Analysis: Is USAC feeding grass roots, or trampling them?
Rules, liability questions and who's really growing the sport have USA Cycling and the Oregon Bicycle Racing Association at odds
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In early June 2012, Tom Danielson, Georgia Gould and Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski were among thousands of competitors at Vail’s Teva Mountain Games, a multi-sport event that includes bike racing, kayaking, rock climbing and trail running.
All three cyclists made the most of their trip to the Colorado high country, winning their respective races and collecting the accompanying $3,000 first-place prize checks.
A few days later, fellow pro cyclist Danny Pate penned what appeared to be a semi-sarcastic tweet, asking: “Hey @tomdanielson does @usacycling or @UCI_cycling know you raced the Teva Games this year, I don’t think it’s a UCI race?”
The Team Sky rider did not reply to VeloNews.com’s request for comment. But a source close to Pate said he was upset because, due to a rule that bars UCI license holders from competing in events that are not sanctioned by either the world governing body or a national federation, he’d not been allowed to compete in a regional Colorado road race earlier in the season. Now he was sounding off after seeing fellow ProTour rider Danielson doing just that.
Fifteen days later, in what appears to have been a response at least in part prompted by Pate’s tweet, USA Cycling technical director Shawn Farrell sent an email to Horgan-Kobelski, Gould and several other pro-level mountain bikers who had competed in Vail. (Danielson was not part of this group, but presumably received a separate email.) VeloNews obtained a copy of the correspondence, which read in part:
“Dear Pro Mountain Bikers: It has come to our attention that you participated in the 2012 Teva Games in a MTB discipline. This event is not sanctioned by USA Cycling. As such, a professional rider on a UCI team may not participate in it, according to UCI rule 1.2.019. The penalty for not following that rule is a fine of 50-100 Swiss francs and a one-month suspension. As this is the first documented and reported case of this in your collective instances, we will not be proceeding with any suspensions, and are choosing the low end of the fine spectrum. Therefore, please consider this your notice that you were fined. I shall leave it up to you and your teams to decide who wants to pay.”
At the time, Gould was in the final stages of qualifying for the upcoming Olympics in London where she would go on to win a bronze medal in cross country. Even the mere mention of a suspension made her nervous.
“I didn’t even know about the rule, then I get this email that says since this is my first offense we will only fine you 50 swiss francs,” recalled the Team Luna rider. “But in reality it was clearly not my first offense. I’ve done the Teva Games every year it’s been going on.
“We just paid the fine and that was it. But it was all a little weird. When my team manager contacted the UCI, they said it was up to USA Cycling whether or not to enforce that penalty. Then USA Cycling said it’s a UCI rule. So it felt like everyone was saying it’s not us.”
Regardless of who was driving enforcement, the message seemed clear: What for years had been an overlooked rule in the UCI’s book was now having an increasingly profound impact on both U.S.-based pro cyclists and the pro-am events, unaffiliated with USA Cycling, that dot the North American bike racing landscape.
This is not the first time this rule received attention. In 2011, some Colorado pro riders skipped local events because of talk about the change in tune coming from the UCI and USAC. This attitude shift ended up being one of the factors that pushed the then-autonomous American Cycling Association (which provided licensure and sanctioning for most of the racers and events in Colorado) to rejoin the national federation.
It was a hotly debated and highly controversial move that many ACA members felt happened only because of pressure applied by the national governing body, including the enforcement of this heretofore little-known rule.
Whatever the motivations were, the ACA rejoined USAC in 2012 under its old name, the Bicycle Racing Association of Colorado, overseeing a successful, albeit more expensive, calendar of amateur bike racing in Colorado. In 2011, the cost of an ACA license, good for road, mountain, and cyclocross, was $45. In 2012, a USAC road license ($60), plus a mountain bike add-on ($30), and membership in BRAC ($25) totaled $115.
While not mandatory, the BRAC membership was necessary if a rider wanted to avoid a $5-per-race surcharge required of non-members racing BRAC races (which include nearly all the popular Colorado cyclocross races).
Flash forward to late December 2012 in Bend, Oregon, and the final stop of the USGP of Cyclocross. During a packed weekend of racing, elite-level pros and amateurs of all abilities took their best shots at the twisting, technical course on the grounds of the Deschutes Brewery.
All the pros, and a handful of the amateurs, raced with either UCI or USAC licenses. The rest of the amateurs registered using their memberships in the Oregon Bicycle Racing Association, the primary licensure and event-sanctioning body in Oregon. Like the ACA, OBRA has no official affiliation with USA Cycling.
This commingling of licenses in Bend is known as a dual-sanctioned event — an occurrence that will not be repeated in 2013, according to USA Cycling CEO Steve Johnson.
“Going forward we will not accept dual sanctioning with the same races on the same course on the same day,” said Johnson during an extensive interview with VeloNews in mid-December.
“The problem that you run into is conflict of liability. We issue a permit in a situation where you have multiple events running under multiple permits on the same day. Then you have the potential for confusion as to whose insurance covers what. Our insurance is much more robust than the OBRA insurance, so we would probably be the default party. We are trying to avoid that.”
Johnson noted that it might be possible to have pros race one day and amateurs the next. But this would dramatically affect an event such as the Bend USGP, which has always offered two days of racing for both pros and amateurs.
Oregon’s UCI-license-holding pros can also expect to be held to the standard outlined in the email sent to the Teva Games competitors, because beginning in 2013 USA Cycling will no longer honor OBRA’s racing activity.
“That means the issue we ran into in Colorado will come up in Oregon where internationally licensed riders have an obligation to respect the UCI rules,” said Johnson. “And the UCI rules are pretty clear about not being able to race in unaffiliated events.”
Translation: Riders such as Adam Craig, Carl Decker, Ryan Trebon and Chris Jones, all Oregon residents, will be forced to choose between racing the occasional OBRA event with the risk of being fined, suspended and even losing their UCI licenses, or forgoing what has been a staple of their training regimen to avoid trouble with the powers that be.
“If that really ends up being the case, then I will have to just not purchase a UCI license until ’cross season,” said Craig, a longtime Oregon resident who competed in the 2008 Olympics as a member of the U.S. national team, but has since turned much of his competitive focus toward enduro-style events that are not currently under UCI/USAC dominion.
“As a North American mountain biker, our lifeblood is just as much these grassroots locally sanctioned events. If that means I can’t do cross-country nationals, whatever. But you’d hope they’d come to some kind of agreement because it seems so incredibly silly that USAC has any input as to what we are allowed to do as professional bike riders.”
USA Cycling’s Johnson counters that adherence to the rule is simply about respecting the international structure of the sport.
“The UCI have specific regulations designed to protect the integrity and value of the international calendar,” he said. “The fact is these riders have equity that was earned by their international competition. Now if a local organizer wants the pros at their event because they are recognizable individuals as a result of their international competition experience, they should be part of the system that helped create that value.”
While it seems at least possible that events on the new world enduro series may soon be part of the UCI calendar, there appears to be no chance that OBRA or any of its sanctioned events will rejoin the USAC family anytime soon.
Since breaking away from the federation in the late 1990s, OBRA has grown its membership to more than 5,000, and this year sanctioned more than 330 races. OBRA’s marquee event, the Portland-based Cross Crusade series, is the largest amateur cyclocross series in the world, averaging 1,100 racers at each of its eight events last season.
“No chance,” answered OBRA executive director Kenji Sugahara when asked if there’s any possibility his organization would rejoin USAC in the face of what appears to be new pressure being applied by the national federation.
“If we were to go back it was just mean an increase in costs to our members and promoters without getting much back in return.”
Sugahara points to an annual OBRA license that costs $20 ($10 for cyclocross only), and a $2.35-per-rider fee for event promoters, which includes insurance and equipment rental. By comparison, promoters who operate under USAC sanctioning must pay $3 per rider for insurance alone.
“I know they have overhead costs, but that’s a really big difference,” added Sugahara. “It seems like we’d all really be better off if they just worried about elites and junior development, and let the local associations deal with the grassroots amateur racing.”
Not surprisingly, USA Cycling’s Johnson doesn’t agree, outlining a long argument that includes claims relating to his organizations “more robust” insurance, greater consciousness of athlete-safety issues, an expansive website that includes a national ranking system for all USAC-licensed athletes, and the notion that the U.S. “recognizes a structural hierarchy for sports, particularly for Olympic sports through the Amateur Sports Act.”
“OBRA continues to say, ‘We are just grassroots. We are all about fun,’” added Johnson. “Well that may be, but in the bigger picture they don’t understand that there is a tremendous advantage to be had by the general growth of the sport in the country which we have been fueling.
“You need to step back and look at the importance of international heroes and role models. They add value and cache to the sport. We honestly believe that the overall benefit far outweighs any incremental increase in cost. Right now anyone in Oregon is outside the system with regard with those progressive opportunities that people tend to find value in.”
While Johnson’s argument comes across as sincere and fair-minded, Sugahara is convinced there are other factors at work — and he believes in his organization’s ability to deliver a quality product.
“We advocate a bottom-up approach, which has been tremendously successful in getting more people interested in the sport,” Sugahara said. “If you make it fun for the folks who are just entering a sport they are going to keep coming back.
“As for [USA Cycling’s] motivation, obviously with 5,000 members and 330-plus events, we’d be a huge revenue source. Sure, there is some truth about unifying everyone under one organization. But clearly to me it’s about the money, too. Why else are they all the sudden going to start caring about which races a few pros do?”
In the end it all comes down to one’s viewpoint on who should be doing what to grow the sport of cycling — and who should have to pay for it.