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Another Day with JHK: Incredibly Frustrated

  • By Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski
  • Published Dec. 17, 2009
  • Updated Dec. 7, 2012 at 11:46 AM EDT

For anyone planning on racing or following the domestic mountain bike scene in 2010, the last week or so has likely had you reconsidering your travel plans.

Shortly after USA Cycling announced the final Pro XCT calendar with dates and venues, presenting sponsor US Cup decided to withdraw its support and focus on an alternate series, the US Cup Mountain Bike Racing League.

As an athlete who has been working behind the scenes for years on the structure of a new professional calendar for mountain bike racing, this development is incredibly frustrating. It seems as soon as we had many different stakeholders pulling the train in the same direction, we lost track of the big picture.

I have been working both as a USAC board member as well as a top domestic athlete on setting priorities, goals, structure and providing input on the direction of a future U.S. national series for almost five years now. The biggest change from several years ago — which I firmly believe to be positive — is the move away from an “all-encompassing” series with one title sponsor to a collection of the best races in the U.S. with individual promoters and event histories.

This is a model far more sustainable in the long term. In the traditional series model, if the title sponsor withdraws its support the whole thing is in danger of evaporating overnight. In a new calendar-based model, if one individual event sponsor folds there are still several other healthy events that can make up the bulk of a domestic racing season.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Both the strengths and weaknesses of this model are now on display. On the upside, despite the current uncertainty there will likely be a variety of good races in 2010. However, without a broad consensus about which events are the most valuable we’ll never achieve the goal of building a credible and prestigious calendar.

In 2009 — the first year such a calendar was implemented — there were many positive steps that were taken toward this end. We moved beyond the problems of no prize-money and serious international scheduling conflicts. Although in some cases small, all the Pro XCT events had a minimum prize purse and were inscripted with the UCI – something that should be a prerequisite for inclusion on any professional national calendar.

A New Dilemma

In some ways, the fact that there may be two competing series pulling athletes in different directions could be viewed as a success – a luxury problem compared to the recent past. Competition is good, right? That’s true, but it presents a new dilemma.

The existence of multiple calendars of big races devalues each one. If the top professionals, media and industry are pulled apart to competing races, the events never gain the traction and legitimacy they need to become prestigious must-attend events by everyone. This has always been the biggest drawback of moving away from the “series” model: It’s harder to build real prestige with a loose collection of events than with a strong, centrally controlled series. I know this first hand, as I won the inaugural 2009 Pro XCT with a minimum of media attention.

Despite that fact, I would like to see this new model be given the opportunity to grow because in the long term it is more viable. The only way this growth will happen is if the industry, sponsors, athletes and promoters are all on the same page. The strength of any eventual series will come from the fact that every event is viewed by everyone as a must-attend affair.

Overcoming Hurdles

I don’t have all the answers about how to do this, but I can talk at length about how this is a much more complicated problem than Joe Blow MTB blogger thinks it is. Scott Tedro, chairman of US Cup and owner of Team ShoAir, has cited frustration with the UCI as the reason for US Cup’s lack of involvement. Not even being a race promoter, I can sympathize with that. However, if US Cup is sincere in its desire to build a legitimate domestic MTB series with the top pro riders in attendance, the UCI hurdles are something the organization will have to accept — and adjust its business model accordingly for those events. Organizers the world over have figured out ways to promote lucrative UCI races, and I challenge the top mountain bike promoters in this country to make it happen.

In fairness though, there is a case for intervention from the governing body here. Despite the constant criticism leveled at them, USAC is a group of quality individuals trying hard to make great domestic mountain bike racing a reality. I know this to be true as I am one of the people participating in countless conference calls and traveling to productive board meetings every year.

USAC officials have stated that they don’t want to be in the event promotion business. That’s appropriate; but having highly ranked UCI events in this country is not only compatible with their mission statement, but is implicitly mandated.

Olympic start spots and USA Cycling’s U.S. Olympic Committee funding is directly dependent on the UCI rankings of my peers and myself. Therefore a reasonable case can be made that they should shoulder some of the costs associated with promoting UCI events in America. I urge USAC and the national promoters out there to figure out a way to share these costs to alleviate some of the current risk associated with promoting a high-level UCI event.

This need not be a permanent subsidy. As the prestige and quality of these events grow the costs of inscription, anti-doping and UCI officials will become smaller in relation to the event budget over time.

Opportunities Exist

In any case, at this late date in the year I still don’t know what the eventual outcome of this latest saga will be. I am currently hopeful that there will be a single collection of quality races next year in which my peers and I can test ourselves. There is still an opportunity to create a legitimate Pro XCT for 2010 with one or two US Cup events in the mix. For example, the successful Fontana, California, event makes particularly good sense for inclusion.

US Cup and USAC both have valid concerns and objectives. US Cup would like to offer more prize money to professionals and a better event experience to amateurs – both of which I wholeheartedly support. USAC needs its top athletes to be earning UCI points, and would like to see its national calendar legitimized with inclusion on the international schedule.

These are both excellent objectives, but if both parties pursue their own agendas we all lose. There has been much momentum built in the domestic cross-country racing scene in the last year or two and I urge all the stakeholders to keep it moving in the same direction. If this means adjusting business models for an event or two, giving up some control or abandoning past prejudices  — do it. By keeping our eyes on the long term together we can continue to make top-level mountain bike racing in this country a reality.

Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski races for the Subaru/Gary Fisher professional MTB team and will take the #1 plate into next year’s Pro XCT — whatever form it takes. Look for more of his writings, photos, and video at www.jeremyhorgan-kobelski.com and www.jhkandheather.com.

FILED UNDER: MTB / News / Pro XCT / Rider Journal TAGS: / / / /

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