State of the Sport: What Happens When Gravel and Road Racing Collide?
If you have followed the TBD Journal for long then you are probably aware of the fact that we are fans of the Rasputisa Spring Classic. After our introduction at the 2016 edition we were immediately hooked. Though it was probably the following year where we fell in love with the event. More recently, in early 2018, we wrote this about Rasputitsa:
Returning to New York City I’m not sure we have any better sense for how to define Rasputitsa. And perhaps that is the best and most important characteristic of Rasputitsa. For those that want to pedal hard there is the opportunity to do so with/against some of the most recognizable names in this emerging genre of gravel grinders – Ted King, Jeremy Powers, Alison Tetrick, Anthony Clark, and the like. It is a rare chance to learn how you shape up against athletes of that caliber. And for those that want to take rest breaks every fifteen miles to slam a PBR? There is an equally enjoyable opportunity to do so just a handful of minutes back down the road from those racing at the pointy end of the event.
Which is a long-winded way of saying we absolutely love Rasputitsa. Anthony and Heidi have built something truly special and they did so while raising money for a number of excellent causes, Little Bellas chief among them. This charitable spirit is just one of the many reasons we return to Rasputitsa in greater and greater numbers with each passing year. And, by the way, we’re not alone in coming back in larger and larger numbers - look at the growth in Rasputitsa registration over the course of the past three years (2019 is already listed as sold out several months in advance with 1198 registrants):
So, in summary, we love Rasputitsa. Plain and simple. That said, when we received an email from Rasputitsa earlier this week for their new Labor Day weekend event - The Redemption Gravel Stage Race - we couldn’t help but consider this new event in the context of our ongoing ‘State of the Sport’ series that kicked off a few weeks ago. Why is that? Well since long before we started racing, another Vermont Stage Race of the road racing variety has dominated Labor Day Weekend: the Green Mountain Stage Race. As a team we are big fans of GMSR. In fact Colin wrote a lengthy recap of the 2018 edition a few months ago on the Journal. So looking out to Labor Day weekend 2019, two events/promoters that we love are going to be coinciding on a single weekend, in the same beautiful stretch of the country. Which left us asking, what happens when gravel and road racing collide? Spoiler alert: we don’t have an answer, but we do have some numbers to consider…
Out of the gate, one thing is certain: over the past three years Rasputitsa and GMSR have gone different directions. Against the aforementioned massive growth at Rasputitsa, GMSR registration has declined by double digit rates each of the past two years, though 2016 and 2017 were both above 2015’s 582 registrants (all figures cited are simply total registrants per the publicly available Bikereg pages):
If you add Memorial Day Weekend’s Killington Stage Race to the mix you get a pretty similar chart: the road stage races are declining or at best stable, while Rasputitsa’s registration trends have been shooting skyward:
Of course given the USAC membership struggles that we wrote about a few weeks ago, and the explosive growth of gravel racing and gran fondos, these numbers probably surprise almost no one. Except now these two genres of riding/racing - one experiencing rapid growth and one stagnating - are going to overlap directly in close geographic proximity on Labor Day Weekend 2019. Speaking from the perspective of an experienced road race promoter via CRCA (an organization that all NYC-based cyclists should consider joining/supporting), it is a challenge any time there is a schedule overlap, never mind with an organization that is proving as successful as Rasputitsa in growing their events (the NYC equivalent would likely be overlapping one of our big open races with GFNY). So our initial reaction upon learning about the Redemption Gravel Stage Race was to assume that it is bad news for GMSR.
However, we built a quick Google Sheet to compare 2018 registrations between GMSR and Rasputitsa and it seems that overlap between the two events is actually smaller than we would have expected. In fact just 9.2% of GMSR’s 2018 registrants (51/553) appear to have raced the 2018 edition of Rasputitsa a few months earlier (this is based on a first & last name lookup rather than individual identifiers like USAC licenses so the numbers could be a touch off based on any shared name and name changes between April And August 2018):
So perhaps the overlap between gravel racing/riding and the hardest and most prestigious stage race on the East Coast is lower than feared? Of course if the 9.2% of GMSR registrants that raced Rasputitsa shifted entirely to The Redemption Gravel Stage Race, then GMSR would be on the brink of having less than 500 participants. And at a certain registration level the scope of GMSR presumably no longer becomes sustainable? We hope that is a question that doesn’t get answered any time soon but those 9.2% of GMSR registrants represent approximately $15,000 in registration revenue (on top of the ~$50,000 of registration revenue lost from 2016 to 2018 when registration went from 729 to 553*) so the sums involved are significant.
It’s also interesting to consider this schedule overlap in the midst of the changing of the guard at USAC, where former-professional racer President Derek Bouchard-Hall is handing over the reigns to Rob DeMartini, who comes from more of an enthusiast cycling background (full disclosure: both have impressive business backgrounds that put my resume to total shame). As USAC faces a plethora often priorities and challenges - chasing Olympic success/funding, overcoming a faltering domestic pro calendar, stabilizing categorized racing, offsetting exploding insurance costs, and of course it’s own infamous IT challenges - how the national body balances a still shrinking categorized racing calendar with the explosive growth in mass start racing will play a large role in the future of the sport. It goes to the heart of the topic that we have been thinking about on the TBD Journal for years, going all the way back to ‘Are Bike Races Broken’ — is mass start racing, rather than categorized, the future of cycling?
If you can reach full scale (which is no easy feat), the economics of mass start racing certainly seem more compelling. An event like Rasputitsa generates 3-4x the registration revenue of CRCA’s highest grossing event, the Bear Mountain Classic (Bear also has the toughest economics on the CRCA calendar thanks to huge fixed costs - see Are Bike Races Broken). Even before accounting for additional sponsorship revenue, this scale goes a long way when it comes to production value. And whether its due to that production value or perhaps due to the lack of some of the negative aspects that seem to come part and parcel with categorized racing structures (elitism/segmentation of riders) the best mass start events - we certainly put Rasputitsa in that category - have a jovial atmosphere that we don’t often see in traditional road racing.
For our part, we’re a categorized road racing team at heart. We love our Tuesdays at Floyd, Thursdays at Rockleigh and weekends in Central/Prospect Park - all venues that don’t require a car/long drive and that really only work as part of categorized racing. Which also leaves us troubled by the loss of so many great road events in the region over the past decade. But events like Rasputitsa, D2R2, and Farmer’s Daughter have showed us the flip side of the coin as well - how mass start events can create a more welcoming environment and attract a broader array of cyclists (and a broader demographic? That would be another interesting analysis) than traditional road racing.
Mass start vs. categorized. Gravel vs. pavement. Traditional ‘racer’ vs enthusiast. However you want to analyze the trends sweeping the sport, cycling seems like to be at an inflection point, with the looming schedule overlap on Labor Day weekend 2019 just the latest signpost as the sport tries to find a sustainable path forward. Online musings aside, as individual riders our biggest impact on that path forward may be ‘voting’ with our registration dollars. In that sense there is a pretty good chance that TBD will have riders at both GMSR and Redemption. And its our sincere hope that the big tent of cycling is large enough to allow both events to prosper - because both are likely to be special in their own right.
*Assumes the registration loss was in full price categories rather than the Fondo and kids races.