Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Cross-State Rivals

The big city bias is simply a function of demographics.

This week the Wisconsin Cycling Association is giving us a sneak peek at the 2016 cyclocross season. The WCA is conducting a poll to gauge racer interest in a handful of issues. Responding on Facebook, some people have called for a more widespread distribution of races throughout the state. Our series is mostly a Milwaukee and Madison affair, and that makes sense to me because those are our largest cities. Wisconsin has about 5.9 million residents, almost 3 million of whom live in these 12 contiguous counties:

Milwaukee County     956,000
Dane County          510,000
Waukesha County     394,000
Racine County       195,000
Kenosha County      168,000
Rock County         161,000
Washington County    133,000
Walworth County     103,000
Dodge County         89,000
Ozaukee County       87,000
Jefferson County      85,000
Columbia County      57,000

That’s 51 percent of the state’s population. A little harder to quantify—but not to be discounted—is the large pool of racers from northern Illinois, many of whom appear in the results of WCA races.

The 2015 season featured events in Manitowoc, Sheboygan and Oshkosh, proving races can succeed on the fringe of the Milwaukee-Madison corridor. But how would an event in Wausau fare? Or La Crosse or Eau Claire? By themselves, those areas just don’t have enough population to sustain a big race. I can assure you that they wouldn’t draw from Illinois, and I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t draw from Milwaukee either. Historically the WCA has had very little success with road events outside of the Milwaukee-Madison corridor, and the cyclocross crowd is essentially the same group of people. Eau Claire might be close enough to the Twin Cities to pull in a Minnesota contingent, but it’s the wrong place for a WCA race.

Still, an alternate series could work in the northeast. Almost 1 million people surround Lake Winnebago:

Brown County        255,000
Outagamie County     180,000
Winnebago County    170,000
Sheboygan County     115,000
Fond du Lac County   102,000
Manitowoc County      81,000
Calumet County       50,000

Imagine a 4- or 5-race series that includes the existing events in Manitowoc, Sheboygan and Oshkosh, plus a new one in Green Bay, Appleton or Fond du Lac. Again, it’s hard to expect much support from the Milwaukee-Madison guys, but there might be enough regional interest.

What happens in other states? I looked at last year’s USA Cycling results (except for Oregon, which has its own governing body) to see where sanctioned races were held, reasoning that they wouldn’t exist where they weren’t wanted. In almost every state the cyclocross scene is centered in the largest urban area. California is something of an exception because it has so many urban areas that I can’t say one is more important than another.

AL - Birmingham
AK - no events
AZ - Phoenix
AR - Little Rock
CA - various
CO - Denver / Boulder
CT - Hartford / New Haven
DE - Wilmington
FL - Orlando … kind of
GA - Atlanta
HI - no events
ID - Boise
IL - Chicago
IN - Indianapolis
IA - Des Moines / Iowa City
KS - Kansas City / Lawrence
KY - Louisville
LA - New Orleans / Monroe
ME - Portland
MD - Baltimore
MA - Boston … kind of
MI - Detroit
MN - Minneapolis
MS - Jackson
MO - Kansas City
MT - Bozeman
NE - Lincoln / Omaha
NV - Reno
NH - Concord / Manchester
NJ - Philadelphia PA
NM - Albuquerque / Santa Fe
NY - Buffalo / Rochester
NC - Raleigh
ND - no events
OH - Columbus / Cincinnati
OK - Oklahoma City / Tulsa
OR - Portland / Bend / Eugene
PA - Pittsburgh / Philadelphia
RI - Providence
SC - Greenville
SD - Sioux Falls
TN - Nashville
TX - Austin / Houston
UT - Salt Lake City / Ogden
VT - no geographic center
VA - Richmond / Washington DC
WA - Spokane
WV - Morgantown
WY - no events

Maybe your goal is to have just one race in central Wisconsin, not to be the state’s cyclocross hub. The point is that you need concentrated population to make cyclocross sustainable. Look at our neighbors in Illinois. Chicago Cyclocross Cup races are enormous: a single category may contain 100 racers. But in Rantoul, an easy 2-hour drive to the south, Patriot CX serves only about 100 racers across all categories. If you’re a race organizer, then there’s a threshold below which you’re not serving enough racers to ensure legitimate competition across categories, followed swiftly by the threshold below which you’re not serving enough racers to cover your costs.

Mountain bikers will drive for hours to reach unique trails that they can ride all day on Saturday and then race on Sunday. Cyclocross is different. Almost any park will do, and your course probably doesn’t offer anything that another course—a closer course—cannot. Even in the Milwaukee-Madison corridor, there are many racers who are Milwaukee-only or Madison-only. Many of those who do travel would be more inclined to race in northern Illinois than to drive to far-away central or western Wisconsin.

There seems to be a misconception about the function of sanctioning organizations like the WCA, a notion that they are traveling shows that need only to stop in your town and set up a race. In truth, the sanctioning organizations merely keep score and enforce rules. Each race comes from a dedicated local organization. Until you have that, you have nothing. And even when you have that, your invitation may not appeal to a distant audience.

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