Professional-level road races are springing up across the United States of America and attracting some of the biggest names in the sport. The question is whether UCI-sanctioned events such as the Amgen Tour of California, Tour of Utah and the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge help improve the overall state of road racing, from the amateur-elite level up.
According to Andrea Smith of USA Cycling, the answer is yes. “Certainly the top road races in the US help shape the future of the sport,” Smith told BikeRadar. “These events provide an avenue to showcase the sport's top stars, which helps create heroes and role models, most importantly in the eyes of young people, which helps drive interest and participation at the sport's most grassroots levels. This is why having top events in our own backyards where people can experience them first-hand is so crucial to the growth and the future of the sport in our country.”
The US has a history of producing professional road events dating back to the 1980s and '90s Tour of DuPont in the east and the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic turned Coors International Bicycle Classic in the west, revived this week in the form of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. The nation currently hosts five UCI-sanctioned events, beginning with the Tour of California in May, which this year was won by RadioShack’s Chris Horner.
The winners of the 2011 Amgen Tour of California offer inspiration to amateur racers
Much of the same peloton assembled on the east coast for the 27th annual TD Bank Philadelphia International Cycling Championships, a one-day race held in Pennsylvania and won by HTC-Highroad’s Alex Rasmusson. A world-class field then moved to the western mountains to participate in the 7th annual Tour of Utah, won by RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer. The stage race was previously scheduled under the USA Cycling’s National Racing Calendar (NRC) but upgraded to UCI status.
Next up was the mid-west’s Tour of Elk Grove, which offered three days of big-money circuit races. This year's most talked about event, however, was probably the first USA Pro Cycling Challenge, with the top three riders in this year's Tour de France – BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans and Leopard Trek’s brothers Andy and Frank Schleck – confirming their attendance, along with plenty of top American pros. Leipheimer and teammate Jason McCartney are taking part, along with Garmin-Cervelo’s Tom Danielson and Christian Vande Velde, and HTC-Highroad’s Tejay Van Garderen.
The UCI schedule of races in the US will conclude on the east coast at the Univest Grand Prix in Pennsylvania. The event is in its 14th edition and has been used as a launching pad for many of the top domestic and international pros. “I think these big races bring the Tour de France feel into the homes of the average Americans,” said Nic Sims, marketing manager at California-based Specialized. "They impact road racing and give the people a starting point and something to aspire too, especially when some of the teams could be their local ProTeam."
“The interaction that the fans can get with the pros in the US is great. Compared to the big European tours where you need passes to get anywhere, riders seem more approachable,” he said. “The fact that this country has three big tours now and the big Euro teams are coming is great because it shows that they see this country as a growing force in cycling and they want to ride with some of the best riders in the world.”
Levi Leipheimer of the USA riding for Team RadioShack signs autographs before the start of stage 2 of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge
USA Cycling have seen a surge in participation in road racing on many levels since the organization of the bigger professional road races. The nation now has 16 UCI-registered teams including four ProTeams, two Professional Continental teams and 10 Continental outfits. According to Smith, the impact that professional racing has had on amateur racing can be seen in the numbers. There are fewer than 2,000 professionally licensed racers in the country – a relatively small number compared to the roughly 68,000 amateurs.
Many amateur races are held in conjunction with professional events, such as the Redlands Bicycle Classic in California, Tour of the Gila in New Mexico and Cascade Cycling Classic in Oregon. There are also numerous and popular criterium races across the country. Promoters of these events depend on top-quality professional fields in order to attract category racers and media attention.
Chad Sperry, who promotes the Cascade Cycling Classic and Mount Hood Cycling Classic along with Elite and Master’s national events, believes that the large UCI events have had an impact on the visibility of road racing in the US. However, he feels the biggest influence on Elite and amateur participation was seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, along with more in-depth media coverage of the Tour that reaches further into American homes.
Sperry has seen the number of Category 1 and Professional participants at his bike races double over the past six years. In addition, Women's and Master’s categories have increased by roughly 40 percent. However, the number of entry-level participants has dipped slightly. “I truly think the biggest growth we've seen in the sport has come through the Lance Armstrong era,” Sperry said. “Whether you like him or hate him, he was instrumental in influencing and motivating many amateur racers in the past decade."
No matter how you slice it, seeing the pros race over your hometown roads is inspiring
“From a local and regional level, we saw participation numbers for the amateur categories increase rapidly from 2000 to 2009 and in 2010 we saw numbers flatten a bit,” he added. “In 2011 we've seen rider numbers flatten to slightly decrease. That said, I know that events like the Tour of California and Tour of Utah have been instrumental in helping grow the sport and maintain numbers even with Armstrong's departure. For the West Coast region they've played an important part in creating excitement and visibility for the sport.”
Top-level races also help shops sell more equipment, according to Sims. UCI-sanctioned events typically have an expo area where fans and racers can check out and sometimes test the latest bikes and gear. “Bike manufacturers try to be in the expos and drive spectators to our dealer shops,” Sims said. “I think once you have people thinking about bikes they're more likely to go back to the dealer and pick out the brand that they remember from the race. I don't have any clear numbers but I'm sure that shops in areas where there are professional races see an increase in sales.”