DELRAY BEACH, FLORIDA — While the rest of the nation is bundling up as it stares down the approach of daylight savings time, Gene Dixon is shielding his eyes from the bright Florida sun as he closely watches the preparations for the start of the 2012 USA CRITS Series. This weekend, the series kicks off with the Delray Beach Twilight, an event that’s brand new to the sport. It’s an unexpected development, but one that Dixon feels is right for criterium racing.
“Delray Beach will rival almost any criterium venue in America. There’s something like 22 bars and restaurants on the course, and because it’s tourist season, we thinks that the electric circus of cycling will definitely show up here. It’s also an incredibly active cycling market and the event producers went all in to make sure the first event in this venue would succeed.”
There’s a fair amount riding on events like this, as far as the series and the local communities are concerned. The chunk of flesh that the economic downturn took out of cycling was felt everywhere in the sport, and last year’s USA CRITS finals at Washington D.C.’s Capital Criterium were cancelled because of scheduling concerns and the associated costs of closing off streets in the heart of the nation’s capital. Dixon agrees that cancellation was unfortunate particularly from the perspective of sponsors, but that it didn’t necessarily make finding support for these races any more challenging.
“Sponsors are always a challenge. But since we still have promoters and partners out there who are helping us to assemble a great set of races, we think the product will eventually sell itself…especially to people outside of cycling. We just need to show it to more potential clients.”
Perhaps the other principal challenge to the series success going forward is the establishment of USA Cycling’s National Criterium Calendar. And while Dixon understands the governing body’s motivation for creating what amounts to a competing product, he’s more concerned with how the calendar will impact promoters’ bottom line.
“What worries me is that it seems like the NCC is opening the door to an emulation of European criterium racing where promoters pay to have riders participate and potentially pay riders to place. And while it might cost us in terms of which of the perceived iconic riders turn up at our series, we have to keep the sport headed towards true competition-based American street racing.”
In order to make that ethic a reality Dixon’s series has created the Division 1, or D1, classification where participating teams receive benefits in terms of housing, marketing, and entry fees throughout the season. It’s another key distinction that he thinks is important to draw between his series and other efforts in the past to change the shape of the sport.
“Look … not everyone wants to throw themselves into 250 plus corners with 100 other riders chasing them all year. These people are gladiators and we want to help them achieve as much recognition as possible within this discipline. The D1 designation helps to bring more cohesion for the sake of the media and works within the American sanctioning system unlike other past stabs at establishing leagues and series. Our system is compatible with USA Cycling’s rules and their ultimate objectives.”
When asked what personal satisfaction Dixon gets out of tirelessly advocating criterium racing year after year, the answer is unexpected. “I like having that beer on the street at 2 AM.” he says “20,000 people have gone home with a rewarding bicycle racing experience but the quiet energy remains on the street. It goes well with beer.”