The Bear Mountain Classic Pricing Conundrum
With Grant’s Tomb Criterium now complete, our long range planning is shifting to the Orchard Beach Criterium and the Bear Mountain Classic Road Race. And for that latter race we are facing a serious pricing conundrum. Longtime readers of the Journal may remember our first State of the Sport piece from three years ago focused on the Bear Mountain Classic when we asked ‘Are Bike Races Broken?’ The challenge then is the challenge now: the Bear Mountain Classic is incredibly expensive to host in its current format. So in this Journal entry, part of our Race Director Diaries Series, we take a look at the budgeting and pricing challenges for the Bear Mountain Classic.
How Much Does the Bear Mountain Classic Cost to Run?
In round numbers? $35,000. Yes, thirty five thousand dollars (for reference this is multiples more than the Club’s Central Park events). How does the bill for one day of riding bikes in circles in Harriman State Park match the median annual personal income in the United States? Well, the expense structure hasn’t gotten any better since we first summarized them in ‘Are Bike Races Broken?’ In round numbers:
Motos ($8,000): with four fields on course at any given time the race requires more than a dozen USAC officials on motos. The motos are responsible for everything from enforcing the yellow lane rule to tending to any crashed riders. And they do an excellent job, keeping in touch with the finish line crew from start to finish. But with transit too and from the race, mileage during the day adds up quickly and USAC just (rightfully) increased the fee per mile these motos receive, pushing our cost of moto officials higher.
Police ($5,500): while road-use permits are greatly eased by the fact that the event takes place entirely within Harriman State Park, since the roads are open to traffic we are required to have State Troopers at all major intersections. And with ten odd hours of racing, the bill for these officers adds up quickly.
Insurance ($4,000): insurance is one of the expenses that continues to trend higher. Quite simply the cost of insuring bike races continues to climb and USAC, who plays a vital role in coordinating insurance coverage, has little choice but to pass this onto to the race organizers. As a result for a race like Bear Mountain we pay both an upfront permit cost to USAC as well as $4.00 for every participant to cover insurance (this was $3.75 per rider just a short while ago). We also carry a sizeable burden in vehicle insurance costs, but we include that in the motos line item ($85 per moto for the first 5, then $50 per moto thereafter). If you’re curious how all of the event organizer fees breakdown, head over to the USAC Schedule of Fees.
Medical support ($3,000): due to the somewhat remote location of the Bear Mountain Classic we maintain on-site medical coverage throughout the race day. We hope they remain stationary throughout the race day, but even if they do the total bill runs just under $3,000 to have medical coverage on site for our riders.
Prizes ($3,500): CRCA eliminated prize money for non-elite fields a few years back (our own survey work supported this outcome) but the club still typically pays equal $1,000 prize pools for the Elite Women and Elite Mens fields (sometimes more for this for a prestigious race like the Dave Jordan Central Park Classic). Tack on another $500 for the stuffed Bear trophies that go to the winner of every field and $1,000 for winners and KOM jerseys (more on that front to be announced soon) and we’re at $3,500 in prices.
Neutral Support ($2,000): SRAM neutral support also serves an important role at the Bear Mountain Classic, absolving the Club from the complex task of coordinating volunteer follow-vehicles and the associated paperwork. But three SRAM vehicles do not come cheap, ticking in at roughly $2,000 for the day of coverage.
Parks ($2,000): as part of our permit with New York State Parks we also pay a percentage of event revenue directly to Parks - thankfully this is one of the few expenses that is largely variable based on turnout. But it still adds up to a chunk of change.
These are some of the larger expense line items, but there are a plethora of other expenses as well. From USAC officials at the finish line to race staff to vehicle rentals, the results service, and race numbers. Smash all of these together in a blender and we’re looking somewhere around $35,000 all in to host the Bear Mountain Classic.
How Much Should the Bear Mountain Classic Cost to Ride?
Herein lies the conundrum: with a largely fixed cost structure we have a good sense for how much the Bear Mountain Classic costs to run. But predicting the revenue side of the equation is very difficult. Thankfully as a not-for-profit volunteer run organization CRCA doesn’t have to run the race with a focus on profit maximization (and CRCA benefits from A LOT of free labor including from myself and the rest of the CRCA Board).
Instead the CRCA Open Race schedule is structured to minimize the risk of a financial loss with a goal of moderate profitability that is invested back into the Club’s membership programs - keeping the cost of the CRCA Club Series in Central Park as low as possible while continuing to offer a comprehensive and completely FREE coaching program to all members, as well as all of the Club’s other programming. There is a reason the cost of CRCA Membership hasn’t increased in several years, at a time when the entire cost structure of hosting races continues to increase - it’s because we have been able to balance the budget with a combination of modest profits on open racing and sponsor partnerships throughout the schedule.
So with that goal - modest profits that get reinvested in the club while minimizing the risk of a financial disaster - in mind, and the costs known, we map out a budget for an event like Bear Mountain Classic with two key variables on the revenue side: the average registration fee paid and the total number of participants
Predicting the Total Number of Participants is Hard
Budgeting starts with predicting the number of participants. The hard part of this phase is that final racer registration has ranged from 692 to 440 in the past four years alone:
Unfortunately focusing on the final registration numbers doesn’t account for just how volatile the outcomes can be thanks to the combination of registration trends and poor weather. To reflect this consider the 2018 edition of the Bear Mountain Classic - the blue line below - where 279 riders or fully 50% of the final turnout registered in the final four days. In comparison the 2017 edition of the race, which had the lowest turnout since the race’s 2012-2013 hiatus, didn’t see this last minute rush of registration, leading to significant revenue shortfall:
Graphed differently, from four days out it looked like the 2017 race (red line) was going to have the larger turnout between the two most recent editions. Only two days prior to the close of registration did 2018 catch up to 2017. And from there the registration diverged dramatically with the 2018 race soaring to 550 registrants while 2017 lagged to just 440 - a difference that adds up to several thousand dollars of revenue. In short, even two days out it is extremely difficult to predict final turnout with a high degree of confidence, never mind while setting the budget several months in advance. Weather clearly plays a role in these divergent outcomes, but when we develop a budget months in advance it is difficult to forecast across this range of outcomes (and when registration improves late in the process we always invest in additional rider amenities like the free coffee at Grant’s Tomb).
If Final Turnout is Uncertain Even in the Final 48 Hours, How Do We Set Pricing Three Months Out?
As with all CRCA Open Races, the Bear Mountain Classic features significant early registration discounts with pricing escalators over time. The race also features the customary 80% discount on all junior fields as part of CRCA/CRCDF’s support for the next generation of racers. With all of these considerations in mind (e.g. junior racers dragging down the average registration fee), break-even on the event generally works out to be in the 525 rider context. Unfortunately 550 riders is the upper-end of recent turnout. Going back to 2014 and 2015 the event saw ~650 registrants, but that was after a multi-year hiatus and the 2015 event was lifted by State Championship standing. In comparison even with the benefit of State Championship standing last year’s event saw just 550 riders, to say nothing of 2017’s 430 rider turnout.
Balancing a Troublesome Budget
All this makes for a difficult budgeting exercise as we look to minimize financial risk if we encounter another year of poor turnout like 2017. On the expense side it’s hard to make cuts. Moto officials are one of the biggest expenses but they’re also vital to a well run and safe event, particularly on the open roads that the Bear Mountain Classic traverses. And obviously reducing the park permit or police costs are a non-starter. Cutting neutral support follow cars is theoretically an option. But they would have to be replaced with wheels-in/wheels-out volunteer drivers and the club is already short of marshals (to say nothing putting drivers through the insurance process). So SRAM neutral support seems like money well spent. In fact, perhaps the only major expense line item that appears viable to cut would be eliminating cash prize pools. Doing so would save ~$4 per rider, which is not an insignificant sum. But we haven’t - thus far - gone so far as to eliminate elite prize pools.
A more dramatic option would be to shrink the number of fields on offer. The race currently features 12 fields of racing across three waves. Cutting one wave of racing would reduce the moto and police expenses by perhaps ~20% (we still have to pay the same mileage to and from the races for the motos). But the planning workload for a shorter day wouldn’t significantly change and we are loathe to takeaway the opportunity for riders to compete against their given category. With two waves equating to just eight fields we’d likely be forced to combine some categories - smaller but very important fields like lower category women and juniors would likely get integrated with other fields - and it is tough to judge whether we would lose registrants in the process (racing in a combined Cat 1/2/3 field is a very different experience from a standalone Cat 3 field). So for the moment at least we are hopeful that we can stick to a full day of racing at the Bear Mountain Classic.
Instead, the current thought process is to implement a $5 increase in non-early registration fees. Early registration remains at $60, inline with prior years, while pricing thereafter will step up by $5 compared to 2018. This will leave last minute registration at $80 (compared to $75 last year). This should boost the average registration fee by ~$3-5 depending on the exact registration curve, helping to balance the budget while keeping the early registration price unchanged.
Is this the best case outcome? It probably depends on who you ask. Some might be in favor of eliminating a wave in order to keep registration prices unchanged. But that seems to go against the Club’s development goals and gives up some of the Club’s planning leverage - it takes a MASSIVE amount of work to plan a race like the Bear Mountain Classic and adding or removing a field doesn’t change that workload dramatically.
Some might suggest trying to trim expenses on motos and neutral support but I strongly believe doing so reduces safety and goes against some of the production value driven success we are observing across the sport elsewhere. Instead, going with a slight fee increase for non-early bird registration insures that racers can register at the same price point as last year, they just have to do so during the early registration period.
Though, if our recent experience with Grant’s Tomb Criterium shows, someone will find a way to complain either way:
So we’re going with a modest price increase on non-early bird registration. But you can still get registered at the exact same price as last year if you head over to the race on Bikereg now. And as always, if registration is strong, we’ll take some of those registration dollars and invest them back into the race in the form of additional amenities (like the free coffee we have done at Grant’s Tomb and the free pizza we have offered at Orchard Beach). We also have some exciting announcements in store for the race in the coming weeks - so get registered, then stay tuned.