Thursday, May 14, 2009

Bike Week Reflection on the Popularity of the Sport.

One of the advocates for Bike Week recently asked me if I thought that competitive cycling was going to become more popular.  I didn't have an answer, but it got me thinking.  Would it be a good thing if bicycle racing "blew up?"

I have lived through the blowing up of one subculture activity already.  I have retched as the passion and its asthetic was appropriated and abused by the masses.  In the 1980's and 1990's I was a dedicated skateboarder.  I honed my skills for years.  I "trained."  I traveled around the country to skate.  I bought decks instead of food when times were tight.  

When I began skating, the sport was dead.  There weren't many of us.  I had to mail order my first real board; there were few shops.  The activity we were engaging in was demanding, expensive and offered intrinsic rewards, but had little to no value to the external world.  We were left on our own and we flourished there, creating our own culture and building our own communities.  

Then it blew up.  Towns built skateparks, kids started showing up to the skateparks with thier supportive parents in tow.  People who didn't skate started wearing skate branded clothing.  Skating was cool.  In short the culture became diluted and commercialized.  

Obviously we know that competitive cycling is already commercialized.  But bicycle racing is not all that popular here in the states.  Those of us who race non-professionally are part of a small subculture, one that is rich with common understandings, familiarity and cohesiveness.  Across categories, like each other or not, we all know each other.  We all share a passion for something that the rest of our society does not understand.  

In thinking about it, I don't want the sport to grow.  I am happy with the way that things are now.  What do we get if the sport grows?  More sponsors?  Great, they will want something for their money.  More races?  When is the last weekend that you couldn't find a well attended race within a 2 hour drive?  A velodrome?  I would argue that municipal skateparks helped ruin skateboarding by diluting its culture and bringing "outsiders" and poseurs in, I fear that huge velodromes will do the same for bike racing.  

I realize that I hold a minority opinion here.  I realize that there will be valid and worthwhile counterpoints.  I just like things the way they are, perhaps I am becoming a curmudgeon.  


Billy said...

I think most people that have been involved in some sort of "subculture" activity want it to remain small. You want to keep it yours, and not let outsiders in. I've been skateboarding for 16 years now, I've seen it go through various states of popularity. I still enjoy it just as much as when I started. To me there are no adverse effects to it's popularity now, although I do miss getting heckled by random passersby. Granted skating may not be the best example since it's not competitive in the same way that cycling is. Skating is all about video parts now and most street skaters don't even enter contests. Increased popularity will make for an increased talent pool, especially with it spreading to the younger demographic. Which means we will all be getting beat by juniors every weekend.

Drew said...

I agree. A 4/5 crit is a shit show as it is now, I shudder to think what it would be like if racing "blew up".

kevin said...

a) You want to be different, just like everyone else. If everyone turned into a competitive cyclist, you would lose your individuality. Most of use in the counter culture, be it biking, skateboarding, or cage fighting can relate to this.

b) All those kids that made their parents buy them the Jamie Thomas complete because they loved Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 so much? They couldn't skate. None of them, they all sucked. They couldn't ollie up a curb, let alone kickflip off of one. They just got in the way. Being a good, or even competent skateboarder is incredibly difficult, and takes enourmous amounts of time and pain. Same with bike racing. Sure the beginner races might be a shitshow, but 90% of those beginners will never advance to the next level because it takes an enourmous amount of time and dedication. People who follow fads don't understand committing time and effort to something they truly love.

c) As long as you're racing at any level above the beginners, sit back and enjoy the shitshow. If you win your race, you'll be going home with more money, thanks to all the sheep that jumped on the newest bandwagon. You'll be able to choose from more races on the weekends, your sponsors will be more generous because there is more money to go around, and you just might be able to use the word "cyclocross" without receiving a blank stare in return.

Yash Katsumi said...

I don't know about bike racing, but bike riding has certainly blown up in the last 3 years.

It is insane. Before, I would go on a saturday morning ride and I would recognize a bunch of people on the road. Now its all these intense type A dudes who can't even bother to look up from their aerobars...

Il Bruce said...

Cycling as a competitive sport is in an ebb.

There are many more recreational riders, triathletes, and fitness riders peddling along on their "Personal Journeys" and disease rides but road racing is withering.

I started racing in 1981 when it was a New England prep school varsity sport. I didn't race USCF then but there were 12-15 schols within a few hours of RI that had varsity cycling teams.

In 1984 I started USCF racing. It "blew up" midsummer after the LA Olympics. For the next year fields for cat IV (no Vs back then) were huge. IIIs almost as big and 1-2 fields were routinely 100-120 riders every race every weekend.

There was another influx of riders in 1986 when LeMond won his first tour. Ther ewas another bump in 1989. Guess what happened then?

It seemed to ebb until St. Lance came along.

What fields are full? Old guys. Some cross fields are full of fairly new to the sport types (pink hats?).

It is a fringe sport here with all the inherent zeal and attitude.

It will cycle again as people go back to running, golf, skateboarding, or whatever the new thing is. I'm pulling for base jumping, thin the herd a bit.

RMM said...


Good point about newbies not progressing to the higher levels of the sport. And sure, more sponsorship dollars would be better...
My argument is that the insularity and smallness of our sport is a good thing. No one cares about our sport and I kind of like it that way.


Since you are still involved with skateboarding, I have to trust your opinion on it. Perhaps skate culture has evened out in the last few years.
But I also need to point out that you are a direct beneficiary of skateboarding's rise in popularity. If I am correct, you are paid to skate, as in real professional. Obviously, the more attention on the "sport" the more sponsorship available to talents such as yourself.
I have lots of students who wear skate clothes, shoes and accessories but don't actually ride. These expenditures likely pay part of your salary (not that I begrudge you a single dime).

Big T said...

in case US experience the competitive cycling boom, you are welcome to move to Russia where the sport is nowhere near being popular.

Billy said...

I do not get a paycheck from skating, but the current popularity does help my situation significantly.

nixie the mighty said...

attempting to retain a concept of elitism in anything remotely tangible to the general public will forever leave you dissatisfied. things will constantly ebb and flow regardless of how "cool" or "in" the subject of the matter is. with commercial interests any fad will be exploited and blown up to beyond its fullest capacity for that is how they manage to make money. i.e. fixed gears and bike polo. for recent examples. with that being said attmepting to stay one step ahead of the spider in the underground world is a losing game. do something because you love it not because it is cool. of course things in the cycling world (competitive and recreational) are going to gain in popularity as people become more self sufficient and begin to enjoy simply riding a bike. do you think dick ring looks around and thinks that cycling has blown up and must be hard for everyone to enjoy. no way that guy is psyched! enjoy what you love to do remembering that someday it won't do it for you and you'll have to find something else to put that smile back on your face.

Colin R said...

Yash: they're called "triathletes."

RMM said...

Colin and Yash:
Or "Freds"

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