29 November 2012

Tour of California vs. USA Pro Challenge

Which race is your favorite ?

After yesterday's route announcement for the 2013 Amgen Tour of California, I had a friend claim I preferred ATOC because I am a "Caligirl", whereas he prefers the USA Pro Cycling Challenge (I claim because he has never been to ATOC and because he likes races with really long confusing names). Sure I was born and raised in California, but I have lived in Colorado for over 22 years. Forget what I say in the right-hand column of this blog about "light on opinion, ... heavy on joy of the sport" because I have an opinion when it comes to pro racing in America. Okay in any country.

Without a doubt the Tour of California is better

I tried to find the hard facts on fan turnout and viewers who watched and tracked and tweeted, but I am no fool - they fudge those numbers, "almost 1 million fans" last year became "over 1 million fans" this year, as if they would report "slightly less than almost 1 million fans for year two of the USA Pro Challenge." Who are we kidding - I went to both, and both races had fewer fans this year. So instead I will argue my case with pure emotional opinion (this is after all a blog).

Amgen Tour of California (ATOC), now in it's 8th year, is in a whole different league above both the USA Pro Challenge and the Tour of Utah. ATOC attracts much better teams, much better riders, full out new matchy-matchy team equipment and major team support. The race actually means something on the race calendar and so do the results. The USA Pro Challenge is a notch above Tour of Utah which I am told really is the hardest of the three races and deserves much more attention than it gets. Truth is, sadly few care about the USA Pro Challenge abroad and the poor TV coverage didn't help. The name is vague and no one knows where Colorado is located. Most Europeans and Americans do know where California is located - thanks to Baywatch.

Maybe it was the name, the hyped marketing, the poor timing of the Armstrong news, or that the Vuelta was just so darn good last year, but the USA Pro Challenge drew light traffic. In my view, the Pro Challenge is more like a community race, not an international race, but perhaps that is exactly why my friend preferred the "PCC" as he calls it, because it has that hometown race feel (after all every stage included a town that was reportedly Tom Danielson's hometown).

In contrast, in the years I attended the Amgen Tour of California, I watched some truly awesome riders race - Mark Cavendish, Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Oscar Freire, Peter Sagan and others. Most of the best in the sport have paraded through the rosters of the teams in California. Also if you love bikes and top equipment, ATOC is a bike junkies delight. The best frames and wheels, shinny new apparel, big buses, top staff members. "Come on," I said to my friend, "Levi was in a Cruise America RV at the Pro Challenge."

I was a total sucker for, and in great admiration of, Timmy Duggan's American National Road Championship win in 2012 with hardly any team support (other than the fabulous Ted King, et al) because it was real grass roots and no smoke and mirrors. I believe the USA Pro Challenge however should know it's place in year two. Honesty is best and promising huge crowds to these small mountain towns, while charging large fees to be host cities, without delivering, is misleading. Also it is noticeable that the number of sponsors for the Pro Challenge are fewer than for the Tour of California. This stuff matters for the longevity of a race.

Tour of California is really the only big race this country has so far, with the USA Pro Challenge building steam. I'd rather see one strong well-supported race that will last. Amgen heroically contributes over 4 million a year to fund the Tour of California (which costs almost 1.5 million a day to operate and is still not profitable). The Pro Challenge (with similar operating costs) is costing the major financial backer Rick Schaden far more in personal millions (over 10), than they receive simply because they are trying to develop a good race into the future, which I appreciate, but please don't over-inflate the status. According to the Sports Business Journal the Tour de France has an estimated operating budget of $100 million and is thought to net $30 million to $50 million in profit, the majority from TV rights, and has been going strong since 1903.  

Signs of Change

The United States only has five races sanctioned by the sport’s international governing body, the Union Cycliste International (UCI), with one possible new addition in 2013 - the Keystone Open. But just today CyclingNews reports that the Tour of Battenkill, now in it's 9th year, has thrown away it's connection as a UCI sanctioned race, stating "It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to have that UCI tag on an event, at least at our level, because it has such a negative connotation with the public and sponsors." Also the long-running Philadelphia TD Bank International (29th year) has been renamed the American Cycling Classic race and downgraded from 1.HC to 1.2. The Tour of California, Tour of Utah, and USA Pro Challenge remain the three big stage races in America.

7 golden rules of travel

I further support this emotional argument (or as my friend called it "quite a rant") with the 7 golden rules of travel - cost, convenience, calendar, companions, consumption, activities, and bang for the buck.

Hotels in both states will run you $120-$160 a night. Colorado however has far more camping available. Flights to major cities are less costly. Denver is a major hub but you will need to rent a car and add on a day to drive deep into the Rocky Mountains.

Getting to a stage-race start in Durango, Colorado, takes a bit more logistics than arriving into San Diego, Los Angeles or San Francisco, which probably explains the low turn out at the start of the 2012 USA Pro Challenge (and why Durango did not bid for the race to return in 2013).

A fairly basic 1-week stage race in May has a better chance of fitting into a team's training plans than a race late in the season when rider health and fitness and availability becomes a question.

I have a family who routinely gathers for stages of the Tour of California. They also travel to the Tour de France, Giro, Criterium du Dauphine, but they won't come here to Colorado. Why - because the feel of the race just doesn't compare.

Food in California is fresh and wonderful, so is the wine, although Colorado specializes in small micro-breweries. Let me just say, a meal in Santa Barbara or San Francisco will always top a meal in Colorado Springs or Steamboat Springs.

Chasing the tour is easier in Colorado, with plenty of outside activities before and after each stage available nearby, but the day at the race (in my opinion) is more fun in California. 

Bang for buck
If you are looking for that European grandiose mood of a pro race - go to California. If you want to have more exposure to the riders and Directeur Sportifs - go to California. If you want better VIP - California. If you want to ride to a tough and fun mountain top finish - California. If you want to ride incredible mountain scenery in between the stages (except for the tradition of hostile throwing of tacks on the road in this state) - Colorado. If you want knowledgeable fans - Colorado. If you want tender small town moments along the routes with riders (the reverse high-five gestures) - Colorado. If your want spectacular scenery and smaller roads - Colorado. If you want the ultimate ProTour fan experience - go to Belgium. I know, I love France and I will always take a small stage of the Tour de France on a weekday, or any mountain top finish, but Belgium (not Boulder) is the cycling center of the Universe.

The results speak for themselves

Winners of the 2012 Tour of California - Peter Sagan / Robert Gesink (GC) 
Winner of the 2012 USA Pro Cycling Challenge - Christian Vande Velde
Winner of the 2012 Tour of Utah - Johann Tschopp 

Inside view

This past year I got to experience these races from the perspective of being Press. The level and professionalism of the Press at the ATOC was far above the USA Pro Challenge. Press at Tour of California worked hard and were better organized, they seemed more selectively chosen, and produced a good variety of news. USAPro had a lot of unafiliated photographers who were simply posting to their private Facebook pages. It was like the Open category compared to the Junior category at a local race. It feels good to be part of a well run race.

In 2012, I was fortunate to attend the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Tour of California, Tour de France, and the USA Pro Challenge. I experienced excitement, thrills, hard bike climbs, fantastic food, and moments that far exceeded expectations. I met amazing fans and got to know many of the riders much better. But I can honestly say - I didn't have fun at the USA Pro Challenge. Traveling should be fun, being a fan should be fun, cycling should be fun. The Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix were FUN!

I will attend both the Amgen Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge again this year, although I must admit a loud cheer rang out when I heard that Boulder was not bidding for a stage in 2013. I saw Boulder's stage last year as an attempt to secede from the Union. It was as if Boulder was creating a race within the race and taking full personal credit when truly none of the USA Pro Challenge would be possible without the backing of Rick and Rich Schaden and the organization of Medalist Sports. Plus I can easily envision all those Boulder cyclists riding their bikes north to Loveland or Estes Park for 2013.

Give it to me straight

Eight years of planning a race versus two years probably explains much when I compare the Tour of California to the USA Pro Challenge, but I am tired of people not being direct about this sport, not everything is peachy and I would want to know where to best spend my time and money. I spoke with both cyclists and non-cyclist this past year who had gone to the USA Pro Challenge the first year, but hadn't managed to get out to a stage the second year. "You gotta go," I said. It is vital that fans turn out on race day. We need to fight for these races to stay viable, and honesty is the best policy. Don't tell us that over 1 million fans came, tell us that every one of those 1 million fans were important. This is not the time to fake that all is okay.

Don't deny that we face a challenge to sustain and build the sport of cycling in the United States. 2012 was a rough year, but we are Americans, we know how to rebuild from the ground up.

So back to the topic of the route of the 2013 Amgen Tour of California - yes, the route is much better than last year - so GO! I have already made 2 hotel reservations and called family to 'save the date'.

See you at the race!

Update 12/11/12: VeloNews.com says the USA Pro Challenge is better. But keep in mind they are a Boulder, Colorado, based publication and extremely dependent on a good PR relationship to keep their place as the number one news source for the race, so if the race grows, so will VeloNews' access. And we all know that access and not stepping on toes, and reporting the right news, is good for journalists, never mind the fans. This close relationship in cycling journalism, may also be why Lance Armstrong was left to run his empire for years. But VeloNews shockingly calls the best race in America the USA Pro Challenge, and the best day of racing - the Flagstaff stage, held out their back door. I guess we all like going to see a pro race after sleeping in our own beds and then create history out of convenience. Read: Velo Best Race: USA Pro Challenge; Most Dramatic Day of Racing: Rory Sutherland wins on Flagstaff.

In my opinion that little local stage did not compare to this - the most dramatic stage win of 2012 - Stage 15 of the 2012 Giro d'Italia when an attack 18km into the race held all the way until the end, even when challenged within the last hundreds of meters.

I would however like to give praise to the online Tour Tracker announcing by Neal Rogers and Brian Holcombe (VeloNews staff members). Their race announcing was a highlight from the 2012 USA Pro Challenge. I hope to hear more from those two.