Has The Rising Cost of Hosting A Race Buried America’s Queen of the Classics?
Race Director Dieter Drake recently announced that Battenkill would be dropping USA Cycling sanctioning for 2016, which came as no great surprise given Drake’s well publicized conflicts with the national governing body. However, on Sept. 18, Drake raised a few eyebrows when he announce that next year could be the end of the race altogether.
“The realignment away from the NGB (National Governing Body) comes after years of contemplation and in the presence of a boom in so-called "unsanctioned" events,” Drake said on the Battenkill Facebook page. “The sad truth is that costs for a competitive road event like the Tour of the Battenkill Pro/Am are increasing faster than we can keep up with and, at the same time, participation is decreasing at a rapid rate for all road cycling...Unfortunately, however, we fear that 2016 will be the last edition of the event...”
In addition to no longer being a USAC event, and the threat of the event ending, in 2016 the race will also move to May, a decision announced last spring.
All the coming changes are part of a series of major shifts that began back in 2012 when Battenkill dropped it’s UCI event reportedly because of conflicts with domestic criterium sanctioning and doping scandals that plagued the sport globally thus hurting sponsorship.
The loss of the larger pro venue led to the opening of a gran fondo, a seemingly good idea that hasn’t really gained too much traction, resulting in some lost luster for the race as a whole.
However, despite the recent turmoil, Battenkill has been one of the biggest races in the country for 12 years, drawing approximately 3,000 riders annually.
The terrain and the timing of the race have been key in Battenkill’s allure. Traditionally the course has been between 65 and 70 miles long with 20 percent dirt roads, all of which traverse through hilly, elegant countryside in unpredictable April weather.
Sometimes it rains; sometimes it snows; sometimes it shines; oftentimes it does all three.
But that has always been the foundation of the race’s character: the mixture of northeast spring weather and rural dirt allowed Americans and Canadians, professional and amateur alike, to experience the grit and brutality of the legendary European one-day classics (that’s what we tell ourselves anyway).
The early date also forced riders to keep their winter training sharp as a large part of the race’s difficulty came with tackling a tough course at the onset of spring.
Or at least it used to.
So how does Battenkill go from what it was at its peak to the edge of extinction? Money of course. And one of the primary financial drains seems to be the organization that is suppose grow the sport, USA Cycling.
To fully understand the conflict, take a look at the costs that come with running a race through USA Cycling.
A Race Director must:
- Pass an online exam
- Pay for a Race Director license ($150)
- Pay for the number of officials USAC says is needed and pay their travel expenses
- Pay a $75 fee to sanction a small event
- Or pay a percentage of the prize money for a large event
- Pay $3.60 per rider for insurance
- Pay $500 for additional insurance coverage to use a NY State Road (which is almost unavoidable for most races)
- Ensure all riders have a year license ($70)
- Or charge riders for one-day licenses ($15)
- Pay for each town, state, and sponsor to be insured ($10 ea.)
- Pay to hold a kids’ fun race ($25)
To put this in perspective, at the The Rock Gran Criterium and Gran Fondo, USA Cycling collected approximately $3,000. Battenkill has more than ten times the riders and to say that USA Cycling collects ten times as much is not an outlandish approximation. Keep in mind, this estimate also ignores all the added costs that came with the UCI sanctioning a few years back.
Equally important is that these are just the costs that come with USA cycling. Promoters also have various other expenses which add up quickly, making for small race budgets that can exceed $10,000 and large race budgets of a quarter million dollars or more.
So why sanction races at all?
Two major reasons: insurance and upgrades.
If USAC does two things well, it’s provide insurance and a category system. The insurance has always been lower than any competitor and the category system makes for good events - imagine if bike races were broken up by age groups like in triathlon or running. Fields would be a nightmare and racers would lose the challenge of progressing through the ranks.
Unfortunately, USA Cycling has used these strengths to keep a stranglehold on promoters.
For instance, that $500 of coverage to use a state road came free with the permit until 2015, and the per rider insurance used to be $2.50.
Registration fees are starting to reflect the increases too. Not long ago, small races charged $25 on average and now we see most at $35 with $40-$45 not being uncommon.
Battenkill is $95.
However, USAC isn’t the only entity putting financial strain on events. Unlike rising USAC costs, which have been well documented, there is a second problem in the race culture that eats at the edges of the issue.
It’s not exactly a white elephant in the room, but it’s safe to call it a moose, maybe a rhino.
Racers, or a fair percentage of them, seem to feel that any profits made from an event should either go to charity or back to them in perks.
This notion is congruent with a cultural expectation that the person or people who put on the race should not profit from it, a philosophy that is rarely outright argued, but constantly insinuated. Based on Drake’s Bikereg.com page, as well as his web site, this seems to be on his radar too.
“Altogether, there are more than 500 people that are directly involved in the Battenkill weekend that are compensated in some way and their time is as valuable as yours!” he writes in the FAQ section of his Bikereg page. “It's a lot of work. If you think it's not worth the entry fee, then you probably shouldn't come.”
I can’t help but chuckle at his bluntness, but when you think about it, this expectation is kind of remarkable.
As racers we are fine with the timing company making money, USAC making money, the municipalities making money, local businesses making money, Bikereg making money, the police making money, neutral support making money, and all the companies that produce signs, t-shirts, mugs, jerseys, etc making money.
Right in line with that, racers profit too - or at least we should if it’s a good event. Racers expect that there is prize money, a good course, a well run event with lots of volunteers, emergency staff present, accurate results, upgrade points, insurance coverage, bathrooms, ample parking, swag, and the list goes on.
However, when all parties are paid many ask, “where does the money go? What charity does it support?” I even saw a post that asked, “now that Battenkill has dropped USAC does that mean more money comes back to the racers?”
Why is it that we are okay with all entities involved in the production of an event making a profit, but expect the person or people most central to that process to put in countless hours altruistically?
I’m not sure where this idea comes from, but as a result, we are looking at a racing culture where the national governing body makes more on events than the people who do the work to produce them, and an odd racer expectation that wants promoters to host races exclusively for rider pleasure and philanthropy.
These two strains have been pulling at races for years, and Battenkill may be the first major victim of many to come. If so, the landscape of cycling will look very differently in the not so distance future.
We cannot expect promoters to run events solely for “the love of the sport” and the profit of everyone else. However, unless something changes, disc brakes and wireless shifting won't be the only evolutions we see in the coming years.
Either entry fees of $80 - $100 will be the norm for small races and large events like Battenkill will charge $300 - $500 (look at triathlons if you don’t believe me). This will result in racers competing less often and many more events going under in the process.
Or promoters will begin moving away from sanctioned events to keep costs down as USAC may have finally created a tipping point where their insurance prices are no longer far lower than competitors and any lost riders due to the lack of upgrades points will be worth the savings when trying to run a sustainable event.
Neither looks appealing, but the loss of Battenkill maybe the first step in that direction.