The sport assassins
May 29, 2015 § 47 Comments
Is bad behavior killing the sport?
There was a big Facebag dustup a few weeks ago involving a Southern California rider who allegedly got into a pushing and shoving match during a race in Northern California, followed by much cursing, hollering, and screaming in the parking lot after the race. (Think kindergarten, only not that mature).
If you are a normal person, or even a raving lunatic, you will shake your head in disbelief. Do grown men do this? Is this how you race a bicycle? Are these the only skills you’ve developed for conflict resolution after four decades of existence amidst other homo sapiens? Didn’t your mother ever slap the shit out of you, and if she did, why is there still so much of it left?
You may also be wondering whether the rider was immediately canned by his team for, um, failing to properly “represent the brand” as we say in the delusional world of old fellow bike racing, where we imagine that getting a free tub of nut lube is like repping Nike in the NBA finals. You may also be wondering whether the rider who was allegedly misused has consulted with a lawyer, or whether the offending rider’s team forced him to apologize.
Or, like me, you may simply have moved on because there are more important things to contemplate, like whether or not you got it all on the second wipe.
Still, bad acts have a ripple effect, and as the remnants of amateur cycling swish around the edge of the toilet bowl prior to that final gurgling sound, a lively debate has sprung up over the future of cycling. The gist of the argument goes like this:
The real problem with our sport in SoCal lies with bad behavior, and everyone is afraid to confront it. This failure is just one example in a long line of bad behavior, and it’s this bad behavior that suppresses rider turnout at local races and enhances rider turnoff. Stuff like this hurts cycling worse than handlebar doping, and it furthers the SoCal reputation as a douchebag repository where guys break rules with impunity and the USAC refs, team owners/sponsors, and promoters look the other way, thereby encouraging it.
The problem, so the argument goes, is that bullying bike behavior fits right into the behavior of dominant teams that do little to support junior racing or women’s racing, two areas that everyone agrees are crucial to develop if the sport is going to become something more than a playground for whiny, bratty old men with too much time, too many trinkets, and too much stagflation in the penis length department.
This results in no grass roots event sponsorship, and focuses only on the silliest of all categories—masters men’s racing, a niche within a microfissure whose only growth prospects are at the mortuary. Worse, dominant teams stack the races they do show up for, and those races are almost never hard road races. Who wants to race against ten guys, five of whom are arguably the fastest ones in the state, and who can go with every move, counter every attack, pull back every dangerous break, and deliver their guy with a ribbon on top via a bullet train leadout to win every sprunt?
It’s fun if you’re on the team, but if you’re not, “I’m busy that day” is the way that racers vote with their feet.
If the powerhouse won with class and humility its domination would still be a problem, but what about scenarios where it combines victory with threats and physical bullying? Do you want to come home from a race with your front teeth missing because some psychopath didn’t like what you said? No, you don’t.
In sum, when people are trying to decide how to spend their weekend they get to choose between an informal group hammerfest with friends or trench warfare with bullies who shout, scream, hit, bodyslam, and threaten. Oh, and for that privilege you get to drop $150 and spend five hours in a car in weekend LA traffic.
This toxic environment allegedly deters riders who are skilled and experienced, so imagine how it affects riders just starting out, or riders whose dream day is a top ten finish. They will endure this hazing ritual once and then never return because the rider you call a dork and who you head-butt and threaten with your fists is often a man who signs paychecks, litigates in court, runs a corporation, or lives in the real world with real responsibilities — he isn’t a glorified bike bum who thinks that what happens in a bike race matters in the big picture, and he’s not willing to waste his time being humiliated by a functionally illiterate, too-cool-for-school, marginally subsisting middle-aged man with profound emotional problems.
This brings a negativity to the sport that is a roadblock to progress, and it will only get worse because the one thing we know about bullies is that left unchecked they only get meaner.
Along these lines, the argument continues, we need junior rider development, we need more women in races, we need a more varied race schedule, we need categories and a points system that make sense, we need to be safety minded, and we need to nurture a sport in which events leave participants glad they showed up (can anyone say “triathlon”?), not bitter that they wasted a day engaging in the ritual humiliation of threatened violence and a 45th-place finish. We need more grass roots events and we need to tell the bullies that their bullshit won’t be tolerated. Then, and only then, will the sport be something other than a shit-filled sandbox filled with spoiled and violent old men.
Anyway, this is how the argument goes, and I disagree with it.
With regard to the dustup mentioned above, it is a tiny problem and there are plenty of mechanisms to deal with this and similar scenarios. First of all, where were the officials when all this was happening?
I’ve said before that SoCal officials do not take safety seriously, and that their tolerance for bullying and aggro racing has made both acceptable. Apparently the officials have similar attitudes, because this all happened up yonder, not down here. Second, where was the promoter in all this? Promoters put on races by selling sponsorships. Is this how you want your marquee event remembered, as the place where spectators with their little kids got to see grown men throw public tantrums?
Promoters sometimes say they hesitate to take action because they want to avoid controversy, but imagine this happening in a grocery store. Can you see a Safeway manager letting someone push and berate a little old lady who has too many cans for the express lane because they’re afraid of the “controversy”? Of course not. They’d call security and throw the bum out.
Race promoters like Chris Lotts do exactly that. If you pee in the bushes, cheat, give his volunteers a hard time, disobey race director orders, or act like an idiot he will toss you out of the race and enjoy it.
And where was the Big Sponsor? Presumably there was a sponsoring bike brand. Do they think this is how you sell bikes? If they don’t, getting back the bike and jersey is a phone call away, you would think.
Where were the teammates? Allegedly a couple of them had their hands full while restraining the rider in the parking lot, but why did their intervention stop there? Why didn’t they vote him off the team if he behaved this way? Why was there no show of solidarity, emphasizing that the good guys on the team will not be associated with violence, threats, and awful behavior, if that’s what happened?
Where were the other riders in the race, and indeed, where are they ever? Why didn’t all twenty or thirty people who supposedly witnessed the incident make their voices heard to Kayle, to the officials, to the promoter, and to anyone else who would listen? Why didn’t the rest of the peloton behave as if this reflected on them, which, if it happened, it did? Why was everyone lathered up on Facebag but not in the flesh? And who’s the big chicken who took down the thread?
In other words, there were a lot of people who could have immediately punished this behavior if it really happened, and who could have made enough of a stink to warrant a suspension or a fine or a spanking with a soup spoon or a timeout in the corner with a dunce cap.
But regardless of how this incident played out, the rider in question is just one guy and his team is just one team. Cycling always has a bad boy team and that’s part of the fun, apparently. These antics may scare some people out of one race, but it’s not the reason that rider participation is anemic in all categories. I raced a handful of 35+ masters races last year and they were safe and drama free. The “bad boy” was even in a couple of those races, and he was fine in every respect. And even if it’s the 35+ (now 40+) category that is suspect, what about the other categories?
The 45+ category (it’s been changed to 50+ this year to make sure everyone stays angry and confused) is safe, fun, and a blast, yet turnout in those events is hardly thriving. Most importantly, the areas where turnout really matters, i.e. junior racing, women’s racing, Cat 4 and Cat 5 racing, aren’t affected by what goes on in masters racing whatsoever. Those people couldn’t pick Kayle out of a fresh vegetable aisle, and their numbers are not good.
Nor is NorCal some mecca for racing participation. One of their most storied and challenging road races, the Mt. Hamilton Classic, had twelve guys race the 45+ 1/2/3, and the race didn’t even bother with categories for juniors or Cat 5’s. Are the SoCal crit bullies scaring all the NorCal roadies away from that race, too? And the NoCal crit fields are so tiny that events like the Lodi Criterium combine the 35+ and 45+ fields. Last year’s Lodi Cycle Fest had twenty-six riders in the 35+, and a pathetic nineteen in the 45+. Is that SoCal’s fault as well?
The idea that SoCal is a dungeon of cheaters and terrible racers that kills the sport is also wrong. One SoCal racer who went to Mt. Hamilton this year and raced with the elite P/1/2 racers got to witness this: After the initial ascent of Mt. Hamilton the road becomes a hair-raising downhill. One of the Mike’s Bikes riders missed a turn and went off the mountain. Mike’s Bikes, by the way, had seven riders, or 20% of the entire field.
Later on Mines Road this same rider came flying by the SoCal racer’s chase group a good 15 mph faster, tucked in behind his team van. The racer made it back up to the leaders where he finished far ahead from where he otherwise would have, and worse, where he added firepower to his teammate who won the race. When the SoCal rider complained to the officials, they shrugged.
I’d argue that this kind of local favoritism and refusal to enforce the rules turns off just as many people as parking lot name calling, maybe more, because name calling doesn’t affect the outcome of the race and name calling doesn’t require the collusion of race officials, organizers, team bosses, and follow cars. As a fun note, the race flier said that follow cars weren’t allowed and that anyone receiving help from one would be DQ’ed.
I also disagree that one team is the cause of low racer turnout in SoCal. In many ways, the current dominant masters team, Surf City Cyclery, exemplifies the very best things about amateur racing. First and foremost, they actually show up and race their bikes. Second, when you look at their race day setup with a motor home, gigantic tent, trainers, bike racks, and directors’ chairs, it’s impossible not to notice how cool they look and how much fun they’re having. These guys love to race their bikes and it shows. Isn’t that why people are supposed to go to bike races and hang out? Because it’s fun?
Third, they’re led by Charon Smith, a rider who is non-confrontational, who never curses, who praises you when you beat him, who encourages everyone, and who, despite his impressive accomplishments is accessible and friendly and willing to share. He also invests huge amounts of his personal time helping junior racers. In the heat of battle I’ve seen him reach out and push struggling riders to keep them from getting shelled, riders like, um, me.
Fourth, one bad apple doesn’t ruin the bunch. The other riders on SCC are fair, fun, dedicated, and friendly. I don’t believe that one aggro racer negates the positive actions of everyone else, and if you think the contretemps mentioned earlier is the first time this has ever happened in cycling, you probably also believe that the earth is 4,500 years old and Jesus rode on a dinosaur. There have been numerous parking lot screaming matches in the last few years, not to mention the post-racing screaming matches on the cool down lap.
SCC boss Mike Faello has his hands full with one masters team, and he has apparently made the decision that he’d rather have one team that’s run great than three teams that are run mediocre. Who’s to say he’s wrong? Not I. And who’s to say that he should spend his marketing money in one way rather than another? If his business is focused on selling bike stuff to delusional old men, then shouldn’t he be allowed to do that without being criticized for not also spending his money on kids, women, young people, recumbents, unicyclists, gravel grinders, ‘cross racers, BMX, trackies, or adaptive vehicle riders?
It’s his money, it’s his marketing budget, and by all accounts he throws his heart and soul into running his team. Isn’t that the kind of investment and partnership we want at all levels of cycling? Yes, it is.
Moreover, people forget that it wasn’t always like this at SCC. The first time I ever saw Charon he was sitting on his ass in the middle of the panicking peloton at Eldo, where he’d rolled a tire and taken a fall in the middle of the field. Charon worked his way up from Cat Fred to Cat Stud over a period of years that have involved hard work, hard work, hard work, and a lot of hard work.
The team that he now captains wasn’t always flush with money and stacked with great riders; it’s been a building process that has overcome lots of obstacles. Now that they have a hierarchy, a strategy, and the discipline to implement it, people are suddenly complaining about Surf City’s dominance — don’t worry — a few years ago it was Monster, then Amgen, then before that it was someone else, all the way back to the days of Labor Power. When you kick everyone’s ass they don’t like it, ever, period.
So if we can’t pin the tail on one rider or one team, whose fault is it that the sport has stagnated and that it can’t seem to grow?
Well, I’d suggest that the fault is yours. Yes, yours. If everyone who had a license did five races a year, which is hardly a challenging schedule in virtually any state but an especially low hurdle here in SoCal, our races would be bursting at the seams. Instead of complaining about SCC’s dominance, if teams that had big rosters actually showed up and raced like a team, Surf’s patented lead-out train and chase-down-all-breakaways would not own the 35+/40+ category. They’re not only beatable in theory, they get beaten in fact every year at nationals. Ask Matt Caninio if Surf can be beaten.
However, it’s easier to complain about Surf’s race tactics than it is to organize your team, train together, and implement strategy.
I was slackjawed a week ago when I showed up at the Torrance Crit and saw embarrassingly tiny fields in all categories. This is a challenging but safe course. It’s well run. It offers lunch money and trinkets. It’s smack in the middle of the South Bay of Los Angeles, home to the world’s greatest concentration of preeners and fakers, and a 30-minute drive or 50-minute pedal from West LA, where weekend rides easily garner 100+ faux racers with genuine $10k rigs.
Where were all the racers?
They certainly weren’t scared off by SCC. Surf City wasn’t even at the race, a fact you could have easily confirmed by looking at pre-registrations on USA Cycling’s web site. And this brings us to the real problem faced by amateur cycling: Bike racing has mutated from an activity where people want to grow up and be like Thurlow or Fields and has become a posing activity where people simply want to accumulate cool stuff.
Labor Power realized this years ago and wore hideous clothing, rode rusty-edged equipment, and rubbed plutonium into the wounds of its victims with the motto “Gritty, not pretty.” They won races by being cunning, vile, despicable, infighting, foul-mouthed bike racers, preening not allowed unless you knew how to climb a podium.
When you can join a team that gives you a steeply discounted pro bike, when you can wear clothing that is professionally designed and customized for Team Wank, when you can pedal from coffee shop to coffee shop advertising that YOU ARE A RACER without having to actually go to a race and fall off your bicycle, then why would any rational person actually race? Answer: You wouldn’t, and they don’t.
The toy/gadget/rag merchants are perfectly happy with this because they would rather have the streets of Brentwood and Manhattan Beach overflowing with non-racing racers decked out in their logos on Saturday morning than they would have those same people crammed into an office park in South Compton battling over a $25 prime. In other words, the sponsors and teams themselves don’t care if you race as long as you’re pimping them on social media and playing rolling billboard.
How do I know? Because week in and week out it’s the same guys and gals. There are people on my SPY-Giant-RIDE team who, after four and a half years, I have never seen at a race, and my team this year had 80 members at last count and bills itself exclusively as a “racing team.” You couldn’t beat people away with tear gas and rubber truncheons at team camp in January when the freebies were being handed out and the new outfits were being unveiled, but at the Barry Wolfe Grand Prix on Sunday I counted ten teammates across all categories. More embarrassingly, the CBR Crit the following day had one rider from my team in the 40+ Category, and two “helpers” who had already done the 50+ and whose help consisted of hanging on for dear life.
It’s true that Surf is hard to beat, but they will never, ever, ever be beaten like that.
You can say whatever you want about Surf City, but they show up and they pay entry fees and they race their bikes. What promoter would boot out a team that comprises 15% of the field when hundreds of local racers who could be there are too lazy or too chickenshit or too cheap to pay and race, even when it’s in their own backyard?
Why won’t we call bullshit when we hear it, and stop accepting all of the lame excuses about how the course is too long, or too short, or too hard, or too easy, or too far away, or too hilly, or not hilly enough, or you can’t find a ride, or your wife won’t let you, or you’re peaking for something else, or you’re in a build phase, or your Internet coach says, or blah fucking blah fucking blah?
The mentality won’t change until the teams and their peers pressure them to. Where are the pre-race emails, the phone calls, the gentle urgings that often make the difference between sitting at home and going to the race? To put a nice ending on the Torrance Crit story, this same course is utilized as the TELO training race, a Tuesday ride where “racers” show up at 6:00 PM to get in the speed work that will prepare them for race day. The Tuesday before the Torrance Crit, TELO was packed. The Tuesday after, it was packed. There’s even a Facebag page dedicated to bragging about the exploits of who “won” the training ride each week, and riders love to tout how tough they are when they “do the double,” i.e. do the morning NPR and the evening TELO beatdown.
But on race day the Torrance Crit was a ghost town, and please don’t tell me people stayed home to protest Surf City. They stayed home because no one called them up and called them out. They stayed home because they’d already gotten their participation ribbon on Facebag and that, you know, was enough to justify the fancy bike and fancy outfit and four crates of electrolytes.
The problem with race participation numbers lies at the feet of the riders themselves. We know who our teammates are, we know they’re AWOL on race day, and it’s not a complicated problem that needs more secret USAC meetings to anguish over. It’s a simple problem that requires you to get off your ass and go race your fuggin’ bike. It’s a simple problem that requires team bosses to tell their prima donnas that the gravy train comes with an obligation: You want to wear the stuff and ride the rig, you have to race, no exceptions, and if five weekends out of the year is too tough on your schedule, maybe you don’t belong on something called a “racing team.”
And while we’re at it, let’s not take our eyes off the ball by blaming USAC or SCNCA. These organizations have never figured out how to grow the sport and never will because it’s not in their DNA. They exist to skim money off license fees and soak money from race promoters so they can pay officials and promote the national team and pay their own salaries. They do not care if the sport grows because it’s currently big enough to fund their existing pork projects. If amateur cycling has ever had a constant, it’s that USAC and the local organizations cannot and will not increase membership and will not make it easier or cheaper or more profitable for promoters to put on races.
At the same time, I don’t think physical racing and violent confrontations should be tolerated, but bike racing is a sport, it is dangerous, people do get worked up, and at least in the above-mentioned case no one fell off his bicycle or had to make a detour to the dentist to get a fist removed from his gums. But these problems aren’t what ails our sport. What ails it are the thousands of SoCal cyclists with valid racing licenses who don’t show up.
We have met the enemy, and he bears a striking resemblance to the guy in the mirror.
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