Why this matters
Bike purchases and ridership boomed in the United States during public health shutdowns in 2020. Now, the sport's organizers and leaders are working to turn these everyday bikers into fans (and even competitors) within professional cycling.
Chances are that you or someone you know recently started riding a bike or picked it back up again. According to research by People for Bikes, during the pandemic’s early days, one in 10 Americans reported riding a bike for the first time in at least a year. That’s a lot of new and returning riders flocking to a sport that, on a professional level, hasn’t moved the needle in a big way in the U.S. for a while.
American spending on bikes and components shot up from roughly $6 billion per year in 2019 to $8.2 billion in early 2021. Research firm NPD found a 65% increase in bike sales from July 2019 through July 2021, with a leveling off after that point. Even extremely car-heavy cities like Houston and Los Angeles saw tracked rides on the social media app Strava rise 138% and 93%, respectively, from May 2019 through May 2020. All this means sales and rides are sustaining well above pre-pandemic levels.
Meanwhile, the gamification of riding through virtual platforms like Zwift – an interactive, virtual riding and racing environment that works with at-home bike trainers – offers a new pathway to turn Americans’ new hobby into a new competitive interest. Zwift used the fitness and bike boom of the pandemic to raise $450 million in September 2020, with big corporations like Amazon coming on as investors. The meteoric rise and subsequent overextension of Peloton, Zwift’s main competitor, has been well chronicled. Still, Peloton has put several million bikes in homes and even offers a handful of classes with former tour pro Christian Vande Velde, a two-time Top 10 finisher in the Tour de France and current commentator on the race for NBC Sports.
Can this biking boom spur increased and sustained interest in professional cycling? Will buying a Peloton create diehard viewers of the actual pelotons racing across Europe in elite road races? That remains to be seen. Today, pro cycling is largely decentralized in America, split between vastly different types of competition, and doesn’t exactly qualify as appointment television starring a series of household names. On the other hand, the sport has a rare opportunity to convert today’s new cyclists into tomorrow’s fans – and whether it can capitalize will likely come down to finding stories, events, and personalities that connect.
Familiarity and Viewership
Road racing is the most recognizable form of professional cycling. It includes the world’s most famous race, the Tour de France. But even the Tour, the one race most Americans have heard of, is hardly a major event in the U.S.
Weekday stages of this year’s Tour drew more than half a million viewers on USA Network, the highest ratings for a weekday stage since 2009. That’s not insignificant. But it’s also a far cry from the Tour’s 5 million viewer average on French public television, never mind the astonishing number of Danes who watched the race: According to organizers, approximately one-third of the country’s entire population (2 million people) turned out to watch the opening stages, held in Denmark, in person, while the Danish TV station carrying the Tour averaged a 78 percent market share for those stages.
It’s highly unlikely that cycling will ever achieve that level of interest among Americans – but the point is the sport has room to grow. And professional road racing is about to get the same kind of exposure that has helped another previously niche European sport explode in popularity in the U.S. Having brought the drama of Formula One racing to life in high definition with its “Drive to Survive” series, Netflix is now turning its attention to the Tour de France, following this year’s race for a docuseries set to air in 2023. The streaming service embedded with two of the teams in this year’s Tour: Ineos, for which top rider, former winner Geraint Thomas, finished third, and Jumbo-Visma, which won the race behind Jonas Vingegaard.
“Drive to Survive” first aired in 2019, exposing many Americans to the personalities, money, and politics of a sport that previously failed to capture their imaginations. The results have been dramatic: F1 viewership on ESPN was up nearly 40 percent from 2019 to 2021 and led the sports network to agree on a new rights deal in which it will reportedly pay F1 $75 million to $90 million annually, up from just $5 million a year on the previous contract.
“There are few things in the world that are as American as car racing,” said Alex Howes, the 2019 American road racing champion and a rider for the American-owned EF-Education Easy Post world tour cycling team. “Yes, it’s F1, it’s a very European sport, but we love cars in America. We love to go fast.”
The success of “Drive to Survive” also has a lot to do with developing the personalities of the racers, something which American criterium racer Justin Williams, who runs the successful Legion of Los Angeles cycling team, worries that the show won’t find those in European road racing.
“F1 has Lewis Hamilton, who’s a very relatable character,” said Williams. “Who does professional cycling have?”
To identify that, Netflix and others aiming to market the sport must answer an unexpectedly complicated question: Who is the best bike racer in the world? Fans might pick Wout van Aert, the versatile Belgian who at 27 has already won all manner of World Tour races. But he’s likely not really a contender to ever win the Tour de France unless he undergoes a fairly radical body change and loses a significant amount of weight. Such is the nature of the world’s most famous race: Only the pure climbers really have a chance at the overall title.
This brings a complicating factor to the follow-up question: Who is the best American bike racer? Sepp Kuss, a steller climber from Durango, Colorado, in 2021 became the first American man to win a stage of the Tour in a decade back. But, for now, he lacks the all-around skill that teams look for when backing a general classification rider, so his primary charge has been helping pace his Jumbo-Visma teammates as a domestique. Phoenix native Brandon McNulty rode a stirring stage of this year’s Tour to help guide two-time winner and teammate Pogačar (another Slovenian) to a spirited shot at a third title. And youngsters like Quinn Simmons (also from Durango), Magnus Sheffield (Pittsfield, New York), Neilson Powless (Sacramento, California) and Matteo Jorgenson (Boise, Idaho) all seemed poised to potentially break through.
“I’m pretty impressed with the level of talent (the U.S.) have at the World Tour level right now,” said Howes. “It’s like anything if you have a superstar, people love that sport all of the sudden.”
Nobody is going to break through like Lance Armstrong did – winning seven Tours, after beating cancer, all while sharing a last name with the first human to ever walk on the moon. None of that will ever be done again, by anyone; it’s an impossible bar to clear, one made even more daunting given the fallout from cycling’s performance-enhancing drug heyday, which still casts a pall over the sport and Armstrong’s achievements.
Participation and Community
Perhaps that’s why Americans have started to find their own pathway into the sport through the unpaved farm roads that exist all over the country via the burgeoning field of gravel racing. These community races illustrate the obvious potential participatory connection that exists with a sport like cycling that doesn’t for other sports.
We’ve already reached an inflection point with Unbound, the biggest gravel race in America, which takes place in and around Emporia, Kansas, each June. After featuring just 34 riders at its original incarnation in 2006, the race’s registration list swelled to 2,750 in 2019. This year, nearly 4,000 riders from all 50 states and 38 other countries participated. That included 846 women – with 209 registering for the signature 200-mile competition, exceeding organizers’ goal to have 200 women in the event.
Now known officially as Garmin UNBOUND Gravel presented by Craft, produced by Life Time – corporate involvement as sure a sign as any of growth – Unbound’s registration numbers have gotten so big that the race has instituted a lottery for 2023. It’s also part of the new Life Time Grand Prix, a competition series that includes six pre-existing gravel races and will dole out $250,000 in prize money.
Among those competing in Unbound the past few years is Howes, who, along with EF teammate Lachlan Morton, has ridden an alternative race calendar over the past couple of years, leaving the European road races behind for gravel, off-road, and endurance events around the world. While Howes has watched the competitive level rise at the front of the race, he’s more struck by the sheer number of riders showing up.
“The participation amount has changed dramatically,” he said. “I think a lot of people were hungry for these events pre-pandemic, and post-pandemic, it’s just turned the dial to 11.”
Gravel races also offer something few sporting events of any kind can: the chance to ride with and against the professionals. That includes cyclists like Lael Wilcox, who turned pro out of Alaska and rode this year’s 350-mile Unbound XL. As one of the most accomplished off-road racers in the world, Wilcox has seen the most dramatic impact on the far-flung, remote trails she’s been riding for years. “It used to be that if I ever saw somebody with bags on their bike, I probably knew them,” she said. “And now it’s like I’m seeing new people every day.”
Wilcox sees the draw of gravel events as being less about the competition and more about the participatory aspect and open registration. “People love events,” she said. “They love to show up for something that’s happening with a community that’s a challenge in a set place. You can do events that are not competitive.”
But not everybody is sold that gravel is – or should be – the future of American cycling. “I see gravel as very disconnected,” Williams said. “I think gravel happens in these places that are really rural, where people of Color don’t really want to go, so you’re losing a demographic of people right there.
“The second thing about gravel is it’s very extreme. You’re taking these people that have just gotten into the sport, and you’re telling them to go ride 200 miles on loose gravel, which is hard to ride on. You have to have a bit of skill. So you’re furthering the difficulty that it takes to get into and stay into the sport.”
Williams comes from the world of criterium or “crit” racing: ultracompetitive, fast, lap-based races that take place on tight, closed tracks. They can be set up around office parks or in downtowns, offering a more racecar-like spectating experience, with a much closer view of all the action. Williams’ Legion team has not only dominated the American crit scene the past few years but also tried to reshape it, focusing on diversity and inclusion, two things that the very rich, White demographic of pro cycling at its upper echelons in Europe has struggled to do.
Like Wilcox, Williams believes it will take media attention to really spread the word of his side of the sport. But that doesn’t mean he’s not hustling in other ways. From organizing community rides to holding day camps to hosting Q&A sessions like the one in Washington, a race weekend is about far more than just competing.
Williams compares the grassroots work Legion puts into the efforts of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team during the run-up to the 1999 World Cup. “And now look at women’s soccer,” he said. “Everything that we’re doing has been done. We’re just plugging it into a sport that traditionally has refused to do it in criterium racing.”
Williams is frustrated that even new American events, like the recent inaugural Maryland Cycling Classic, which attracted a respectable field of professional road racers, didn’t bother to offer a women’s race. “At the end of the day, you have to have that model where athletes can really connect with people,” he said. “The more and more people we get into the sport, who knows where their ambition goes.”
Accessibility and Excitement
Few cyclists can count on connecting with fans via Netflix. But YouTube has leveled the exposure playing field. The technological progression resulting in tools such GoPro cameras, which allow any racer to attach a camera to their helmet or bike as they ride, has opened up a new universe of touch points.
Dylan Johnson, a pro gravel cyclist and coach, has 132,000 subscribers to his research-based training and racing YouTube channel. Tyler Pearce, otherwise known as The Vegan Cyclist, is a filmmaker and amateur racer with 205,000 subscribers. Both competed in Unbound this year. And while there’s certainly some crossover in those subscriber numbers, there’s no shortage of other content being created around the race from participants and those in the industry.
“I think what’s more important than having the fastest racers or having more people come is actually that they’ve had such a strong focus on media,” Wilcox said. “That seems like the truth of basically every sport. The way they maintain or continue to grow or get money or get partnerships is they have some kind of media to share those stories.”
While Williams still believes a media entity should direct its focus to American crit racing, his brother and teammate Cory Williams has been busy building his own YouTube channel with more than 50,000 followers. But so much of everything in American crit racing – the organization and the promotion of each race, not to mention the actual racing itself – falls on the shoulders of the riders themselves, at least for now. There is no Formula One-like structure, not to mention the money that comes with it. Justin Williams recognizes that crit racing may continue to operate this way for the foreseeable future, but he thinks that its continued success and exposure can help spur more interest in every side of the sport.
“I actually think that if American criterium racing takes off in a profound way, that’s better for the pro tour,” said Williams.
It’s certainly true that cycling's various interest groups are overlapping more lately. Zwift has operated a cycling academy since 2016, with winners earning pro tour team contracts. None had made a major impact until the men’s 2020 winner, Australian Jay Vine, erupted for two stage wins in this year’s La Vuelta a España road race and was on track to run away with the King of the Mountains competition before crashing out late in the race.
In another head-turning crossover, professional American gravel racer Keegan Swenson has thus far made a clean sweep of every Life Time Grand Prix event, running away from the field and establishing himself as the best gravel rider in the world. USA Cycling took notice, and when space opened up on this year’s road racing World Championship Team, the federation selected him to go compete alongside Powless, Sheffield, and others in Australia this month – a big step up from gravel.
It’s one thing for teams to give a Zwift champion a shot or for Howes to decide to enter some gravel races after years in Europe. It’s quite another to see Vine screaming away to mountaintop wins and Swenson wearing the stars and stripes.
“We know he has a world tour engine; we know he’s not intimidated by anything or anyone,” said USA cycling CEO Brendan Quirk in a news release. “And we know that the most incredible phenomenon going on in road (cycling) right now is crossover riders diving in from other disciplines. This is an amazing opportunity for Keegan to show how talented he really is.”
Maybe the answer to which faction of American professional cycling can capitalize on the bike boom will end up being “all of the above.” However it shakes out, the race to transform casual cyclists to fans is on, and the clock is ticking.
“They have this two-year window to convert all these new riders,” said Williams. “And if they miss it, it’s gone.”
The physical and social benefits of athletic competition are clear, but across the globe, many are still unable to enjoy them.
Can sport evolve to be more inclusive and adapt to the bodies, minds and circumstances of everyone who wants to play?