Masters cyclists and female cyclist numbers are growing well. And, cycling is the new playground of the CEO rather than the golf course. Fitness rather than excess is the new format for the business meeting, and cycling seems to be the sport currently drawing top-level decision makers to it. Why this hasn't been exploited in a major way is beyond me.
Having just come back from a 2-week trip to Europe where I rode both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix cyclos, I can say that this is something we need to start doing here in the States. In Europe, the day before the pro races, thousands of cyclists take to the race courses to test their own mettle. There are typically 3 distances from which to choose, ranging from a fraction of the pro course to the entire race distance. The Tour of Flanders cyclo drew 16,000 participants across its 3 distances and the Roubaix Challenge nearly 6,000. I rode the full distance of both and in doing so gained a much greater appreciation for the races, the talent of the pro riders and the countryside through which I was riding. The Flanders cycle generates nearly $20 million for the area. That's huge!
Cyclos in the US are standalone events. They lack a point of reference and are set up for the weekend warrior. Absolutely nothing wrong with this. But, this format will not in any way prop up cycling and make it more mainstream in the US. Athletes want the challenge of the event, but they also want to be able to compare themselves to the best of the best. US cyclos completely miss the mark in this regard. Flanders and Roubaix are my favorite cycling races on the calendar; after the past couple weeks I have an even deeper appreciation of these events, and the communities and cultures through which they pass.
Cycling is ingrained into the very fabric of Europe. Many young kids race their bikes. There are weekly training rides for grade school-aged kids, and a peloton of fast-moving 10-12 year olds is a common sight. The morning of Paris-Roubaix, I was walking along the Arenberg Trench, the most challenging stretch of pave (pah-vey) in the race, a 2.4km long stretch of slick rocks posing as some sort of road. I marveled at adolescents aggressively riding their bikes over those stones, gritting their teeth and unafraid of falling and the very real potential for losing teeth or breaking bones on the wildly uneven surface. Very, very few kids in the States would do this; it's not in our DNA. Few kids in the US aspire to be bike racers. Instead, they dream of being Stephen Curry or Tom Brady. Because basketball, football and baseball are ingrained in the very fabric of our culture.
In order for the numbers in cycling to explode and in order for more money to be funneled into the sport, US cycling has to foster some real grassroots initiatives. It has to create a connection between the pros, the races and the fan base. It is the Masters cyclist who will want to test his or her mettle against the pros who will then pass that passion for the sport down to the next generation. If only a small percentage of young kids straddle their bikes versus picking up a basketball, the positive impact to the sport will be tremendous. The US currently has a deeper and larger group of cyclists racing in the European peloton than ever before. We have a lot of young men and women for whom to cheer. There's no need to pick a favorite; they all deserve our support. But, what about the next crop of riders? How many are coming up through the ranks? We don't really know because we don't really have a consistent assembly line-like system in place. We can't definitively point to young up-and-comers and say that they are the next generation of great US cyclists.
So, the challenge is two-fold: 1) growing the interest in the sport to drive participation numbers up across both sexes and all age groups; and 2) creating a greater connection between fans, and the riders and races they love so that more money is pumped into the sport. Unless these 2 things occur, cycling will remain a third-tier sport in the US and US pro victories in Europe will continue to be few and far between. This isn't "good" or "bad". It is what it is.