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Opinion: UCI forbidden race rule is unworkable for North American mountain bike racing

Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski writes that unsanctioned racing is a vital pipeline for young athletes and sponsors in North America

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It has been a newsworthy weekend in the world of mountain bike racing, for all the wrong reasons. On Friday, USA Cycling announced that the sport’s world governing body, the UCI, had clarified its rule 1.2.019, which bars UCI-licensed riders from competing in unsanctioned events.

This decision has far-reaching consequences for the sport in this country, and renders mountain bike racing virtually untenable for a majority of professionals and young developing athletes in the U.S. It significantly harms promoters, athletes, and sponsors alike, and has the potential to stifle current growth trends and permanently fragment the sport in this country.

This rule has been on the books for several years, and was initially drafted to limit the ability of top-tier professional road teams to compete in smaller races in order to protect the interests of lower-tier teams and ensure their ability to gain exposure at the local level. It has a contradictory effect when applied to mountain biking however, where high-quality unsanctioned races are an ideal venue for UCI professionals to interact with local supporters, satisfy the needs of sponsors and industry, and gain the media exposure necessary to build a career in the sport. Mountain bike racing lacks the global, tiered professional structure of men’s road racing, and application of this rule to this discipline is inappropriate and unworkable.

Until last year, this rule had never been enforced in the mountain bike discipline. In July 2012, along with several other UCI professionals, I was fined for competing in the Teva Mountain Games — one of the country’s best mountain bike events. The initial indications were that the rule would only be enforced for riders on UCI trade teams, which is still negative for the sport as a whole, but would likely be navigated by the industry through careful athlete selection depending on the event calendar one was likely to race. I was left off of Trek Factory Racing’s UCI roster for this exact reason this year, as my race calendar consists almost exclusively of unsanctioned events.

Friday’s announcement, though, renders all unsanctioned racing off-limits for all licensed professionals in this country, as well as all UCI licensed masters and junior racers in all disciplines — including cyclocross, which is simply not realistic, given the culture and history of mountain bike racing in this country. This is a significant point, as enforcement of this rule does not only affect “high-level” professionals, but a large group of cycling enthusiasts — everyone from aspiring junior ’cross racers to the casual mountain bike rider who needs a UCI license to race virtually any event outside the United States for any reason.

It’s clear that the UCI is taking a hard line on this due to the rapid growth in disciplines and races that fall outside its control. The explosion of the enduro discipline and most of the biggest growth in mountain bike racing is happening completely outside the UCI’s racing structure. Leveraging its privileged position with its crop of professionals is the only way that the organization can exert a measure of control.

It won’t work.

USA Cycling finds itself caught in the middle here, but it needs to do more than simply state that it will be enforcing this rule at the behest of the UCI. The United States’ governing body is in a position to challenge the UCI on this in a variety of ways. Under rule 1.2.019, exceptions are allowed if recognized by the national governing body of a particular country. Because the realities of mountain bike racing are much different in North America than Europe, if it has its membership’s interests in mind, USA Cycling will push back against the UCI on this issue. Enforcement of this rule directly contravenes USAC’s mission statement, to “achieve sustained success in international cycling competition and grow competitive cycling in America.” Instead of using this as a negotiating tactic to attempt to get more race promoters to sanction with USAC, it needs to accept the fact that unsanctioned races will always exist in this country for a variety of valid reasons. Further, USA Cycling needs to figure out a way to reconcile this reality with the misguided policies of the UCI.

The riders most affected by this rule are juniors, U23 athletes, and professionals looking to make the jump from domestic to international racing. For them, it’s crucial that they license with the UCI — which is necessary to get valuable international racing experience, compete for world championship and Pan-American championship team selections, and develop as athletes. However, these are the same athletes for which unsanctioned races are so important. Winning or performing well at minor local events allows them to get local sponsorships that enable them to grow their careers and provide value as they move up the ladder. I still remember how good it felt to win a professional local race in Winter Park after a month of getting my butt kicked over in Europe as an aspiring 19-year-old. Athletes need the encouragement of these successes if they’re going to stay in the sport long enough to take advantage of the things that USAC and the UCI actually offer.

For better or for worse, working within the UCI racing structure is the only viable way to have a career in the sport in most disciplines. I am in a unique position in that I’ve built my career at these races, but now have the freedom not to license with the UCI and continue to race at marketable and valuable events. Most professionals don’t have this option. Given Friday’s developments, I won’t be taking a UCI or USAC license this year unless a viable solution is negotiated where professionals can race in events of their choosing — a solution that promotes the grassroots growth of the sport, balances the needs of the athletes and the industry, and above all, preserves the culture of mountain biking in the country that started it.

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