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Dog breath: Hard times

"It's the toughest sponsorship climate I've ever seen. Right now it's justa dry lakebed."Rick Sutton of GaleForcein a chat with Jason Sumner of VeloNews About 8 million people age 7 and older tried mountain biking off-road at least once in 2002, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. More than 82 million tried walking. And we’re surprised that the NORBA National Championship Series has sponsorship troubles? Puh-leeeze. With all due respect to the pros who may be racing for fun like the rest of us this season, if I were the marketing wizard for Chevy Trucks, I would have my

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By Patrick O’Grady

They're working on developing a downhill event, too.

They’re working on developing a downhill event, too.

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“It’s the toughest sponsorship climate I’ve ever seen. Right now it’s justa dry lakebed.”

Rick Sutton of GaleForce
in a chat with Jason Sumner of VeloNews

About 8 million people age 7 and older tried mountain biking off-road at least once in 2002, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.

More than 82 million tried walking.

And we’re surprised that the NORBA National Championship Series has sponsorship troubles? Puh-leeeze. With all due respect to the pros who may be racing for fun like the rest of us this season, if I were the marketing wizard for Chevy Trucks, I would have my foot in the corporate firewall, roaring away from all forms of bicycle racing as if it were crawling with more SARS boogers than a Chicom track meet.

You would find me underwriting mall-walking events from coast to coast, tossing goodie bags stuffed with Balance Bars and SoBe to the waddling hordes while telling them how buying a Chevy practically guarantees you a PR in a spring classic like the venerable Gap-Food Court-Restroom, to be televised next Thursday evening on the Indoor Life Network. A man must earn a living.

Think about it. The NSGA says more than 55 million people went camping at least once in 2002, and we’re shocked, shocked, that the Outdoor Life Network – which, unlike USA Cycling, is a for-profit entity – folded its NORBA-label pup tent? You know who watched the TV coverage of last year’s NCS? Alison Dunlap’s dad. Everybody else’s dad was out fishing (44.2 million) hiking (30.5 million) and backpacking (15.5 million).

Small wonder OLN sees more value in televising a grinning angler hoisting a bass than a grinning Roland Green hoisting a Bass. And these days, when the One Big Eye’s gaze wanders, so, too, does everyone else with money to spend. Like Virgil Sollozzo trying to whack Vito Corleone, it’s not personal, Sonny – it’s business.

Nevertheless, some people have been taking this very personally, wagging fingers at Rick Sutton and the GaleForce mob for this latest economic downturn. And it does seem as though Rick has inherited some acreage in the valley, the one the shit rolls downhill to.

The guy puts on an event – cyclo-cross nats at the Presidio or Domaine Chandon, new Sea Otter road races in Redwood City and Santa Cruz, a Telluride World Cup-slash-aerobic-flagellation festival – and lo, the skies darken, the clouds boil and a James Earl Jonesesque voice (directed by Steven Spielberg) intones from on high, “This sucks.”

I’ll tell you what sucks. Putting on a bike race of any kind in a country where “hunting with firearms” overshadows touch football (19.5 million participants vs. 10.3 million). This was before the whole Iraq thing, mind you. Expect this category to deliver substantial growth for 2003, along with plenty of TV coverage, and not just on OLN, either.

Then there’s billiards/pool, which drew 35.3 million participants last year, and dart-throwing, which attracted 18.5 million “athletes.” These are things you do in a bar, to keep your flabby fingers out of the Goldfish bowl, and they are sports in the same sense that golf is (28.3 million). Any stunt fat people can perform while drunk is not a sport. Otherwise “The Man Show” would soon replace “SportsCenter” on ESPN, and we would be watching a Balance Bar-SoBe Girls Jumping On Trampolines Pro Tour with plenty of Chevy Truck ads – which come to think of it, would be more interesting than mountain-bike racing for many a jaded viewer.

Face it, ace: While road racing can make for excellent television, with its colorful pelotons, storied venues and David Millar getting knocked off his bike by everything from motorcycles to mosquitoes, mountain biking looks as s-l-o-w as the Senate judicial-confirmation process. It isn’t, of course, unless I’m doing it, but to your average NASCAR fan mountain-bike racing is as exciting as watching a bunch of homeless guys riding beaters to their bike-path shantytowns.

So, what with war and rumors of war, 8.8 million people on the dole and loose money harder to find than Osama bin Laden, I would gird the ol’ loins for more of the same if I were a pro mountain biker. When you’ve been out of work long enough to think about trading the Saab in for a Schwinn, the last thing you want to think about is some layabouts racing the damn things, unless it’s you time-trialing to the next job interview. What you want is distraction: Rednecks driving in circles, shooting large mammals or holding stringers of trout; insufferable arsewipes voting each other off islands, hooting at talentless talent competitions or marrying millionaires; maybe some cute girls jumping on trampolines.

All of the excitement of Mountain-cross, without the insurance hassles

All of the excitement of Mountain-cross, without the insurance hassles

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Besides, it’s not like mountain biking is going away. We’re just finally getting that grass-roots racing that everyone’s been talking about for years. You may recall that the Irish ate grass during the potato famine, and we’re still around.

And so is the NORBA national series, thanks to the hard-working people in Big Bear, Durango and elsewhere. Big Bear’s Tom Spiegel calls it “NORBA unplugged.” Smile and say thanks to these folks when you see them, whether you’re an amateur or a pro. Mountain biking needs all the help it can get.

Because if the NSGA is right, we’re only a few hundred thousand participants ahead of t’ai chi/yoga. Talk about something that makes for dull television….



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