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Of clothing and community

Not too long ago, in order to get high-quality cycling clothing, you had to join a cycling club. In the pre-Internet days, dressing for bike racing without being a club member was a bleak proposition. Inventory intensive and taste-driven, clothing was (and is) a risky buy for local bike shops. As a result, selection was usually paltry. Mail order catalogs offered more choices, but not necessarily better ones, and picking a jersey often meant simply deciding between the blue, red, or yellow ones, all rendered, ironically, in an ill-fitting “club cut.” Venturing beyond primary colors meant descending into a garish world where deranged clowns and beer logos passed for fashion design, settling for a pro team lookalike, or buying a souvenir jersey from a charity ride.

But the fast guys? The serious racers? Club kit. For decades, old style, big-tent cycling clubs — the kind that span gender, age, category, and discipline — weren’t just the keepers of the sport, the dedicated collectives that hosted races, organized weekly rides, developed young riders, and kept a counterculture sport’s essential knowledge alive and accessible. They were also the best way to buy clothes. No, club kit design wasn’t always the pinnacle of fashion, but with membership numbers ranging from the dozens well into the hundreds, the big clubs of old had economies of scale that let members get good quality, custom-designed racing kit for affordable prices.

But today, that seems to be changing. The sport is in the midst of an internet-driven fashion boom and, at the same time, undergoing fundamental changes in the way riders are entering and enjoying the sport. Both are contributing to shifts in the amateur club system that form the foundation of U.S. racing, and that could ultimately have a profound effect on the sport.

In the last decade, minimum order numbers for custom clothing sublimation have plummeted, sometimes into single digits. Affordable, accessible software has placed the tools of design into the hands of the masses, and the Internet has better connected consumers and manufacturers and streamlined the design process, ordering, payment, and delivery. Those big clubs’ big numbers, their knowledge of the process, and their longstanding vendor relationships have all been rendered nearly moot. Now, anyone with Adobe Illustrator, the $200 USA Cycling club fee, and enough riding buddies to meet a modest minimum order requirement can form their own club. And many are.

Correlation does not equal causation, but since it started becoming easier and cheaper to get small-batch custom clothing a decade ago, the number of USAC-registered cycling clubs has ballooned. In 2005, there were 1,575 registered clubs. By 2013 (the most recent year for which USAC has published data), there were 2,760, a remarkable 75 percent increase. During the same period, USAC membership rose only 33 percent. That means that while there are more clubs, they are smaller, down from an average of 30 members to 23, a drop of nearly 25 percent.

There’s undeniable appeal in breaking away from the big team structure to start a smaller organization. Trading the big tent for an EZ-Up lets small clubs focus more narrowly on their members’ interests, whether it’s women’s racing, the velodrome, cyclocross, or bourbon hand-ups. There’s also the appealing nimbleness in kit design, the freedom to create something new each year if desired, without being bogged down in decades of design tradition.

For all the appeal and advantages of small clubs, though, big clubs still offer some advantages to members and to the sport. They’re visible and accessible, the most identifiable way for neophytes or transplants to find their way into the local scene. Their broad base — men and women, juniors and masters, category 5s and elites — can provide a more holistic, balanced perspective on the sport, one that can help ensure the needs of all stakeholders are represented in decisions about local and regional racing. Their size makes them more likely to host races, too.

Big rosters give them a certain momentum that keeps them intact as smaller organizations come and go. Institutional knowledge of how to get things done—securing venues and working with municipalities, vendors, officials, and sponsors — can be more reliably preserved for the long-term and handed down through mentorships, both formal and informal.

But perhaps most importantly for amateur racing, big, traditional clubs have manpower. From race-day duties like course setup, road marshaling, registration, and staffing pace cars and wheel vans, to behind-the-scenes tasks like organizing porta-potties, wrangling sponsors, printing signage, and stuffing prize bags, it takes a lot of bodies to produce a safe, successful day of road racing. Cyclocross hardly reduces the burden, swapping road-specific concerns with kilometers of staking and taping, pruning and raking, followed by post-race remediation of acres of sodden, rutted lawn.

Therein lies the danger — that as the club scene fragments, the sport will be left with more clubs overall, but fewer with the critical mass of skills, resources, and desire necessary to create and sustain races. There are few consequences for failing to do so. Contrary to popular belief, it is not mandatory for registered clubs to promote a race each season, though local associations can make voting rights contingent on doing so.

So far, U.S. racing has not been heavily impacted by the fragmentation, at least according to the broad numbers. As the number of USAC teams rose from 2005 through 2013, the number of USAC races grew by a healthy 40 percent, from 2,204 to 3,105. But the mix of events is also changing. Cyclocross experienced enormous growth in terms of races and participation, while anecdotal evidence indicates that long road races—expensive and logistically difficult—are becoming rarer. The upward trend might also be at an end—the number of sanctioned races declined slightly in 2013, and more contraction is expected as amateur racing faces increased competition from professionally organized, mass participation events like gran fondos.

That’s not to say that small clubs aren’t doing their share. They are, many by partnering with other clubs to promote races, developing junior or elite riders, and providing a wider variety of options for riders to find the right home in the sport. That is, if those riders choose to join a team at all. Just as teams are growing smaller, remaining unattached—the term for racers who are not members of a USAC club or team—has never looked more appealing.

For years, USAC encouraged club membership by allowing promoters—usually clubs—to charge unattached riders an additional fee, typically $5 or $10, on top of the registration fee. For anyone serious about racing, the extra fees would quickly add up to the price of a club membership. The economics would take care of themselves, the theory went, and by joining a club, the rider would then contribute to the racing community. After a long decline in popularity, then-USAC technical director Shawn Farrell informed officials in a July 2012 update that the unattached rider fee had been formally abolished. Rather than encouraging club membership, the fee discouraged race participation, sending an exclusionary message that was even more costly than the financial one, particularly to riders just looking to get their feet wet.

Being unattached today no longer means paying an extra fee, nor looking like a garage sale refugee on the start line. Premium brands like Rapha have lured racers away from the logoed world of club kit. Now, independent kit designers, many of them part-timers, have proliferated, with their designs coming to fruition as kits by industry stalwarts like Castelli, selling to the public via the web, and advertising via social media.

With myriad clothing options available, the unattached fee dead, and the Internet serving as a surrogate for the cycling knowledge base, joining a club, particularly a large one, has been heavily disincentivized. Why pay membership fees? Why take on the responsibilities? In an era when social media teaches that personal networks can be carefully curated, and dissent easily and conveniently blocked out, why subject ourselves to the hurly-burly of big club life?

It is easier than ever to race bicycles without truly being part of the racing community. You can simply pay your entry fee, race, and drive home, all with no obligation to ever spend a day standing at an intersection in an orange vest imploring drivers late for church to wait just a minute for the peloton to pass or drive a sleeping junior to an 8 a.m. start.

But if too many cyclists make that choice, racing ultimately loses. Even the most committed will face a tipping point when the non-contributors become too numerous, and altruism and dedication to the cause are worn too threadbare to endure. That is when a year-on-year dip in the number of races will become a dive, and potentially a vicious cycle. No races, no racing, no racers.

Ultimately, the appeal of being part of something bigger — of community, of collective success, of contributing to the sport — will have to outweigh the desire for exclusivity, the appeal of convenience, and the whims of fashion. Like those old, creaky clubs, cycling is a big tent, but it takes everyone to keep the circus going.