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The new boss: A conversation with USA Cycling CEO Steve Johnson

Last week, USA Cycling chief executive officer Gerard Bisceglia discussedhis termination from the post with former VeloNews news editor CharlesPelkey. (see "Exit Interview: Bisceglia speaks" Part1 and Part2). At the time, we extended a similar invitation to a representativeof USA Cycling or its board of directors.Bisceglia's replacement, Steve Johnson, who was moved into the CEO postfrom the chief operating officer's spot, accepted our invitation and discussedhis new position, his assessment of the current state of the organizationand his hopes and expectations for cycling's

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Last week, USA Cycling chief executive officer Gerard Bisceglia discussedhis termination from the post with former VeloNews news editor CharlesPelkey. (see “Exit Interview: Bisceglia speaks” Part1 and Part2). At the time, we extended a similar invitation to a representativeof USA Cycling or its board of directors.Bisceglia’s replacement, Steve Johnson, who was moved into the CEO postfrom the chief operating officer’s spot, accepted our invitation and discussedhis new position, his assessment of the current state of the organizationand his hopes and expectations for cycling’s future.

VeloNews: So you’ve assumed the post of chief executive officer and…

Steve Johnson: … acting chief executive officer at this point. The board has yet to make a final determination. I expect to find out at the next board meeting (in May) whether they will finalize my position or move forward on a search.

VN: The change comes as something of a surprise to you? Gerard indicated that you two had a reasonably good working relationship.

SJ: Yes, absolutely. He and I did work well together. It was a surprise, but we need to keep moving forward on the programs we have in place. The staff is certainly focused and ready to do that. Frankly, the initiatives over the past few years have been staff-driven, anyway, so it’s very easy to carry on without missing a beat.

VN: In our interview the other day, Gerard Bisceglia drew a fairly stark comparison between the situation when he arrived at USA Cycling four years ago and the situation when he left. Would you agree with that assessment?

SJ: Absolutely. It’s true. A lot of good things have happened since Gerard got here, but a lot of things of positive things have happened at USA Cycling beyond just Gerard’s arrival… I think he would even agree with that.

VN: For example?

SJ: For one thing, the development and implementation of the Local Associations, which was on the drawing board before he got here. Gerard’s an intelligent guy and he immediately saw the value of the Local Association model and helped the staff implement and grow the concept. I, for one, firmly believe that the local management of bike racing should be in the hands of the local bike racing community.

Local associations have been a big part of the growth of the sport here in the U.S. We’ve put a lot of resources back into the local associations – almost $400,000 this year – and that puts money back into the grassroots side to help sustain growth and lower barriers to new riders.

On the other hand, we have had amazing successes by American riders at the top-level of the sport, Lance, George, Floyd, Levi, Zabriskie, Bobby, Horner and all of the others… Ultimately their success feeds back to create the perception of opportunities for new riders and helps grow the sport at the bottom.

Look at Lance. How many millions of new fans has he brought to the sport? Maybe one out of five of those decides to buy a bike, which pumps billions back into the bike industry. Out of that, maybe one out of ten decides to become a bike racer… and we end up with 10,000 new members over the last few years.

At the end of the day, cycling is a very tightly linked ecosystem with a many different but interconnected parts. And all of those parts have to be healthy in order for the sport to grow.

VN: You’ve seen fairly substantial growth over the last four years. Do you expect that to continue.

SJ: I sure hope it continues. Certainly from the numbers we’ve seen so far this year, it’s continuing. We’re also seeing a lot of new faces at the top of the sport in terms of the ProTour. I really see American successes at the top level of the sport as critical to driving interest throughout the sport and helping to continue growth of the sport. Really, part of the decision-making process of investing in a bike and beginning to race is affected by the perceived opportunities that are out there. I think the success of Americans at the international level creates the perception among potential members that there are opportunities in bike racing. But with that said, I think the Local Associations are an absolutely critical link in the chain – they are the point of contact for any new and continuing member.

VN: I get the sense that you then disagree with Gerard Bisceglia that elite men’s road racing will thrive with or without the involvement of USA Cycling and that at this point, it’s pretty much self-sustaining and that the real effort needs to be at the grassroots.

SJ: I do disagree. Elite men’s road racing – at the very top of the sport – is still pretty much a western European phenomenon. Our ultimate goal is to grow American cycling and to succeed internationally. Those are not mutually exclusive. In fact, there is a synergy between the two.

Currently, my programs have been focused on exporting Americans to the continent. That may seem contradictory, given that we are trying to grow the sport here, but ultimately, their success does grow the sport here.

Take the Tour of California as an example. They had eight ProTour teams participate this year. Why? Well, because these teams have Americans on their rosters and/or they have American sponsors, who are in turn interested in the sport because they have Americans on the team roster. I really believe that seeing more and more Americans excel internationally at what is still essentially a European sport is going to ultimately grow the sport here in America.

Frankly, I hope that while you and I are still around to enjoy it that some day we have a healthy ProTour extension right here in the U.S.

VN: Do you see that in the foreseeable future?

SJ: Yes, I think so. As the sport continues to evolve and mature, you will see a greater level of sophistication in these major events and the sponsors that support them. Consider the fact that the Anschutz Entertainment Group has stepped up and put the resources behind the Amgen Tour of California that they have. It certainly suggests that we are moving in the right direction and it’s certainly one of the factors the UCI is going to look to when they consider expanding the ProTour out of Europe.

VN: Is it likely that the first such an expansion would be into North America?

SJ: It would make sense. The sport is certainly healthy and growing here and there is a lot of interest from both potential spectators and sponsors. Lance created a great deal of curiosity among Americans about this sport. I think bringing the ProTour into North America will help grow the sport of cycling worldwide.

VN: Aside from potential growth at the top end of the men’s road scene, what other areas have significant potential for growth?

SJ: I see a lot of areas of opportunity. Obviously, the men’s road side is pretty well established. The model has been around and refined over the years and now there are literally thousands of opportunities for cyclists worldwide to make a living at the sport. That’s not the case with the other disciplines or gender.

Take a look at the mountain-bike scene, it’s a professional sport at the top but the resources and the opportunities are much, much more limited than they are on the road. There is an opportunity to grow that, though. For example, we stepped in this year with support for top American riders to attend the International World Cups. As I said earlier, I still firmly believe that the best way to grow the sport is to create heroes and role models at the top end. A poster of Jeremy, Adam, Jeremiah, Alison, Mary, Sue, Shonni or another rider on the bedroom wall of a 13 year-old is a very powerful development tool.

VN: But how do you provide an opportunity once you’ve generated that interest?

SJ: That’s why it’s all connected. We don’t ignore the grassroots in lieu of the top end, so on the NORBA side, we created the Promoters’ Associations to put money back into the local promoter groups to give with the opportunity to race and, on the road side, we do the same thing with the local associations.

Not to overuse the ecosystem analogy, but it is very, very interconnected. You have to make sure that all aspects are functioning. We won’t succeed by just pouring resources into the bottom end of the sport. At the end of the day, you’re depending on people to make a decision to invest in a sport and they have to have a reason to do that; at the same time, the sport has to be available on a local level.

VN: Looking specifically at mountain bike racing for a moment. One of those opportunities in that sport apparently slipped away from the discipline in the last Olympic cycle, when you had people operating on the assumption that U.S. women had three Olympic slots waiting for them and ended up with one. I assume you’re addressing that issue for this next time by encouraging elites to participate in World Cups and the like, but what else are you doing?

SJ: At this point, we’re well ahead of the curve compared to the last Olympic cycle. As you know the last time we were behind the eight-ball, because of some unexpected staff changes and other problems. Currently, the picture is much better. Part of that is being more pro-active in terms of communicating with the athletes and making sure they are aware of how Olympic start positions are allocated well ahead of the Games.

Everybody now understands that national rankings over a two-year period prior to the Olympics will be used to determine our Nation’s start positions. The athletes understand, the teams understand…

That said, we’re also providing an incentive for the top four men and top four women to participate in World Cups by offering them stipends for each non-North American World Cup. That makes a big difference for someone trying to get to an international event. We’re basically asking them to help the U.S. by riding these international events to qualify more start positions.

The next phase of this program is to create a structure for those athletes who participate in World Cups but don’t have team support. We’re trying very hard to find the resources to provide some level of structure for those riders when they do get there. It may be a national team model or it may be some form of neutral support for U.S. riders, we’re trying to work that out now. Again, it’s a question of resource allocation and, as you know, there is never enough time, money or resources to do everything you would like to do.

To your original question, our goal now is to get American riders out there now and avoid what happened prior to the last Olympics where we had riders scrambling all over the world in a hunt for UCI points.

VN: As you say, it’s a resource issue. What’s the sponsorship picture at USA Cycling now?

SJ: We’re down from recent years and…

VN: Is that a typical post-Olympic drop-off or are there other reasons?

SJ: Partly a post Olympic drop-off, and partly a general reassessment of our role in the sport.

We’re not really in the position to field trade teams to compete with existing trade teams, for example. And frankly, we wouldn’t want to if we could. I think the change in 1996 was vary significant when the Olympics moved from an amateur to professional model. Before that it was very clear: USA Cycling tried to field the best amateur teams in the world. Today, we’re trying to put Americans in a situation that allows them to eventually access the professional peloton or mountain-bike circuit and then progress through that system to the top of the sport. On the road side for men, it’s very clear: You get riders on to ProTour teams and BINGO! you have the formula. The ProTour – or the old Division 1 teams – are like little black boxes turning out super-competitive, exceptional athletes. This is where our U23 road and MTB teams fit in.

On the women’s side it’s not quite as cut-and-dry. On the mountain-bike side it’s not clear, either, because here there is so much emphasis on the domestic circuit and on domestic sponsors, but clearly the level of competition is much higher in Europe now. So we need to put riders over there to provide such exposure and motivation.

The bottom line is that our programs have changed from fielding tightly constrained National Teams, to a more open system designed to provide opportunities for a greater number or riders. As a result, it has become harder to create a package that a prospective sponsor can get their arms around.

VN: We have a new Olympic sport coming up, too, now. Most of us on the road and mountain-bike side don’t have a lot of awareness on how that’s going to work. What’s your role in that?

SJ: Right now we’re trying to sort out our relationships with the two major BMX organizations in this country, the ABA and the NBL. We had a previous relationship with the NBL but we want to engage all parties. We know it’s a huge opportunity. BMX is a big sport and very tuned into a younger generation of riders. BMX at the Olympics is going to have a profound impact on both BMX organizations, so we’d like everyone to be on the same page and to benefit from it.

VN: That was a topic of discussion with Gerard. He says there are some serious issues on that front… that there were a host of political issues and competing interests involving the NBL, ABA, UCI and USOC.

SJ: Yes, he is right and that’s why we are making it one of our highest priorities. Because we’re in the process of resolving them, I really can’t comment on it beyond saying that we’re making progress.

VN: How many BMX events will there be at the Olympics?

SJ: It’s one event, a moto-style race. One for men, one for women. The UCI is still sorting through the nuances regarding the race format and what the course will look like, but it should be very exciting. It’s a tremendous opportunity to engage a different demographic. There is the potential for a lot of cross-over. A lot of four-cross riders come from BMX.

VN: Or road… don’t forget Robbie McEwen.

SJ: Or John Tomac.

VN: In terms of the overall financial picture at USA Cycling, are you satisfied with the financial health of the organization?

SJ: I think it’s very healthy, probably in the best state it’s been in. Again, membership is up, sponsorship is down, but we’ve replaced that with additional money from the USOC and money from the Foundation, so we’ve managed to plug the holes and, in some ways, have created a more stable funding model. That’s not to say that we won’t continue to pursue sponsorship. We do have some really cool properties that offer great sponsorship opportunities. I think moving the U-23 program to the continent was the right thing to do. We don’t compete with domestic programs. We’re looking at doing the same with a women’s program.

Speaking of finances, it’s a good time to make a point. In his interview with you, Gerard focused some of his comments on the role of the Foundation and I do want to clarify the way I view the structure of USA Cycling. We’re not a share-holder organization – it’s not a one-member-one-vote structure. We’re a stake-holder organization. There are several very diverse constituent groups that have a stake in USA Cycling and you can’t ignore any group. If you do, it’s to the detriment of the organization and the sport.

Look at our stake holders: Our members as represented by USCF, NORBA and Collegiate – they are the foundation of the sport. The USOC, they fund 30 percent of our programs. USPRO as the organization that represents 15 professional trade teams with combined budgets in the tens of millions of dollar, and promoters of marquee events that put our sport in front of millions of fans and feeds additional tens of millions of dollar into cycling. The cycling industry, on whose support we depend, also benefits from our successes. The Foundation is a big contributor to our efforts. Over the last six years, they’ve poured close to $4 million into USA Cycling. As Gerard pointed out, our reserves have grown again over the past four years… by just about that amount, too. You could make the argument that their contributions gave us the breathing room to recover financially by continuing to support important athletic programs while we tried to bring our financial house in order. In return, the Foundation has asked nothing more than we run USA Cycling in a fiscally responsible manner, be accountable for the results of the programs they fund, and do everything we can to keep growing the sport.

VN: But some of those groups – sponsors, the industry, promoters – don’t necessarily have a guaranteed presence on the board of USA Cycling.

SJ: True, but the are represented at the trustee level, for example, both NORBA and USPRO have promoter and industry seats. Again, with regard to USPRO, to suggest that because there are only 200 professionals they somehow have less of a role in this mix is ridiculous. I mean you’re from the cycling media, for example. You don’t spend a lot of time writing about how Steve Johnson does racing his bike in Colorado Springs. You talk about Floyd. You talk about Lance… about Levi… about Jeremy about Alison and others. That’s the group that drives the interest in the sport at the very bottom. You can’t ignore that.

VN: To be a contrarian of sorts, though, I need to point out that each of those riders is licensed through the USCF. In a representative democracy, they already have representation through their licensing body.

SJ: But that’s the point about it being a share-holder organization versus a stake-holder organization. These are the 200 people, teams and promoters driving the sport in a many important ways. You don’t want to see their interests buried by the voices of 54,000 members. They serve a tremendously important role in the sport. It’s a small number, but it’s an important segment.

VN: Beyond the objections voiced by Gerard Bisceglia in his interview has there been a call for a re-evaluation of the governance structure of USA Cycling?

SJ: None that I am aware of. Remember, please, that the USA Cycling board has steered this ship through some very complicated waters over the years.

When USA Cycling was created, the original corporate structure was a little awkward… less than ideal, with managing directors for each of the associations, vying for attention and resources. They worked under the same roof, but they had different missions at times.

We’ve come through that time with a cleaner internal structure and we’re able to focus on membership issues and services more effectively. That – just like Gerard said – has been a big area of improvement for this organization. Our priority here now is to offer a high level of service to our members.

Again, the USAC board has played a very important role in these improvements.

VN: You’re currently the executive director of the Foundation. Do you expect to continue in that role?

SJ: Yes, for now. But we will probably re-evaluate that in the future. Remember, I don’t get paid by the Foundation. It’s a volunteer position. I’m there because someone needs to fill that role, but it is not a salaried position.

VN: Looking through the IRS 990 form for the Foundation, you are listed as getting a salary. Is that the salary that comes from USA Cycling then? You are not being double paid?

SJ: No. It would be nice! Who do I talk to?

VN: So where do you see this transition heading? Where do you want to see USA Cycling, say, in five years?

SJ: In terms of the transition, I’d venture to say that 99.9 percent of the members won’t notice a thing. We’re continuing to work on improving their services and working with the local associations to make more racing opportunities available. The beauty of the current structure is that a lot of what we are doing is staff-driven. We have a great crew and they’re continuing to do their jobs without missing a beat.

We will continue to push hard on the insurance front where we have already made great improvements – including providing supplemental accident coverage for riders who aren’t insured.

We continue to expand programs for juniors. We are seeing a huge increase in junior memberships. To date, compared to last year, we’re 50 percent ahead – 2400 versus 1600. That’s consistent with what you’d expect, given the current state of the sport at the top and the ease of entry into the sport offered by the Local Associations. You get a Tour of California, kids see that and they want to give it a try.

Coaches are another opportunity. When we formed the Coaching Association in 1999, we had 50 to 60 licensed coaches in the U.S. Since then it’s grown to more than 1200 members. That’s part of the glue that holds things together and, in turn, creates more professional opportunity in cycling.Collegiate is huge opportunity. Track is another area. We’ve made it easier for road riders to move to the track and vice versa. I think it’s already working, in that we’re sending one of the strongest teams we’ve ever sent to track world’s this week.VN: Do you have a four-man pursuit squad yet? That is one of track’s marquee events.SJ: It’s a marquee event, but it’s also problematic. It requires a lot of time and energy and resources, since it really needs a full-time road program, too. What we’ve done on that front is to partner with (TIAA-CREF director) Jonathan Vaughters. He’s putting a lot of time and energy into endurance track events. At this point, some of our top endurance track athletes are actually riding full-time for TIAA-CREF. But, to answer your question, we’ll have a team pursuit team this week at world’s for the first time since 2000.VN: It’s a good event. Glad to hear that.SJ: It’s a great event, but it’s also one in which an entire program can get sidetracked, just because it is so resource intensive. I think one of the mistakes we made with Project ’96 was that we made it the sole focus of the program, perhaps to the detriment of other events. There were a lot of reasons for that, not least of which was that four-man team pursuit is so marketable and so cool. We’re going to move in that direction very thoughtfully.VN: Not to get to tied up in personnel issues, but as far as you are concerned, have they told when and if the board will be considering a permanent replacement for Gerard?SJ: We’ll know more after the board meeting on May 5th.VN: Assuming you make the transition from interim to permanent director, what is your primary goal for the next five years?SJ: The programs that I’ve mentioned here. We’re heading in the right direction. We need to continue to help grow the sport. To do that, we need to foster growth at the top, to generate interest and then do everything that we can to make entry into the sport as easy as possible… working even to make sure that cost isn’t an issue for people to try it out.At the end of the day, I want people to see that cycling is a tremendous opportunity, for athletes at all levels and for sponsors.