6:00am

Tue August 23, 2011
Sports

Pro Cycling Challenge Launches with Sport’s Economic Future at a Crossroads

Thousands of fans and more than one hundred professional cyclists were in Colorado Springs yesterday to kick off the seven-day USA Pro Cycling Challenge. This inaugural race will be televised across the world and is being plugged as an economic engine for the Colorado cities in its path. But will it succeed in the long run where the Coors Classic failed?

It’s been 23 years since Colorado’s last professional cycling event. The Coors Classic folded when the brewer pulled its sponsorship. Since then, USA Pro Cycling Challenge CEO Shawn Hunter says a lot has changed. Millions more Americans follow the sport thanks to seven-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong. And that’s attracted more corporate sponsors, which are the lifeblood of professional cycling.

 

“We’re not relying on one sponsor,” says Hunter. “We have eight to 10 founding partners that are big international brands. I think we have the roadmap to success.”

But a $10 million dollar investment from Former Quiznos CEO Rick Schaden is large a part of that roadmap. Professional cycling still depends heavily on corporate sponsorship. And unlike professional football or baseball, there is little revenue sharing between teams, athletes and events.

“For better or worse, I think a lot of people would say for worse,” says Velo News Reporter, Brian Holcombe. The cycling magazine is publishing a feature on the topic in an upcoming issue.

Holcombe says the economics of the sport could be at a tipping point. The most recent example happened earlier this month when one of the most well known cycling teams lost their sponsor.

“We just had the No. 1 team in wins over the last half-decade fold—HTC-Highroad. This race will be one of the last chances to see them at an elite level in the US,” he says.

And it was Team HTC-Highroad that made it to the top step of the podium on Monday. The change illustrates how one influential backer can still make or break a team and events. In recent years, other well known professional races in the U.S., the Tour de Missouri and the Tour de Georgia, have been canceled due to lack of financial backing.

Jonathan Vaughters, a former cyclist and current manager of the Garmin-Cervelo team, says there needs to be more of a financial “safety net” to sustain teams and future events.

“When I say profit sharing, it’s not that I want to make more money,” he says. “These people are here to see the teams and athletes. If that’s taken away and there’s an instability from year to year with teams always changing and athletes bouncing around, it takes away from the sport.”

Regardless of who ends up with the profits from this week’s race, Pro Cycling Challenge CEO Shawn Hunter says the event is poised to do well in its first year. While he won’t quote numbers, he says the amount will be “significant” for a first year event.

“We have the right ingredients, and if we’re good caretakers of the event, it will be here for a long time, and it will only grow,” he says.

For now, the economic setbacks in the sport don’t seem to bother fans like Franca Carls, who traveled from Wisconsin with her husband and kids to watch the race.

She’s standing in a crowd 10 people deep around the Tour de France champion Cadel Evans’ BMC Racing Team van. She says there’s something about physically being at a cycling event that you can’t get from watching a race on TV.

“Even if you’re not a huge cycling fan, the minute you see these riders come in your vision, it’s this adrenaline rush,” she says.

Carls says she wants to come back for next year’s event. And while fans aren’t directly funding this event, spectator turnout could make or break the future success of the race. Today it’s up to spectators in Salida and Crested Butte to turnout and show their support.

View USA Pro Cycling Challenge Route in a larger map