Sunday, 20 September 2009

Take the money and run

Jonny and I did a local crit today that's part of a regional, weekend omnium. Sort of the Mutual of Enumclaw of Dallas. We skipped the road race and TT yesterday because the RR started at 7am and we don't have any TT gear. We made up for that in the crit, however. I attacked about 10min into the 90min race and stayed away solo for the win. I also realized I won my first race this season eight months ago today, and have won at least one race every month since (September was a close call). Today is #19 of the year; pretty incredible season.

Today was a tough slog though. The course was nearly 1.5mi long, fairly windy, and had a small rise on the backstretch. My maximum gap was around a minute, but most of the race I hovered in the 30sec range. I actually felt pretty flat all day after our brisk 4hr ride yesterday, and two weeks of racing in the rain did me no favors in today's ~90 degree weather. But robot-mode has done me well this season and I did my best to turn off the brain and stop making excuses to sit up.

For my efforts I can add another two hundo to the coffers for this trip. And that's great. But let me rant: who started this nonsense of only giving pack primes? I think this is the third crit this year when they immediately started priming the pack when I was up the road. There were 6 primes in the race. The first was one lap before I broke away. I led the rest of the race but won just one, $25 prime. The rest went to the pack, including one worth $150. What the hell? Am I just out here for giggles? MAYBE, if a break is away and the pack has sat up, throw them a bone with one or two pack primes. But if it's one guy off the front, the end result is far from a sure thing, and it would suck to spend most of the race out front, miss all the primes, then not even place.

I think the answer in this case is that maybe the Texas bike racing community doesn't fancy the idea of more of their dollars coming home in my luggage. At least five guys after the race made some remark about how maybe it's time to head back to Seattle; I'm sure their comments were all in good spirits but judging by the repetitiveness of this sentiment I can only imagine it echoes some real feelings.

This trip has been by far my most lucrative. And the responses I've received from others illustrates what I think is a problem with cycling in this country: most people still think of prize money as just that--a prize. It's a bonus, a feather you put in your cap to justify to your wife/girlfriend/teammates why you spend so much time and money on bikes. But in reality, for guys like myself and hundreds of others in the country, prize money is one of the biggest motivators going into races, and to a large extent is what makes the sport function at all.

Clearly, there are only a handful of guys in the US who can justifiably be cyclists because of the money. You have to do it for the love. BUT, there are shockingly few racers in the US who actually earn a living wage from a salary. Most of us support ourselves by living modestly, hocking old equipment at the end of the year, working odd jobs, and coming home from the races with a few hundred dollars more than when you left.

That's why a significant aspect of season planning includes a cost-benefit analysis of each race: how much it costs to get there, how much it costs to enter, how much/deep the payout is, and how likely we are to bring home some of the pot. This is the first year I started boycotting races that don't pay out. I totally understand the plight of the race promoter; but if you have 50-100 riders in every field and charge $20-$30 to race, riders need to at least break even if they get on the podium.

Cycling in the US has become a consumer sport, where race promoters provide the service of *a race* to the consuming athletes, generally for a profit. And that's fine. I realize we don't have the sponsorship backing that exists in Europe, where racers can get start money in addition to prize money. But again, you can't be in cycling in the US for the money, and that extends to promoters as well. Like it or not, the Pro/1 men and women are the ones driving the sport, and their livelihood depends on race payout. Coming home from a race with one tire and a pair of size S socks isn't going to pay rent and put food in my stomach.

What I think needs to happen is, at some level, we need to cut the whole "everyone's a winner" BS and actually incentivize performance. This is a competitive sport, right? I mean, we race, and there are categories, and there's a winner. It's all right there. So why muck around and try to send everyone home with a pat on the head and a "good job?" Paying out decent money to the Pro/1 field doesn't mean we are better people. It doesn't mean we are any more popular, or more successful, or happier. What it DOES mean is that we've spent a lot of effing time and money and energy trying to get good and this one thing--riding a bike really fast. And that's the idea, right? I mean, it's a bike race, right?

Promoters need to realize there is a very significant utility to prize money. The $30 a Masters D racer takes home from the weekend race at most will cover the bottle of wine he shares with his wife that evening. To the 20-something Cat 1, the difference between nominal prize money and something actually worth racing for is whether or not you're able to chase the dream of calling yourself a professional. That's not based on whether you're on a "pro" team or not, since most still don't earn enough money to cover the most basic living expenses. It means things like being able to pay for health insurance, or maybe one day a mortgage, or a family.

So the next time I'm flogging myself at the front of a crit, I hope the promoter remembers that IT IS IN FACT a race, and the point is to reward the guys who treat it as such. And it just might be that "we're not all snowflakes" (thanks MT), and that I do actually work really effing hard to try to make a living doing this--maybe, just maybe, harder than the guy sitting in the pack who just won the pack prime and is going to blow it on a Dr. Pepper and bag of chips on his drive home.

I'm not a jerk for trying to win money. If you want to cripple professional development in the sport, then follow the triathlon model: stop offering prize money, charge exorbitant entry fees, and hand out a t-shirt and a medal to everyone who finishes. And see how many people still try to "go pro." But when that happens, just don't lament how doping is the scourge that killed the sport and squashed young men's dreams, when the cause was simply your unwillingness to reward their hard work in a functionally meaningful way.


  1. jesus christ, you are so effing hot. cant wait to give you some love when you get home

  2. Don't worry, the racers in Seattle want you to go away too.

  3. And all this time I thought it was about stroking the ego...

    Lemme get this straight-you skip the RR and TT, show up to sandbag the crit, and wonder why no team racing for GC wants to chase you down? Hmmm... I'm surprised they let any Pro/1s race only the crit. I'm just sayin'...

  4. Well put. Enough said.