ATHENS, Georgia (VN) — There was little to no concern in the voice of USA Crits founder Gene Dixon as he quietly attended to his lunch at Kelly’s Jamaican Food in Athens, Georgia, recently. The former bike racer and long-time promoter was mulling over the impact Lance Armstrong’s Oprah Winfrey appearance may have on his end of the cycling industry.
Following Armstrong’s confession, speculation ran rampant within the sport regarding the potential backlash from fans and sponsors alike. Dixon says he is largely unfazed by what he jokingly calls the “Post-Oprah Era.”
“From our standpoint, all the races we’re doing are a lot stronger,” said Dixon. “There are a lot more new races and there are cities that are adopting cycling as an urban promotion. So we’re seeing a huge growth in what we do.”
Dixon has been running the USA Crits Series since 2006, consistently attempting to re-position the criterium as the keystone of American cycling. And while he maintains that enthusiasm and sponsorship dollars are still there for his series, it’s his contention that this traditional style of racing has to do a better job in raising the profile of individual riders.
“We’re not seeing a way forward for athletes to make a living at what they’re doing,” Dixon said. “So, our next goal is to foster a group of athletes so that they can stick it out from year-to-year.”
Dixon is also quick to point out that since teams themselves don’t share in the prize money that’s on offer to their riders, more reliable revenue streams need to be established so that individual racing organizations struggle less to stay afloat from season-to-season.
“This disconnect has to be fixed somehow or another,” Dixon said. “We’ve tried to address that over the last couple of years with the team prize money we offer. It’s kind of like a Formula One World Constructors’ Championship Cup if you will, where teams get money to help support things like travel. The team structure is the missing part though. Team management needs to share in prize money.”
The USA Crits team prize purse for 2013 is $25,000, in addition to the $25,000 for the overall. In addition, when a team opts for becoming a Division 1 USA Crits team, the associated fees are redistributed to offset entry fees, housing, and marketing costs.
“The D1 teams let us have a structure where those professionally-run amateur squads get to be in the same racing format as the domestic pro teams like UnitedHealthcare that are doing criteriums,” Dixon said. “They may be at a different level of racing, but it puts them in the mix.”
This weekend that “mix” heads to Tucson, Arizona, for the Old Pueblo Grand Prix, which will kick-start the 2013 USA Crits Series. The race is the biggest cycling event in the state of Arizona and true to Dixon’s observations, it has actually grown since the 2012 edition.
“We had to really up the ante this year because of being part of the National Criterium Calendar and USA Crits,” said co-race director Kurt Rosenquist. “We were asking for more money from sponsors, so having a bigger budget just allows us to take a few risks and add a few more features and benefits to the race.”
Despite Dixon’s dismissal of Armstrong’s impact on his series, according to Rosenquist, the confession dried up endemic sponsor deals overnight. He was able to make up the shortfall with non-endemic and government backers, however.
“There were some bike industry sponsors who very likely to have sponsored our event,” Rosenquist said. “But the week they were supposed to come back with a decision was the week where all that Lance stuff broke on Oprah, and the conversation actually just ended there. The city and Pima County are really emphasizing cycling and endurance sports. They’re trying to market Tucson as a winter training destination and so we right away got support from the mayor’s office and the county is actually one of our financial sponsors. So even though they aren’t necessarily cyclists, they see the race as an obvious growth opportunity by bringing cyclists here.”
The Old Pueblo Grand Prix features a women’s twilight event and for the first time, the pro men will race at night. The race and the entire series will also be seen live at SmartStop.com. Web Streaming is another key ingredient of Dixon’s plan to continue to broaden the series’ appeal. All 10 events in 2013 will feature end-to-end online video coverage.
“We have to get American bike racing in general to a point where it has a bigger spectator audience that’s outside the cycling community.” Dixon said. “At the same time, the sponsors that are sponsoring these teams need to pick up on that value. They love the sport and not the marketing value. We need to at least level that out where the marketing value justifies the team instead of, ‘this is my hobby. I’m going to sponsor a team because I have an extra half-a-million dollars lying around.’”
Dixon is clearly hopeful, as well as being thoroughly convinced, that his end of the sport is in the best place it’s been in years.
“I think the ability to move racing forward in a more organized fashion with the resources we have as an American sport is probably more correct now than it was in Lance’s era,” he said. “He didn’t raise the profile of the American criterium rider or the individual American cycling athlete in general.”
2013 USA Crits Championship Series
March 9: Old Pueblo Grand Prix, Tucson, Arizona
March 23: Delray Beach Twilight, Delray Beach, Florida
April 13: Presbyterian Hospital Invitational, Charlotte, North Carolina
April 27: Athens Twilight, Athens, Georgia
May 11: Tour de Grove, St. Louis, Missouri
June 1: Glencoe Grand Prix, Chicago, Illinois
July 6: Iron Hill Twilight Criterium, West Chester, Pennsylvania
July 13: Exergy Twilight Criterium, Boise, Idaho
August 25: Chris Thater Memorial, Binghamton, New York
September 20: USA Crits Finals, Las Vegas, Nevada