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Race to the Bottom: USAC faces new challenger

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the December issue of Velo magazine.

Alex Montoya organizes bike races for a living. They’re small events that look a whole lot like most people’s first race — a few hundred locals lining up on a weeknight, points or prestige taking a backseat to the thrill of a start gun and the joy of post-race stories.

Montoya, 25, put on 40 of these races in 2015, trying to earn with volume what he can’t from margins. Daily USA Cycling permits range from $100 to $700, depending on race size, and insurance costs $3.60 per person. Montoya’s entry fees are just $20. Shrink the margins and he suffers. Shrink them too much and the races die. There’s no way around it. And though Montoya promotes races only within his home state of Texas, his challenges are familiar to promoters across the country: how to keep racing fun and affordable in the face of escalating costs.

Could the answer be abandoning USA Cycling altogether?

Upstart sanctioning body North American Cycle Sport (NACS) arrived in October as a direct competitor to USA Cycling, at least at the level where Montoya operates. The organization promises lower permit and insurance costs for promoters, cheaper memberships for riders, better revenue for the United States’ 34 local associations, and a grassroots-first approach. It wants to do this part of USA Cycling’s job, but better and cheaper.

USA Cycling is fighting a two-front battle for its future. The first is internal, as it seeks to get rid of the ghosts — and bodies — that remain from the Lance Armstrong era. The second is external, as local organizers and weekend racers look to take back grassroots control. That’s where NACS comes in.

“We were almost at a tipping point in terms of where the sport is going,” says Tod Manning, CEO of the new organization and, tellingly, a longtime USA Cycling official who recently officiated from a motorcycle at the Richmond world championships. “We don’t want to lose more events — not just lose events sanctioned by USAC, but lose events forever.”

NACS exists to support domestic racing. Though Manning says he’s not out to compete with USA Cycling, supporting domestic racing falls squarely under USA Cycling’s purview. But that’s only part of USAC’s mission. As the national governing body of an Olympic sport, it is also responsible for elite cycling, drug testing, events sanctioning, and managing national teams across multiple disciplines. The truth is that, especially recently, the organization has under-delivered on the amateur side of things.

From 2008 to 2014, USA Cycling’s revenue increased nearly 40 percent, to $14,126,916, yet the money it returns to its 34 local associations that administer cycling at the regional level has remained relatively flat, at about $430,000 annually. The number of USA Cycling races dropped in 2013 for the first time in a decade, from 3,138 to 3,105.

NACS has no aims on the elite end of things. The organization seeks only to offer an alternative for grassroots promoters and racers — different licenses, permits, and insurance. Still, those grassroots races account for roughly 20 percent of USA Cycling’s annual revenue. So NACS is a direct threat to that organization’s finances and public standing. It’s a competitor, whether intentional or not.

NACS hasn’t disclosed how many events it will sanction in its first year, though Manning is optimistic. “I have been overwhelmed by the response that we have received from across the United States from people who are looking to sanction not just one race but race series,” he says. “It’s stunning. We’re almost worried: ‘Are we ready for this much success?’ We’re almost worried, but we’re not.”

What would NACS success mean for racers and promoters?

It’s complicated. While it could lead to more races, it would also require racers to buy two licenses — one for USAC events and one for NACS — which actually makes things more expensive for them. To address that concern, NACS will offer a one-day license scheme that costs less than $10, applies across racing categories, and is cumulative. Nine one-day licenses purchased in the same season would count as a full license that would cover the rest of the season. NACS also offers a five-race package for $35. USA Cycling offers one-day licenses as well, but only the first purchase counts toward a full license, and they are available only for the entry-level categories.

NACS’s lower permit and insurance prices could result in cheaper entry fees, better margins, and, perhaps, more races. Montoya’s back-of-the-napkin figuring suggests that NACS sanctioning would have saved him more than $4,000 over the last two years, simply by cutting his insurance costs from $3.60 per rider to $1.10, as NACS has promised to do. “That could have been invested in juniors, in more races,” he says.

There’s also the question of whether the domestic scene could handle two competing sanctioning bodies, and what would happen to promoters stuck in the middle. Montoya and others contacted for this story expressed concern that a move to NACS might anger USA Cycling or members of its 34 local associations. NACS won’t even release names of people associated with its founding. “Unfortunately, these folks are worried about repercussions from either their local associations or from USA Cycling, and so they do not want their names released,” Manning says.

There are also plenty of promoters and cycling insiders who would prefer to see change come from within. Joe Holmes directs Washington’s Redmond Derby Days, the longest continuously running race in the country, at 75 years. (New Jersey’s Tour of Somerville lost a few years to World War II.) He’s also a coach who counts among his charges double junior world champion Chloe Dygert and, as such, has to work closely with USA Cycling. He sanctions his races through that body and will continue to do so.

“I’m of the opinion that you can accomplish more inside an organization than by setting up a new organization,” he says. “Infiltrate the castle and fix it from within instead of standing outside throwing rocks at it. I have a lot of respect for Tod, but I know I’ll always continue to permit races through USAC.”

One issue inherent in splintered sanctioning, Holmes says, is that it disrupts the national talent pipeline. Many races in the Pacific Northwest run under the jurisdiction of the Oregon Bicycle Racing Association, or OBRA, an autonomous organization that has historically had little reciprocation and cooperation with USA Cycling — no USA Cycling money coming down, no race points from OBRA events counting nationally.

“You have a lot of kids falling through the cracks,” Holmes says. “USA Cycling selects kids for their development camps and programs largely through its own results and rankings, and these kids [from OBRA] aren’t on those results and rankings.”

New USA Cycling CEO Derek Bouchard-Hall has promised to improve cooperation with local organizations like OBRA and to refocus efforts on the grassroots. “These are good organizations doing good things,” he said during an interview at September’s UCI World Road Championships in Richmond. “There are some challenges associated with the fact that it’s separate, though. There are frictions if we don’t work in concert, in a collaborative way, which we haven’t. I’d like to address that.”

But OBRA, which covers only Oregon, is one thing. There is no guarantee that Bouchard-Hall would strike a deal with a national competitor. Manning knows the issue of results, points, and upgrades is a difficult one for both racers and promoters. “I would absolutely like a partnership,” he says.

At least from the outside looking in, USAC and NACS serve as classic examples of top-down and bottom-up approaches. The former seems to be using the halo of elite racing — the Olympics, the big American names racing in Europe — as a lure to bring more people into cycling. The latter is taking a more demand-side approach: Create more opportunities for people to race, and more people will race.

USA Cycling’s approach hasn’t served grassroots racing as well as it should have. The success of organizations like OBRA is evidence of that. So is the number of races that have shed sanctioning completely. A vast swath of high-level mountain bike racing — events like the Leadville Trail 100, the Big Mountain Enduro Series, the Breck Epic stage race — don’t require any sort of license. “Promoters can get better insurance privately and without the need for oversight from a top-heavy bureaucracy that’s proven time and again that it’s both self serving and out of touch,” says Mike McCormack, who organizes Breck Epic. And, now, so is the rise of NACS, which could be the strongest test yet of USA Cycling’s willingness to adapt and of Bouchard-Hall’s ability to fight both internal and external threats.

NACS has its own challenges to overcome. It could very well collapse if racers find navigating dueling national federations to be more trouble than it’s worth, for example, or if not enough promoters are willing to make the jump.

Of course, it could also turn out to be precisely what grassroots racing needs.