Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Tiny But Mighty

Hier kom ik om de dag te redden!
At last weekend’s UCI Cyclocross World Championships, not everything went the way the experts predicted. Few people thought Wout van Aert, despite being the 2-time defending champion, would beat Mathieu van der Poel, this season’s most dominant rider, for the men’s elite title. And I’m sure nobody thought 16-year-old Harriet Harnden of Great Britain would take 4th Place in the U23 women’s race.

But there were few surprises otherwise. The sport continues to be dominated by Belgium and the Netherlands.

Belgium and the Netherlands have occupied every podium position in the men’s elite race for the last 4 years (Czech rider Zdeněk Štybar won the 2014 championship). Belgium and the Netherlands have won 9 of the last 10 women’s elite races and current champion Sanne Cant is still complaining about the one that got away: Pauline Ferrand-Prévot’s victory for France in 2015. Belgium and the Netherlands have won the last 8 men’s U23 titles. In the 5 world championship races last weekend, Belgium and the Netherlands occupied 9 out of 15 podium spots.

It’s not only cyclocross in which Belgium and the Netherlands excel. They produce some of the most successful road and track cyclists too. How do these two countries, whose total population is just 28.5 million, so consistently turn out great racers? I think part of the answer lies in population density. The combined land area of Belgium and the Netherlands is less than half the size of Wisconsin—you could drive across either country in less than 4 hours. That gives them roughly 1,000 people per square mile. Every race on home soil is a race against the best the country has to offer. Contrast that with Wisconsin, where Madison guys don’t go to Green Bay races, Milwaukee guys don’t go to Wausau races, and so on. Now expand that idea to the entire United States: 323.1 million people spread out over 3,794,083 square miles—just 85 people per square mile. To be part of a major series, or to accumulate UCI points, or (especially) to win a national championship, an American racer must spend a lot of time and money just traveling between race locations.

Finishing in 15th Place on Sunday, Stephen Hyde was the top American in the men’s elite race. He’s a New Englander who traveled almost 3,000 miles in January to win the USA Cycling National Championship in Reno. His 2017-2018 domestic itinerary included Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio, Maryland, Kentucky, and Nevada, plus a few races closer to home. Fellow Massachusetts resident Jeremy Powers, a 4-time national champion, followed a similar schedule and said in an article published last week that his travel costs are a big problem. And he is perhaps the most highly sponsored of the lot! Imagine the hardship for racers with little or no sponsorship money.

Is it any wonder that the amateur categories at nationals are dominated by racers who live nearby? We don’t see an even distribution of riders from across the country; in both time and money, the travel burden is simply too large for most racers. And when last year’s champions don’t defend their titles because this year’s races are too far away, the quality of racing isn’t what it could be. That eventually comes back to bite us against fields of international riders who have been knocking the stuffing out of each other since they were kids.

I don’t have a solution. The United States will continue to have pockets of racing prowess across a landscape that remains largely empty. In cyclocross, this is really noticeable for the elite men: 14 of the 19 Stars & Stripes jerseys awarded since 2000 have gone to New Englanders. (Katie Compton’s dominance on the women’s side is a product of her unique gifts and not of a Colorado racing scene that is head-and-shoulders above all others.) Maybe the only answer is to support your local racing scene, making that pocket as big and as strong as it can be.

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