Saving The Vanishing Road Race

Road races are a dying species, and more and more keep falling off the calendar.

Russ Campbell’s tweet got those of us who are sitting behind a desk talking on the Twitters. And maybe talking about things is how we can keep road races around? Or maybe not, and I’m just wasting my time typing this (NOTE: I am currently waiting for reports to run, so I am filling a void in my day with bloggage).

Despite the unhelpful commentary I’ve lobbed at Dieter Drake and his (quite expensive to race) Tour of the Battenkill, I do think that he has figured something out – entry fees have been unsustainable for too long. Or, to put it another way, bike races are really expensive to run, and the primary source of revenue has been stunted, contributing to races falling off the map when the promoter gets tired of running a money-losing event.

Dieter has also taken over the Tour of the Dragons. The entry fee in 2011 (pre-Dieter) of the two-day stage race was $90 (or something, Colin Reuter hasn’t answered my IM about how to find old races on bikereg. Shit that’s cheap!). Entry fee in 2012 was $180 (what the hell just happened?!?).

Now, that is a steep increase – but maybe he’s the only promoter who’s realized that putting on a bike race is a risky endeavor, and if you want to make sure the event is still around in five years, you gotta add some padding there. Terrible weather with no turnout, road construction canceling the race or late-to-pay sponsors and the promoter could be looking at a big-ass bill eating up all available dollars.

Please note that I’m doing Tour of the Dragons this year because I really like bike racing, and I feel that it is a worthwhile expense for the event. I don’t do Battenkill because driving out there blows, and I don’t think it’s worth the entry fee.

As far as racers helping to better foot the bill of an event, the answer probably lies somewhere in between artificially low entry fees ($35 for Sunappe!) and a doubling of entry fees in one year.

Other questions that are valid that I have no idea how to answer, and am just putting in a list because I am bad at writing and want to go eat lunch.

  • How do promoters keep entry fees down for beginner racers so they don’t get scared away?
  • How can costs be lowered across the board?
  • Does having more volunteers lower the event cost?
  • What information can promoters share to figure out best practices?
  • Maybe every race has an associated Gran Fondo to support it financially?

I may be totally missing the point for why bike races are disappearing – maybe it’s not money. Maybe it’s a lack of volunteers, promoters getting tired of all the work, cities and towns that aren’t supportive (maybe because PEOPLE KEEP LITTERING YOU FRIGGIN IDIOTS), or something else that I can’t think of in the few minutes I dedicated to type this out.

Perhaps racers should promise to volunteer at one race per season (please note that I only help out with my clubs events, so this sentence is also directed at me). Cars don’t point themselves in the correct direction.

So, really, I have no answers, just thoughts, but this is the Internet! It willed a Foam Party into existence, it can help solve some of these road race problems.


9 thoughts on “Saving The Vanishing Road Race”

  1. I have no problem with you volunteering at your clubs events. In fact two volunteerings = more than most people. Clubs sometimes cannot get enough people to stand on a corner for their own events, so you provide an important service.

  2. You didn’t say anything about payouts. Getting $30 back for 12th in the cat 3 RR is pretty low on the list of reasons that I go to a bike race. Maybe cut the payouts for the lower categories way back for smaller events? Maybe local events shouldn’t even have payouts? In my area Tulsa Tough and the OKC ProAm are the only events that put up a large enough prize list to get the fast guys out. I think the rest of the events could cut way back on payouts and still get the same local crowd.

    1. Yeah, I brain farted on that one!

      Keep the payout up top (top 5?), limit it past that?

      But, the savings on that may be a drop in the bucket compared to the operating expenses of hiring a bunch of police officers. And it may make the race unappealing and cause some harm.

  3. a few thoughts:
    reducing the payouts on the men’s side probably wouldn’t have an impact on registration levels. the women are so registration-challenged to begin with that it’s hard to tell what the impact would be. however, quabbin pays the 1/2/3 women 15 deep, and that seems to have gotten the NY teams to travel for it

    to what degree is lack of pre-reg playing into these cancellations. is it that not enough people would participate to support the event, or is it that three people have registered one-month before the race and promoters aren’t able to take on the financial risk of a race with few racers? to that end, what about the possibility of a NE scored race series – people can buy a “pass” to the whole series early in the year, helps to subsidize each race?

  4. I think you’re missing many reasons why road races are disappearing.

    1. Road bike racing in general is on the decline (crits, road races, stage races, etc)
    2. The cost of entry as a participant is not limited to the expense of the road race, but also the license, the higher end gear, the transport, the time away from family, the risk of injury, the time to train/prepare so that you feel it is even worth showing up
    3. I can go race 30+ other dudes every morning and even some evenings in Boston area at competitive, unsanctioned group rides and it doesn’t cost me anything, nor require the things outlined in #2
    4. Thanks to technology, I can race myself, race random people I don’t know, etc. I think Strava and power devices are huge reasons people don’t care about sanctioned races anymore.
    5. There are more and more alternatives to pinning a number on. The Ronde, Power’s Fundo, D2R2, UV Epic, TJ’s ride on Washington are all fun alternatives to the same road races that people have been doing for decades
    6. Risk to reward for the organizers: As far as I know, Dieter Drake is among the only northeast based promoters who (tries to) makes a quantifiable amount from his event. The vast majority of others do it “for the love of it.” We know racers are a thankless bunch and promoters are probably sick of the mounting difficulties of putting on these events with diminishing support, appreciation, and reward.

    Other thoughts:
    1. How many new people do you see in your field at the races? I know very few people that are still interested in road racing and committed to moving to the 1,2, or even 3 field. They would have had to start in the 4 and 5 fields, so I’m expecting those fields are not seeing new growth or even consistent participation either. Proof that road races (and crits and circuit races) have a dwindling potential audience?

    2. Cosmo had a good post recently about how the quality of affordable equipment is exceedingly lower than the quality of higher end stuff. Someone new to the sport can’t get a reliable, road race worthy bike for less than $1500. Not to mention the shoes, helmet, clothes, etc. With those types of barriers to entry to the sport, races are going to continue to struggle to appeal to participants.

    3. Is it really worth it to sponsors to make cash donations to these events? When was the last time you bought something from the commercial sponsors of the Sunapee road race, the Tour of the Catskills, Hilltowns? Can you even tell us who the sponsors were? We’re a very small (increasingly smaller) group of people at these events. These companies can get exponentially more exposure at a triathlon, running event, or one of those adventure/mud races.

    1. I don’t think that SECTION 1 POINT 4 is in the same ballpark as racing. Sure, Strava is great, but it doesn’t even compare to pitting yourself against another person when you can look into their eyes and see that you are breaking them.

      I do have to agree with you on SECTION 1 POINT 3 – There are a LOT of great events for people to participate in other than bike races, which offer a similar feel.

      So, while total number of road racers may be down, total number of people having fun on bikes is probably up. I think, though, that a lot of those people would also enjoy a bike race or two. How many people that did the RdR are also regular road racers? 20%? Less? I want to take the rest of your participants and get them in a road race (hrm…road race entries as a raffle prize? Hello promoters!!!).

      SECTION 2 POINT 1 – I do see a lot of the same faces. New faces are usually juniors, and there seems to be this wasteland of “no new racers” (in my field) between the ages of 22 – 25. In the entry-level fields? I don’t know. How has the participation of races that cater to non-elite fields (Blue Hills) been? Personally, I’ve been trying to get newer riders on NorEast to get a license and get into a race (get them started on Louden, then get them in a USAC race). A good number of them are throwing down on the Wednesday night ride, so they’ve got the power, just not the kick to get out to a race (time! families! ugh!)

      SECTION 2 POINT 2 – You mean this post, where Cosmo called me and my robot bike out? May manufacturers ARE pricing people out of racing. The new 105? It’s nice. I have it on my cross bike, I’ll likely race it for cross this year, and if someone was getting into racing I’d tell them to buy that. However, that’s a $1750 bike from Cannondale. I realize I’m not refuting your point, at all. Refuting it isn’t my goal, but…yeah. DISCUSSION POINTS.

      SECTION 2 POINT 3 – I have no idea how to determine ROI for event sponsorship. It’s there, that’s for sure – but I think it mostly comes down to someone in a position of power at a company to decide “This event reflects our values”. Whether those values are healthy lifestyle, competition, events that bring a lot to the community…that positive association is what the event sponsor gets out of it.

      As a road race/crit are on open roads, and are visible by the community (yes, I have seen people on the side of the road watching road races go past, it does happen!) – as opposed to an adventure race which might be at a ski mountain and may not be as accessible to the community – the sponsor message gets to both the competitor and the community.

      I’m sure I’m in the small minority, but I do make purchasing decisions (when I can) based on event/sport support.

  5. Good discussion Ryan, and I don’t disagree with what you’re saying. I just think there are a lot of reasons combining to make the sport of amateur road racing die out.

    1.4: Re the Strava comparison. Remember, before you can get people hooked on the “thrill” of road racing, you’ve gotta get them past all the other barriers (i.e Cat 4 and 5 crash fests, monetary expense, expense of time away, etc). All you need to get hooked on Strava is the free app on the idiot phone you’re already carrying in you jersey pocket anyway. Bingo, instant race! Here’s a bad analogy for you. Drugs, like crack, meth, even coke. They’re cheap to get in to and highly addictive, hard to get out of. Strava is cheap. Road racing is expensive to get into, so even if it is addictive, you’ve got a smaller and smaller pool of potential addicts.

    2.1: No idea if there is good/new participation at races like Blue Hills. It is probably the closest road race to me, yet I’ve never done it. Also, I hung up my racing license after earning my Cat 3 upgrade in 2010. Maybe a Wells Ave here or there because it’s convenient, but otherwise, road racing really has no appeal anymore.

    2.3: Can you even name the corporate sponsors of the three or four biggest races in New England? I bet 95% of regular racers (i.e. 5+ road races a year) cannot. We can name the clubs/teams that promote them, and maybe those team’s sponsors, but the companies that kick over $1000, $2000, $10,000 (no companies really give that much, do they???) to be the title sponsors are quickly forgotten (or never even known to begin with). So yeah, it’s great that MetLife helps support a New England elite team. I actually went to them for my life insurance policies because they sponsor local cycling. Turns out, their rates stunk and their service wasn’t much better, but I still tried my best to give them business.
    If the team has fewer and fewer events to attend, the value for MetLife quickly disappears, so they pull the plug, which means you guys don’t get cheap kits, comped entry fees, and whatever other benefits they’re giving you, which means you stop racing as much, which means promoters have fewer attendees, which means more races are cancelled. See how the vicious cycle works?

  6. I’m pretty sure back in the day USAC required clubs to promote races. Then they got soft and allowed teams to double, triple and quadruple up on one race. And now they don’t require anything.

    Please don’t make me call out teams that race and contribute nothing to putting on races.

    People aren’t getting priced out of racing. People are choosing to go into debt elsewhere. If you look around, tons of people are riding equipment well beyond their capabilities.

    Crashes happen because nobody learns how to ride a bike. They get a ton of fitness on the trainer in their basement but never learn how to use it beyond pedaling it at warp speed. Voila! You have just created an unguided missile. But I don’t think that’s a barrier to entry. That’s just my commentary on crappy bicycle riding.

    I do think that people want to get into cock-sizing in a risk-free way, like Strava allows. If you lose a race, you still have to go back to your car or ride home. On Strava, you don’t have to show your face. It’s also just half a step up on riding the trainer. There’s no tactics and very little psychological pressure involved. You just have to push the pedals hard. Racing is quite different.

    That’s all for now. My head my explode. I’ve been thinking about all of this for a while.

  7. 1. If someone wants to promote racing/fitness and attempt to make money, it is markedly easier to promote running races, 5ks, 10ks, etc. They are relatively easy compared to bike races and the additional costs and needs such as police and volunteers are minimal in comparison.

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