Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Why Does Downhill Racing Need USAC?

As of late, through injury, race breaks and lots of time spent on the interwebs (clearly), I've been ruminating on why exactly I'm a continuing member of USA Cycling. As of today, I'm examining that a little closer, given the announcements made here: http://velonews.competitor.com/2015/11/news/usa-cycling-license-fee-changes-for-2016_389916

Am I a member because of the UCI points? The access? The promotion? The standard of the tracks? The payout? The insurance? No. The sole reason at this point would be to maintain eligibility for the UCI. But. We all know I can't seem to start one of those. (Har har)

As a pro downhill racer, I spend a hefty amount of my time, energy and financial resources on racing. In 2014, over the course of 8 months, I spent nearly $20,000 on downhill racing and related costs; that figure excludes medical bills and related expenses. As the second-ranked female racer in the US as of the 2014 US Gravity National Championships, you could say I was heavily invested in what eventually became little more than a detrimental hobby with a very high price tag.

For some background: USA Cycling (often referred to as USAC) took over the now-defunct NORBA series in 1996 after what had been a remarkably successful run for the National Off Road Bicycling Association. With downhill and gravity racers coming from all over the world to race US-located races, the NORBA Nationals series was most comparable to the current IXS DH Cup in Europe, if not larger. With event and series sponsors including corporate contributors such as Jeep, ChevyTrucks, VISA, Reebok and Maxxis, athletes of all abilities and ages were practically guaranteed a good time. Mountain resort villages were packed, pro fields were deep enough to hold qualifiers for the top 30 women and prize payouts for the fastest racers often covered their bills.. On the road and at home. Former racers describe bustling pits with full-factory teams boasting rosters 6-10 riders deep with coaches, mechanics and physios considered par for the course. The mood was electric.

But not everything was peachy. Behind the scenes, NORBA was struggling to retain its authority through the later years as individual sanctioning bodies began popping up with their own races after the USAC takeover in 1996 and subsequent decline of support and race events. Former racers and organizers describe the decline begging with the acquisition and when the NORBA National series underwent various marketing changes and leadership swaps. These swaps were rumored to have alienated longtime members and racers, eventually leading to the scrapping of the NORBA name for good in 2004. What changed? According to industry insiders who wish to remain anonymous, everything changed.

In a 2001 article about the departure of then-managing director Leslie Klein, VeloNews.com cites a membership drop of 39% between 1997 and 2001. Why such a drastic drop?

Former racers describe the pits and corporate sponsorships going from 'full-tilt' one season to 'almost empty' within the next two. Teams changed hands, title sponsors pulled dollars, and focus seemed to wander as USACycling diverted valuable man hours into the quickly-growing gold mine that seemed to be US elite road racing. 

Even non-US athletes who traveled across the globe to earn their winnings (or wheels) on American soil at the notoriously fast tracks seemed to taper off; maybe they opted to stay closer to home or, beginning in 2002, try their hands at the other gravity disciplines then gracing the UCI World Cup stops. Dual-slalom evolved into four-cross and the hard-charging athletes seemed to find their niche alongside their beloved downhill.

But interestingly enough, 2002 was the same year that, for the first time in almost a decade, there wasn't a single American female represented in the top three WC overall DH standing. Between Kim Sonier, Missy Giove and Leigh Donovan, the US had been well-represented amongst the strongest female riders in the world.

It was even worse for the American men; between the last American-held podium with Mike King and Myles Rockwell in 1995 and Aaron Gwin in 2010, the US would go for a long fifteen years without a top-three placement in the international series. 

So what changed? Why? 

And why do these dates suspiciously correlate with the changing of hands of an entire cycling federation, the near-death of a sport, and the current climate of squeezing blood from the members of USAC's most under-developed discipline?

How does a well-loved niche sport go from being a six-figure income for riders one year and within a few short seasons, practically bankrupt?

I cannot personally speculate on the details of why or how. But I can say this: stepping away from the minutiae of day-to-day industry news and operation to take a look at the bigger picture won't hurt us. Being able to piece together both our history and the patterns of where we've gone off track as a sport will enable us to have a future. How? By not making the same mistakes again. 

Just today, USACycling released a new breakdown of the fees and costs associated with licensing for mountain biking, which included exorbitant fees for anti-doping regulation. USAC claims that this increase is to more tightly control doping due to an increase in amateur and elite doping, yet they haven't released numbers as to how many American amateur gravity athletes (or MTB in general) have tested postive for performance-enhancing drugs. The last publicly-identified gravity racer suspended for failing a drug test tested positive for cocaine... Three years ago? Two? I don't know of a single US gravity athlete within the last ten years that has tested postively for doping, and yet our financially-beleaguered discipline gets to bear the brunt of yet another overreaching USAC policy, as well as a licensing fee increase for 2016?! 

This is absurd. For any federation it would be absurd, but especially for a cycling federation where the prize payouts for the national series races are notoriously sparse and rarely cover racer expenses, if that.

So my question to you tonight is this: How do we move back to a rider- and results-based race economy built on sustainable growth and progression of the sport? How do we reward race hosts and organizers for their time and risk? How do we adequately insure riders and event managers in the case of a catastrophe so that we are able, as a community, to take care of our own? Because right now, any pro athlete on the gravity circuit in the US likely has a USAC insurance horror story; these stories are, unfortunately, not few nor far between. 

Gone are the days where we get to hand the reins to the adults in the room. We are the adults in the room, and we have to start behaving as though this is our livelihood. Unless you want to continue living four-deep with your buds and your bikes until you're 60, it's time to look at downhill in the US as more than a weekend hobby. This is a business. But we happen to be in the business of selling the best sort of fun. What's cooler than that?! 

However, our current situation isn't working. The races, the underwhelming 'programs', the U23 advantages (oh, sorry, guys -- that's this program for XC racing), the lack of responsible stewardship... It's stunting the development of an amazing sport that, at one point, we were highly dominant in. And why? Because our federation claims 'money issues' or 'lack of membership involvement!' or 'declining race numbers'... And yet we have zero insight into the role outside sponsorship plays in the gravity-specific disciplines? But why would USACycling have any interest in exerting effort to secure the same moneyed sponsors that benefit from marketing DH to the masses on a daily basis? After all, this is the same federation who, despite their lack of authority or history or involvement or investment or INTEREST in the discipline, crowned multiple US Enduro National Champions in 2015. Why would a federation with zero experience with enduro suddenly feel it appropriate to crown a US National Enduro Champion? How is that expense or effort even relative to the many disciplines they already have made commitments to? And why are they looking to make money from participants of a discipline that they don't care about? 

Maybe they've lost their way. Maybe the bank account and moral compass are spinning so far in the wrong direction that our federation doesn't even know which direction is 'up' anymore.

Because maybe it's time that the gravity world part ways with USACycling. 


xx. 




PS: Thoroughly interested in exploring the possibilities of a North American Gravity Association. Anyone else game? Ha!