Road is not dead: Central Park's largest road races
Throughout the 2019 season many of our race director diaries entries have focused on the challenges facing grassroots bike racing as captured through the lens of the NYC race scene. From worsening financials to soft registration trends, many of these challenges are extensions of these trends discussed in our longer format State of the Sport series - including the shockingly short lifecycle of the average road racer and the huge ongoing shift away toward gravel events.
Unfortunately, when it comes to road racing, these trends often feel as if they are getting worse rather than better. For instance in a conversation with the USAC CEO this week I learned that 2019 YTD racer days for USAC are down a staggering 17% from 2018. This is a continuation of a trend that had already seen total racer days decline by 30% from 2012’s peak, representing millions of dollars of lost registration revenue for races. And this financial hit for race promoters is coming just as operating costs have been increasing nearly across the board (for the Bear Mountain Classic, CRCA pays upward of $110/hour for mandatory police coverage).
But, despite this drumbeat of frightening news, the situation actually is not universally bad! Going back a few months to early March, registration for the 2019 Grant’s Tomb Criterium was a new record, hitting the sort of huge numbers that I never would have expected when CRCA took over the event a few years ago. And more to the heart of this post, this weekend’s Dave Jordan Central Park Classic - one of three ‘Open Races’ held each year in Central Park that is open to non-CRCA members - set a new record for turnout in this, the seventh edition of the race.
Update: the chart and post below was compiled on Thursday morning while registration was in its final hours. As of 4PM when registration formally closed the Dave Jordan Central Park Classic had 419 registrants with every single one of the Men’s fields sold out.
For full transparency, the headline numbers don’t fully capture some of the field structure changes implemented in 2018 that favor a larger total registration. Last year, after expanding the Open Women’s Development Series on our Club Race dates, CRCA moved to a consolidated Women’s Open Field for the Dave Jordan Central Park Classic. This allowed the Club to introduce a Men’s 5 field that consistently sees strong demand, supporting higher headline numbers than might have been possible with the field structures utilized 2014-2017.
That said, before registration has even closed, three of the four Men’s fields easily surpassed last year’s numbers and sold out. The Men’s 4 race is down slightly versus last year, but still readily within reach of selling out before registration closes on Thursday evening. In short, all indications are that despite registration pressure elsewhere in the CRCA calendar (Orchard Beach Criterium and Bear Mountain Classic registration were both down this year), there is still strong demand for racing in Central Park, particularly for the Dave Jordan Central Park Classic that is typically the largest race of the entire Central Park calendar:
What is driving the strength in total registrants even as CRCA is facing a ~10% decline in Club membership and two of the Club’s three Open Races this year have seen a drop in registrations? It’s hard to say precisely, but certainly the Dave Jordan Central Park Classic traditionally sees strong turnout thanks to its namesake, former CRCA President and accomplished racer Dave Jordan, and the support that his family and foundation provide the event. The fact that profits from the race fund the junior and U23 focused Century Road Club Development Foundation likely plays a role as well.
This year we also experimented with the biggest early registration discounts we have ever offered in Central Park - just $30 for those willing to register well in advance. This reduced fee schedule drove a significant decline in the average registration fee paid, which was down by a huge 13%. But if the trade-off is sold out fields, that is probably one that balances out fairly well for both racer and race director alike given event finances are generally more stable for Central Park races compared to an event like the Bear Mountain Classic with a massive cost structure.
Unfortunately even as total registration for the Dave Jordan Central Park Classic has been strong, there is one area of weakness: women’s turnout. As of Thursday morning, with less than 10 hours remaining before registration closed, women’s registration was down approximately 30 percent from last year. In fact, compared to 2017 this year’s registration is down by nearly half:
Some of this weakness definitely reflects the aforementioned 2018 shift to a consolidated Women’s open field. In 2017 the Dave Jordan Central Park Classic featured a Women’s P/1/2/3 with 36 riders and a Women’s 4/5 with 25 riders. When CRCA shifted to a consolidated Women’s open field in 2018, the women’s registrant count dropped dramatically from 61 racers to just 45. The Club made the change in part because declining DJCPC registrant numbers were pressuring the core goals of the Dave Jordan Central Park Classic: to provide a highly competitive race with big prize pools in Central Park (this year we are paying out a total of $4,600 via equal Elite Men’s and Elite Women’s prize pools) while also raising significant funding for the junior development focused Century Road Club Development Foundation (the DJCPC has been the Foundation’s primary source of funding in recent years).
Sitting here today, as registration is about to close, it is a change that I still struggle with. On the plus side, it has stabilized the race financials, allowing the Dave Jordan Central Park Classic to sustain its founding goals. And CRCA has been making significant investments in Women’s Development elsewhere in the calendar - every race the Club hosts features one women’s field and the majority feature at least two. But, recognizing those investments elsewhere on the calendar, I also believe that a consolidated Women’s open field that pits new Cat 5 racers up against Pro/Cat 1 racers can create a mediocre experience for everyone involved. In that sense I’m not surprised to see declining women’s registration trends for the race. Especially given that, despite significant resource investments, last year CRCA brought in the fewest new women members in the past nine years and the percentage of women in the club dropped to its lowest level since 2011. Put simply, whatever we as a community are doing to try to improve the sport from its current 15% women / 85% men mix just doesn’t appear to be working.
So even as I am excited about the massive turnout for this year’s Dave Jordan Central Park Classic, I cannot help but struggle with some of the underlying trends that the sport continues to face — the aforementioned 17% decline in YTD USAC racer days is a huge indication that something is seriously broken. But that’s a topic that we’ll save for a future State of the Sport journal entry. For now, lets end on the positive note of a great day of racing coming up on Saturday with 400 odd friends!