Big-time road racing in the USA is nearly dead

At the end of last month, it was announced that the 2020 Tour of California would not take place, with the race euphemistically declared “on hiatus” – a phrase you can interpret more accurately as “cancelled”.

Bluntly, it seems the organiser, AEG, and its owner, Philip Anschutz, grew tired of running the week-long white elephant at a loss each year. And understandably so: Anschutz is believed to have poured money into the event thanks mainly to his own personal love of the sport. That’s admirable, but no way to run a race, and with the wisdom of hindsight it’s obvious that the Tour’s days were always numbered.

California’s “hiatus” leaves the Tour of Utah (2.HC) as the USA’s only men’s race above 2.2 class, a state of affairs that points to a wider malaise at the higher end of men’s road cycling within the country.

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Gravel and enduro races like Dirty Kanza may be thriving – and US cyclists holding their own – but as an upper-echelon UCI venue, the USA is a vessel that’s all but empty, with Utah the only dregs still left to be slurped.

How does this happen in a place as big, rich and sport-obsessed as the USA? A country with resources as unbound as any on the planet – aside from, perhaps, the cabal of Gulf states now emerging as WT hosts – should be capable of running several WT races, rather than a solitary 2.HC and a pair of 2.2s. And yet, here we are.

“We’ve seen races, year after year, decade after decade, really struggle to get a foothold in the United States,” said Andrew Hood on Tuesday’s VeloNews podcast. “There are a lot of challenges that are unique to racing in North America.”

One of them being that big races in the USA are “born to die”, according to Hood’s co-podder Fred Dreier. The challenging business and economic climates around these events, says Dreier, simply don’t allow for long-term stability. Tours in the country lose money and have a very limited lifespan – a trend California bucked to some extent with its 14-year run.

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There’s also the “culture” issue. Namely that the petroleum-obsessed USA simply doesn’t have one when it comes to bikes, as Dreier and Hood point out. The problems are intimidating: car culture is omnipresent and overbearing; Americans hate road-closures and it costs too much to pay the police who enforce them; TV coverage is hard to come by; Americans can’t be arsed to spectate at the roadside. How do you solve those problems?

The answer is that you don’t. At least not in the long run.

“A big American stage race is like a hot-air balloon,” according to Dreier. “It’s glorious and beautiful when it’s airborne. We look at it with wonder and there’s all this praise that goes on but there’s so much energy and fuel and manpower that goes into getting it into the air. But at the end of the day its natural resting state is not in the air – it’s on the ground. The natural resting state of an American bike race is dead.”

Who, then, would bother trying to organise one? Well, the fact the USA is left with a grand total of zero WT stage races on the men’s calendar for 2020 is perhaps evidence that the answer to this question is: pretty much no-one.

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Over the years, many have tried and eventually failed, including Donald Trump, whose Tour de Trump – later the Tour DuPont – was one of the highlights of the calendar from 1989 to 1996. Anschutz may or may not balk at the comparison, but his California race shared DNA with Trump’s in that both were subsidised by billionaires.

When the Tour DuPont fell by the wayside, it took a decade for the USA to replace it with a stage race of equal standing, which just so happened to be the Tour of California. Now, the country faces up to the reality of a similar vacuum, with few suitors willing to step into the breach.

KONM highly recommends listening to the below episode of the VeloNews podcast, in which Fred Dreier and Andrew Hood expound and expand upon the topics covered above.

*As an afterthought, KONM judged it worthwhile to state that this site is not affiliated with VeloNews in any way – we just really loved this pod.

Header image: mbtrama/Flickr, Creative Commons Licence Attribution 2.0 Generic, edited by KONM