Imagine Major League Baseball without the minors, or the National Football League without college football.
It may have worked 50 years ago, but it would not work today. You can’t take a fresh-faced kid and expect him to turn into a top-level professional without moving through the normal channels of development. There are a few exceptions — LeBron James and Derek Jeter come to mind — but they’re exceptions, not the norm.
However, cycling works differently than any of the other professional sports leagues; its feeder programs are not structured by the governing body, and are in no way guaranteed.
Below the top-tier WorldTour, Pro Continental, and Continental teams, there is a bubble of American racing known as domestic elite. And as the 2014 season came to a close, that bubble appeared to be on the verge of bursting as domestic elite teams struggle to maintain sponsorships while the window for race opportunities continues to shrink.
At its core, domestic elite is amateur racing at its highest level. These teams — registered with USA Cycling, but not the UCI — are given opportunities that larger teams enjoy, but operate on much smaller budgets and are generally designed for younger riders.
Domestic elite teams, like pro teams, have sponsorship investments, team managers, cars, bikes, wheels, and more, but are limited by small budgets. Riders seldom receive salaries — stipends, maybe — but the majority of a team’s money goes into travel and race support.
The Horizon Organic-Einstein Bros team was the top-ranked domestic elite squad on USA Cycling’s 2014 National Race Calendar (NRC), and eighth overall in the standings. Though the team was successful by amateur standards, both title sponsors opted not to return; in 2015 the team fielded a smaller roster, and with much less funding. It has now been shuttered altogether. This is the new norm within the domestic scene.
“We had an amazing year in 2014,” said team manager, Nick Traggis. “We’ll start  without a title sponsor, hoping to get additional funding as the year goes on. I always tell my guys to talk with their legs and show people that they deserve it. So that’s what we’re planning to do next year.”
Team Rio Grande was not as fortunate. The Colorado-based squad folded at the end of 2014, after 14 years as a program. With alumni including Tejay van Garderen, Chad Haga, and Alison Powers, the once dominant team and persistent talent feeder reached its end.
“We sat down and looked at the current NRC schedule and realized that we weren’t able to get to enough of the high-level races that we had historically done,” said Trevor Connor, Team Rio Grande’s manager. “We would have had to restructure the entire team in order to get the same race opportunities that we once had, and that just became too expensive for us.”
But not all domestic elite teams are struggling. The California Giant Berry Farms-Specialized team is a model program, and has been for 15 years. American GC star Andrew Talansky and former Astana rider Evan Huffman are among those who have cycled through the team early in their careers, serving as a crucial bridge between the amateur and professional ranks.
The key to Cal Giant’s success is threefold. First, they boast a strong and lasting sponsorship with California Giant Berry Farm and other technical sponsors. Second, they recruit a consistent crop of talented developing riders. Third is their resourceful management. [The Axeon Pro Continental team signed Cal Giant as a sponsor for 2016 -Ed.]
“You need to have a sound business model and you have to be sustainable,” said Cal Giant manager Anthony Gallino. “Too many teams are created and gone within two years because the management does a poor job of maintaining the budget. Look at results over the last 10 years and you’ll see a big number of teams that made it a year or so. You can only promise riders what you can afford, otherwise it’s just going to blow up.
“We have to evolve with the changes of the sport. It seems that every three or four years, a curveball is thrown in either road, ’cross, or mountain, and there is always something new you have to move with in order to stay with it.”
Today, that curveball comes in the form of long-running races that are drying up; without the right opportunities, domestic elite teams aren’t able to showcase their talents.
Off to the races
Along with the troubles of maintaining sponsorship and operating with a proper business plan, domestic elite teams are struggling to gain exposure at big races as the window for opportunity shrinks.
In the current U.S. market, cycling fans and media outlets are most likely to tune into any of the three major races, the Medalist Sports races — the Amgen Tour of California, USA Pro Challenge, and Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. These UCI stage races bring in WorldTour teams and big-name riders, but shut out domestic elites, teams that not long ago were able to race at the Tour of Utah and races like it.
In an effort to bolster the sport’s reputation in the States, USA Cycling has gone to great lengths to promote the sport at a high level. But that comes at the risk of disrupting the developmental side of cycling found in the NRC and other smaller races.
“The sport is still very European-centric and it would be very easy for the calendar or the rules to unintentionally or intentionally restrict our opportunities here in the U.S.,” said Bob Stapleton, chairman of USA Cycling’s Board of Directors. “We don’t want to lose spots on the calendar. We want more spots for higher-rated events.”
And while that’s a fine strategy for increasing American awareness and putting American cycling in the international spotlight, it’s one that is a double-edged sword, digging into the side of aspiring talent within American cycling.
As the growth of UCI stage races has surpassed the importance of the National Racing Calendar, the launching pad for rising talent has atrophied.
“I think what we’re seeing, with the push for the bigger Medalist races, is that these races are starting to overshadow the U.S. calendar,” Traggis said. “The NRC is fighting a bit more for relevance, but it really plays an important part because those are the next tier of races that are going to put guys in races like California or Colorado in the coming years.”
Beyond the push for larger internationally focused races, the physical structure of the NRC is also deeply flawed. With many of the one-day races taking place along parts of the East Coast, teams from the Midwest and Western U.S. are forced to travel across the country multiple times throughout the year for a single UCI race, such as Philadelphia or the Bucks County Classic, eating up large portions of their budgets.
“We used to drive to eight or nine big NRC caliber races every year, but the new schedule doesn’t really allow us to do that anymore,” said Connor. “We were forced to start flying to some races in 2013 and by 2014, even with a larger budget, we overspent simply because traveling became so much harder.”
Simply put, cycling is a resource game, and these smaller teams don’t have the money, staff, or ability to be in multiple places at once. Example: In 2015, the Joe Martin Stage Race and Tour of the Gila, both UCI events, will be separated by three days, and nearly 20 hours of driving. [In 2016, Tour of the Gila will be sandwiched between the Dana Point Grand Prix in California and the Wilmington Grand Prix in Delaware -Ed.]
“It’s not feasible for us to run a dual program, and that’s the only way for a team to do well at these two races. We have to pack up our riders at Joe Martin in Arkansas and drive to Silver City, New Mexico, for the Gila only in a matter of days, a place that you can’t fly to, even if you could afford to,” Traggis said. “We can’t expect our guys to perform at their best after they’ve finished a hard stage race and then spent two days in a van before jumping into the next race.”
The NRC, which provides domestic elite teams with the best opportunity for exposure and race experience, has undergone drastic changes since it was split in two in 2012 — USA Cycling rid the NRC of criteriums to create a separate National Criterium Calendar. [For 2016, USA Cycling has merged the NRC and NCC into one calendar, as it was prior to 2012 -Ed.]
In the years following the split, the Cascade Cycling Classic, one of the country’s longest running road races, has been forced to give up its spot on the calendar after it lost its financial backing in the fall of 2014.
Cascade returned in 2015, but without the significance that it once had. Instead of serving as a platform for domestic elites to flash their brawn against bigger teams, it will be used as a tune-up event for professional teams in preparation for the Tour of Utah, and results for riders from smaller teams will be hard to come by.
At the same time, along with the NRC, other smaller tune-up races that domestic elite and pro teams use to prepare for bigger events have also struggled in recent years. The Merco Cycling Classic and the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic have both disappeared because of the troubles of securing proper financial support to put on the events.
As races like these fade away, domestic elite teams are forced to look elsewhere, which is often either at small local races or international UCI events.
“A team like ours can race any 1.2 or 2.2 category UCI race in South America or Canada, so there is plenty of opportunity for us to race, but it’s a matter of how we can use our budget intelligently,” said Traggis. “How can we use our budget to best develop our riders? We pick our races based on that.”
Racing at international UCI events can provide sponsorship and rider exposure at a global level, but the cost of sending riders and staff abroad is often too much for domestic elite teams to properly take advantage of; it’s an opportunity that is taken at the risk of eating up team budgets, and limiting opportunities later in the season.
“There are a lot of races that I would love the riders to do,” said Gallino. “We were offered a spot at the Tour de Beauce, but when we looked at our budget, we knew that it wouldn’t fit, and that’s what teams have to constantly be aware of. We set our schedule at the beginning of the year so we know exactly what we’re spending and what we can afford throughout the season.”
Up the road
It’s important to note that it’s not all doom and gloom for domestic elite squads. Teams like Cal Giant will continue to be a force for development in the States, and the new Team Elevate Cycling of Texas will come into the picture in 2015.
“We’re lucky to have such a strong financial sponsor for the team,” said Team Elevate manager John McAllister. “I have years of experience with balancing budgets and running teams. I know that the best way to preserve a team is to conserve money and be responsible with the budget.”
Assuming that will be the case as time progresses, Elevate will serve as a beacon in an otherwise darkening world of racer development.
As for USA Cycling, the federation will continue to host Talent ID camps — programs that look for potential talent from ages 14 to 21. Serving as a first step for young cyclists to enter USA Cycling’s “development pipeline,” these scouting endeavors are set up to provide knowledge of the sport to aspiring riders. Many of the country’s top riders have gone through the program or have spent time racing for the U23 national team in Europe early in their careers, but the opportunity comes with a hefty price tag.
“The Talent ID program is great, but young riders have to ‘pay their way’ to be a part of it,” said Traggis. “That puts a lot of talented riders at a huge disadvantage and limits the potential field of applicants.” Touching on all of the good that USA Cycling’s developmental program does, Gallino feels that the Medalist races should allow an American U23 team to compete in the events, something that is permissible within the races’ UCI rankings. (It’s not without precedent — there was a USA Development Team at the 2007 Amgen Tour of California, featuring current WorldTour pros Tejay van Garderen, Brent Bookwalter, and Caleb Fairly.)
Gallino believes that the team should be constructed of mostly domestic elite riders, which helps promote development, while also giving these racers the chance to compete alongside WorldTour riders, providing them with high-caliber race experience while putting their names in front of pro teams.
Similarly, Traggis feels that the Medalist race organizers should open up a spot for the highest-ranked domestic elite team on the NRC standings, in order to promote smaller teams at the highest level of American racing. The reality of this is most likely unrealistic, as high race fees often turn away even bigger Continental teams from competing.
These changes would be small relative to the overarching problem, but ones that could potentially move the developmental side of the sport in the right direction.
If the development in the U.S. continues down its current path, the sport may struggle to locate, and transform, talented U23s into top-tier pros.
“When you look at this as a nation, [where] you want to continue to have Americans do well, or race at the Tour [de France], worlds, or the Olympics… you don’t do that by knocking down our domestic calendar,” said Connor. “The only way for young American riders to do well in Europe is [for them] to rise to the top level in American racing first. So when we don’t have these teams or these races here in the U.S., there’s just not enough room for opportunity.”
No doubt talented riders will continue to emerge, but their opportunities to race with domestic elite teams at some of the country’s largest events may become scarcer as the basic roots of cycling in America continue to deteriorate.