward.

Matthew Vandivort is a New York City based cyclist and sometimes photographer who was also a founding member of To Be Determined. You can follow him online at @photorhetoric or http://photo-rhetoric.com/