USA Cycling at crossroads as Rio Olympics approaches
Kristin Armstrong could win her third straight Olympic gold medal in Rio. The women's pursuit team is favored to capture gold. Several Americans could land on the BMX podium.
Will anybody in the U.S. notice? Or even care?
That is perhaps the biggest challenge facing USA Cycling as the Rio Games arrive. One of the nation's most popular participatory sports is dealing with aging athletes, declining membership and a vast disconnect between amateur riders and their elite counterparts.
It has left USA Cycling officials to wonder just where they stand in the sport's structure.
"There is no doubt we need to adapt as an organization," agreed Derek Bouchard-Hall, who took over as the governing body's CEO last year after a successful career in private business.
To usher the organization into the future, Bouchard-Hall spent several months examining USA Cycling's shortcomings, then came up with a three-prong approach to shake things up.
First, he is championing a renewed emphasis on amateur cycling, rather than funneling so much of USA Cycling's resources to elite athletes. The idea is that by fostering growth at the grassroots level, the sport in the U.S. will become more robust in the long-term.
Second, he wants to broaden the coverage of USA Cycling to encompass not just racers but the everyday cyclist, those who ride in mass events such as RAGBRAI — the bike ride across Iowa taking place this week — and Gran Fondos, the pseudo-races that have become all the rage.
Finally, he wants an organization that is more open, transparent and willing to adjust to feedback, a customer-focused approach that stems from his previous job with bike retailer Wiggle.
That's not to say USA Cycling is abandoning elite athletes. Instead, Bouchard-Hall believes the amateur cyclist and elite cyclist go hand-in-hand, the growth of one helping the other.
"People say, 'Where do you put your efforts, the amateurs or the elite?' The answer is both," he explained. "This is a balance that all national governing bodies in America face."
The Rio Olympics may offer an opportunity to kick-start his plan.
Sure, broadcaster NBC will focus on more glamorous sports such as gymnastics and swimming, the traditional Olympic sports that push the public needle. But whether they are mere highlights of Armstrong in the time trial or Connor Fields on the BMX track, or online streams of cycling events throughout the Olympic program, the visibility of the Summer Games is priceless.
That is crucial for USA Cycling, which has always struggled to raise money.
Part of its support comes from the U.S. Olympic Committee, and is based on success at world championships and other major competitions. But according to recent USOC tax returns, sports such as shooting, rowing and sailing often receive more money than cycling.
"Where we suffer is our federation doesn't have the funds," said Sarah Hammer, who anchors the women's pursuit team. "Something like swimming, they can generate their own through sponsors."
USA Cycling has rarely had that ability, even when Lance Armstrong was in the spotlight.
Some worry things could get even tighter for elite athletes if Bouchard-Hall redirects some of their scant funding to support the growth of grassroots cycling. But he quickly dispels that notion, pointing toward fundraising and sponsorship plans to help fill those coffers.
More importantly, Bouchard-Hall said, people should understand that his plan to revitalize USA Cycling is a long-term approach that will eventually benefit elite athletes, too.
By growing the sport at the local level, Bouchard-Hall hopes USA Cycling's slow membership decline will turn around. More young people will pick up cycling, reversing a trend toward an aging demographic. And some day, the best of those athletes will advance far enough in the sport that they will compete at world championships and the Olympics.
"We're not even participating in track cycling in some of disciplines, which is unfortunate," Bouchard-Hall said. "We believe we're a really important part of the racing ecosystem, but we also believe it's the right thing to do to foster participation at all levels."
USA Cycling received a small bump four years ago from the London Games, where it won four cycling medals — fifth-most of any nation. But Bouchard-Hall hopes for a bigger return from the Rio Games, where the time zone will make tuning in easier for American fans.
The difficulty lies in trying to build on the visibility.
"We're not a sport that generates a lot of attention without big megastars and big money," Bouchard-Hall said. "When we had Lance, we got a lot of attention, cycling got a lot of publicity. But our Olympians, as great as those stories are within the sport — and people who follow the sport do love them — they don't translate well outside of them. What we need to do is get out the stories and that's a difficult challenge."
But it's also a unique opportunity. The Olympics are a once-every-four-years chance to help Bouchard-Hall jumpstart his vision for the future of USA Cycling.
"You have to be able to change as an organization when everything around you is changing," said Mark Gullickson, the long-tenured director of USA Cycling's mountain bike program.
"I think Derek was faced with some really tough challenges," Gullickson said, "and we're still in the early phases of where you're headed. But I think we're making changes that we need to make if you really want to change the direction of the program to meet the needs of the members."
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