The ruckus over UCI Rule 1.2.019 earlier this year left me unmoved. The rule seems kind of dumb in that it seems too broad, the UCI hasn’t explained the value of the rule, and USA Cycling has awkwardly put forth conflicting rationales for the rule. But it’s a problem that affects very few people, only UCI license holders, and barely amounts to a hill of beans. Bike racing and bike racers have much more important things to worry about. Most of the people complaining seemed kind of foolish and myopic: the bulk of the criticism came from either promoters or pro riders.
A perfect example of the obtuse official, angry promoter, selfish racer trifecta that dominated this debate can be found in the VeloNews article “UCI, USA Cycling clarify rule barring UCI-licensed riders from unsanctioned events.” In it, promoter Brad Ross of the Oregon Cross Crusade accuses USA Cycling of trying to derail the sport and lying without giving any evidence of either. Pro racer Ryan Trebon grouses that USA Cycling has a profit motive, and USA Cycling chief operating officer Sean Petty counters their assertions with assertions of his own, and we’re none the wiser as a result.
I am one of those affected by the UCI rule. Not a pro, but a UCI license holder. There are about 350 riders considered professional in the US, less than one half of one percent of the racing population, out of 3,000 UCI licensees, about 4%, out of 74,000 total licensees. I got the license, as many have, for cyclocross, for the ability to do all kinds of racing, and for the rare chance that I might race overseas. When the matter of rule 1.2.019 came up in 2012, USA Cycling clarified that the rule only related to professional riders on pro teams. Which was a minor relief, as I had done Gran Fondo New York only weeks earlier. (Interestingly, GFNY did not allow UCI professionals and former professionals to contest the race aspect of the event and had drug testing.) I was one of those who should have known better. That USA Cycling changed its stance in 2013 was annoying, but livable. I’m part of a tiny minority amongst license holders, I made the bed; I can sleep in it. And between now and the end of the year, I’m happy to lobby for some kind of rule change. And failing that change, I’ll consider not renewing my UCI license.
The griping is also bizarre in light of recent history. The complaint is basically that USA Cycling has the temerity to actually enforce UCI rules that are already on the books. Only last year were people angry that the UCI seemed to have no interest in enforcing its own rules in relation to Lance Armstrong’s doping. We should applaud the application of rules on the books; if the rules are on the books, they should be enforced, if they aren’t being enforced, they should be removed. And we shouldn’t be blaming USA Cycling for merely carrying out their brief. We want the same of other cycling federations, not the uneven application of rules that has been witnessed in various doping cases.
Whatever. Petty complaints. Not worthy of much attention at all.
Then I read the open letter to the president of USA Cycling by David Trimble of the Red Hook Crit. His missive amplified all problems I had with every other complainer out there. He did a fabulous job of showing why just about every person who has stepped forward to complain has misled the public in an effort to promote his or her own agenda regardless of the cost to anyone else.
Trimble strikes an angry pose, filling his letter with bombast, hyperbole, and lies. Take just one breath in the middle and you can see it. He writes, “I can say with confidence that you have never heard of 95% of the races that exist in this country and certainly have no idea who is competing in them.” USAC sanctions about 600,000 race days a year, or about 3,000 events. It’s hard to believe that either number represents only 5% of the races in the US or that Trimble knows about the other 95% he claims exists, but perhaps Trimble has a list somewhere. He writes, “The self-destruction of pro cycling is the best thing that ever happened to the RHC. Sponsors are tired of corruption and bureaucracy, but not tired of cycling.” His title sponsor, Rockstar Games, sponsored a daytime criterium in New York City, the Harlem Skyscraper Classic, the previous two years. Somehow, I doubt the corruption and bureaucracy were issues for them as both were amply on display before they started sponsoring Harlem; Rockstar did their work at Harlem, then moved on to something new, possibly for an edgier vibe. Most of Trimble’s other sponsors are from the bike industry; they’ve hardly moved on from traditional racing.
Trimble is illustrative of the problem. His letter is a not about the UCI rules, but a promotional campaign for his event. The copy on his website boasts about the licensed racers he’s got coming to his races. His interest is not in growing the sport, but in growing his races. His race attracts spectators more than it does racers, which is a great thing, but is debatable whether or not a one-off race like his, which limits entries to 200, is good for growing the sport. And the people who race it are mostly licensed racers. A well-attended USA Cycling-sanctioned circuit race series just down the road from the Red Hook Crit site often draws 270 racers for each series event. And there are several race series within an easy ride of the RHC, all of which service more people who want to try bike racing.
On the RHC site, there’s a campaign to raise money to fly racers to more RHC races. The RHC is a for-profit race that is asking people to donate money to build up Trimble’s racing fields in other locations to make the RHC easier to market as entertainment. The fund-raising letter states, “It is important for the cycling world to develop programs and profit sharing initiatives to encourage the growth and progression of their most valuable resource the athletes. As the RHC is developing into a major form of entertainment for tens of thousands of fans around the world we feel the need to make efforts to give back to the athletes putting on the show.”
Tens of thousands? Right. Develop programs and profit-sharing initiatives to develop athletes? Interesting. I received an email message recently that states, “USA Cycling spends more than $4 million per year supporting American athlete in development and international competition programs. Much of that money is generated from the racing activities of our more than 74,000 members racing more than 600,000 racing days each year in sanctioned events. Every time you race in a sanctioned event, a small amount of revenue is generated to support critical athlete programs. Most importantly, virtually every dime USA Cycling generates as a result of your racing activities is reinvested in the sport. However, when you compete in an unsanctioned event, nothing goes to support these important programs that help to maintain our international success and create the heroes and role models that are so important to the sport.” Looks like USA Cycling claims to be doing exactly what Trimble claims he’s trying to do, and has been doing so for years.
I went back and re-read most of the complaints. Most riders complaining are looking for more racing and more money. Most promoters are trying to save money and have more autonomy. I don’t blame either group; most pro bike racers barely scrape by and most cycling promoters would do better selling illegal drugs. At the same time, many of the pro riders complaining received plenty of support from USAC over the years, are in line for more, and should be happy that rules are being applied. They certainly would complain if they knew doping rules weren’t being applied. And the promoters are trying to have it both ways; they want to be grassroots and not get involved with the bureaucracy of the sport while using the elite the sport has produced as bait to get press and riders to their races.
Nowhere, in my re-reading, did I find anyone discussing how this rule was limiting the rank-and-file bike racer or how this rule was hurting the growth of the sport beyond stopping a pro from riding a race or two and a promoter possibly (only possibly) having to charge a buck or two more to the entrants. Promoters bitterly complain, but they offer few details of the problems and costs of being involved with sanctioning through USA Cycling.
Conversely, as silly as the rule seems, at least USA Cycling is looking after the growth of the sport beyond a single event or beyond a single rider. They may be doing a lousy job, and I feel they, in many instances, are doing a lousy job, but they are trying to promote the sport from the grassroots to the elite, and, considering the growth in licensed racers over the past several years, up 56% since 2002, arguably succeeding.
And what nobody is mentioning, not the elite riders, not the promoters, not USA Cycling, is that the abandonment of USA Cycling by promoters could actually cost everyone, from rank-and-file racers to the elites in the long run. Like USA Cycling or not, a national organizing body is pretty much inevitable. The governing body takes care of rules, standards, services, helps with insurance, and many more things. They make categorization and national championships possible. Just as when taxes are cut somewhere, the lost revenue has to be made up somewhere else, the revenue USA Cycling loses from race sanctions means that the money will have to be found elsewhere. Maybe services will be cut. Maybe license fees will go up. Maybe race fees will go up. Having an open and honest discussion about what is good for the sport and what the costs are and why people should or should not get involved with USA Cycling is necessary here, yet it this subject has yet to be broached.
That no one wants to discuss this is understandable. For non-aligned promoters, it might show the shortcuts they’re taking in terms of insuring safety and fair competition. It might reveal how much they’re making and where they’re taking the most profit. In this day and age, I think most racers would prefer races where they have the WADA code at least as an implicit threat to dopers, something that non-aligned promoters don’t have. Course safety is nothing to sneeze at, and maybe USA Cycling requires more in this realm. As well, officiating is important if results are to be trusted; some independent promoters seem happy to minimize the number of race officials they have. The categorization system USA Cycling uses is an important sorting tool and one that many non-sanctioned events utilize—another way that non-aligned events take advantage of the national system they claim not to need. And I see everyone involved in a race, from racers to volunteers, to officials, to promoters benefiting from insurance. How are we to know that an event is doper-free, safe, fair, and insured to a certain minimum standard if not for the USA Cycling sanction? And when the standard is not met, whom can we turn to if not a national body?
Similarly, USA Cycling officials probably doesn’t want to discuss their finances. Even though they lay it out in annual financial statements, having the public comb through your finances makes a rectal exam feel downright pleasant. People inevitably seize on minutiae as proof of corruption. And maybe some real corruption can be found. With total revenue in 2011 of just under $12 million, it’s hard to imagine there could be that much corruption. Race sanctions and entry fees comprise over a quarter of USA Cycling’s revenue; they do have an interest in keeping the fees rolling in, otherwise licensing fees will probably have to go up and services will have to be reduced. At the same time, membership has increased by 56% over the last decade, so there is more revenue coming in just about every year.
I’d love the UCI or USA Cycling to explain why the rule was implemented so we can have information to start discussing potential solutions. I’d then like to know specifically why promoters have issues with the requirements—after all, if they want elite racers to show up, they certainly don’t have a problem with the system that helped make the elites elite. Perhaps some promoters can help USA Cycling modify the rules or adjust insurance costs or requirements. Maybe USA Cycling members don’t want the services that the three million dollars in sanctioning fees gets. Maybe people don’t want to be members.
Going back to the complaints of the Oregon Cross Crusade promoter, I have a hard time believing that whether or not Ryan Trebon races his events once a season or doesn’t race at all matters to the vast majority of Cross Crusade participants. It would be cool if Trebon showed up to cheer them on. And if the Cross Crusade is paying Trebon to show up, that’s money race participants would probably be happy to see either in their pockets, or in more prize money, or better services at the races. This is where the brouhaha over UCI Rule 1.2.019 seems ridiculous. Making a huge scandal out of something that relates to a tiny handful of races and a slightly larger handful of racers (or vice versa) that cannot possibly make a huge difference to the promoters, the elite racers, or USA Cycling.
Regardless, it should be up to the rank-and-file racers to discuss and decide. They’re the ones who USA Cycling, race promoters, and even pro athletes are serving. They’re the ones who have been silent during this entire discussion, probably because they don’t see how it relates to them.