Trying to balance the books at the Bear Mountain Classic
Let’s start with the good: after an exceptionally soggy Zach Koop Memorial Crit that took part in an all day downpour, the Bear Mountain Classic benefited from near perfect weather. Sure, early morning was on the chilly side as our race directors sheltered for stretches in their U-haul van for warmth (hi and thank you Travis, Liz and Seb!). But by mid-morning temperatures at Harriman State Park started climbing and it turned into a spectacular day for bike racing, especially compared to the cold and wet versions of the race from 2017 and 2018.
Also in the good column: we had great turnout for our juniors and kids races at the Bear Mountain Classic. Across two fields we had nearly 50 racers in total, all of whom paid exactly zero dollars to race thanks to CRCA’s dedication to supporting the next generation of racers with free entry to all juniors fields. Free juniors fields certainly won’t singlehandedly reverse the challenging trends that we have been writing about in the State of the Sport, but it is awesome seeing a field of 20+ junior racers roll off the start line all the same.
One more for the good column - we (TBD) truly had a blast of a day at the race. We may not have cracked the results that we were looking for, but that is part and parcel with racing bikes (see also: our team t-shirts). And in the meantime we kept the rubber side down, spent a good chunk of the day laughing, and generally enjoyed the atmosphere of a couple hundred riders from throughout the region coming together to spin a few laps around beautiful Harriman State Park. Seeing racers lounging on park benches, enjoying a post race meal from the food truck made it impossible not to enjoy the positive race vibes.
Of course, this is a bike race, and this is the TBD Journal, so you can probably guess that never everything falls in the ‘good news’ column. We hate it when our analysis creates cause for concern. But the reality is that, in some ways, this year’s Bear Mountain Classic raised more questions than ever about the sustainability of this race, not just over the long-term, but even over the near-term — forcing us to ask: is it possible that the 2019 Bear Mountain Classic was the last edition of the race?
Is the Bear Mountain Classic on Life Support?
As we summarized a few months back in The Bear Mountain Classic Pricing Conundrum, there are two significant challenges facing the Bear Mountain Classic: declining registration trends and the huge workload associated with organizing the race. On the former, we sat nervously over the past two weeks watching the Bikereg numbers come in. In the end, with a big marketing push, the final week registration rush that we were hoping for mostly came to fruition — we nearly doubled registrants in the final week. Unfortunately even with a glorious weather forecast, this wasn’t enough to get back to last year’s 550 registrants, to say nothing of the nearly 700-registrants the race saw in 2014 and 2015. Setting aside 2010/2011 - years when we ran an abbreviated course and field schedule due to construction on Tiorati Brook - the past three years have been the worst three years of registration for the race going back to 2008.
2017’s dreary forecast may have been the low point of the Bear Mountain Classic with 440 racers, but we at the same time we shudder to think what this year’s 504 registrants would have looked like with a similar forecast rather than the clear blue skies we enjoyed. Looking further into the numbers, while we hit our headline registrant goals thanks to a boost from our free juniors fields, when you map out 2019 vs. 2018 registration by field you get a better sense for some of the more concerning trends underlying the data:
The 2018 Bear Mountain Classic sold out 3 lower category men’s fields (M4, M5, M45+ 4-5). In response we shifted the 2019 calendar to create a 4th lower category men’s field. Unfortunately total participation across those four fields fell 16% this year compared to the three fields from 2018, and not one of this year’s fields got within striking distance of selling out (if the race does return in 2020, one of those four fields is almost certainly on the chopping block). Category 4 and Category 5 racers make up 2/3rds of CRCA Membership so the fact that we’re seeing smaller numbers across those fields is worrisome.
As we flagged with Orchard Beach, new racer participation levels in particular appear to be weakening. A few years ago just about any Men’s 5 race that we hosted was guaranteed to sell out — supply (field limits) were the issue, not demand from riders. But this year’s Zach Koop Memorial Crit only hit 46 riders in the M5 field and for Bear Mountain the field went from a 75-rider sell-out in 2018 to 59 racers in 2019. Similarly on the Women’s side, this year’s Bear Mountain Women’s 4-5 race shrunk by more than 25% and Orchard Beach was down by a similar amount. All of this raises significant concern given The Abbreviated Lifecycle of a Bike Racer means the sport can shrink dramatically in a short timeframe if new racer recruitment falls. And a race with a huge fixed cost structure, like the Bear Mountain Classic, is particularly at risk from shrinking registration.
Put together, even with the $5 increase in late registration fees that we discussed at length a few months ago, Bear Mountain Classic net registration revenue was down by a low-teens percentage compared to 2018. Thankfully event sponsors like Jamison and Lucarelli & Castaldi stepped in to fill the gap that this created. Without their financial support, the Bear Mountain Classic would not just be on life support, it might have already expired. But haven’t spent the past eight or nine year’s managing CRCA’s race budgets, I cannot help but worry about the long-term sustainability of any event that cuts it this close on finances.
Part of the challenge is that with CRCA’s not-for-profit and volunteer heavy model, we’re already running a lean ship on costs. In the week leading up to the event, when it became clear that our last minute registration rush was weaker than in years prior, we took a hard look at possible cost reductions. But our biggest line items — police fees, park permits, moto officials — are all non-negotiable. So there wasn’t much we could do. Which also means that if sponsorship does not surface in a given year, there is no way to trim costs to get to breakeven at current registration levels. In short, the finances of the Bear Mountain Classic are tough.
Which brings us to the workload involved with bringing the Bear Mountain Classic to fruition. It doesn’t help that two of CRCA’s biggest races of the year (Bear Mountain and Orchard Beach) take place on back-to-back weekends, but there were times in recent weeks where it felt like the workload was never ending. This was despite the introduction of a more distributed system for managing CRCA Open Races with individual event Race Directors for each event on the 2019 calendar. For Bear Mountain, Travis (RD) and Liz (ARD) led the charge exceptionally well, going above and beyond throughout the most taxing moments of the day when results were slow, marshals went MIA, or any number of small fires had to be put out (which happens at every single race, no matter how much effort goes into planning). But ultimately it takes a village working behind the scenes to bring a race with the complexity of Bear Mountain to fruition, and this was one day where it felt like the resources required exceeded CRCA’s current collective capacity.
Which brings us back to the call for Central Park Race Directors published a few months back by CRCA. Curious how many responses came in to that call for hired help? Zero. To fill the roles I leaned heavily on my teammates who are going to lead two of the races (in addition to working Orchard Beach and Bear Mountain) while Kevin H from Kruis recruited his teammate Caetano to lead the third (Kevin also recruited a second teammate, but she wound up slotting into a Board role instead of an RD role, which we’re grateful for). While it is imperfect, at minimum hopefully this distributed system is sufficient to help train the next generation of CRCA Race Directors given I am definitively retiring from the CRCA Board at year-end. I failed twice before at retiring but this time I really mean it, which means CRCA needs these new race directors for 2020.
But I fear that the (non)-response to this year’s call for RD’s is indicative that CRCA is always going to be short staffed on planning and executing these complex races. New York City, and CRCA in particular, is home to some incredible local cycling teams who do great things on the bike and with social media. But the reality is that unless more teams get involved in leading the charge to plan and organize these races — doing more than the absolute minimum marshaling duties and sub-team duty requirements — then at some point CRCA is going to have to start trimming non-Central Park races from the calendar in order to stabilize the workload. And given the financial challenges associated with the race, there is a good chance that Bear Mountain would have to be the first race on the chopping block.
So yes, I do think that the Bear Mountain Classic is on a form of life support - both due to the cost structure of the event and the resources required to bring it to fruition. But is it going extinct before the 2020 edition? Ultimately that is a question for another day, and for next year’s CRCA Board. For now I just want to bask in the afterglow from Saturday’s beautiful weather and relish the fact that the hardest part of the CRCA Open Racing calendar - Grant’s Tomb, Orchard Beach, and Bear Mountain - are officially done for 2019. With three Central Park Opens Races still to come the workload is far from over, but at least it gets more manageable from here.
A huge thank you to everyone who made this first block of the season possible - from our Race Directors (Liz, Alvaro/Jonathan, Travis), to our pool of Assistant RD’s, to Jeff Poulin who drove five hours each way to work GT/OB/BM (and is doing it again for DJCPC), and to the CRCA Board Members and members at large who helped plan and market these races. Drinks are on me this fall if we survive the last three Open Races of the year….
ps. if you do want to get involved with CRCA races, perhaps as an Assistant Race Director at one of the upcoming Central Park races, please - shoot me an email. OpenRacing at CRCA.net