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 by: Bill Oetinger  7/1/2017

More is Less

You know that old saying, “Less is more”? It expresses the notion that elegant simplicity trumps needless complication. The artist looks at his canvas, with brush in hand, and understands that one more dab of paint would be one too many. You love that delicious plate of food you’ve just eaten but know a second helping would leave you feeling bloated.

As Spuds McKenzie would have said: “Know when to say when.”

I have been thinking about two different ideas for columns, and from some angles, the two ideas almost seem to contradict each other. In one of them, which I had planned to call Where Have All the Riders Gone?, I was going to look at the diminishing number of participants in many cycling events, with the implicit suggestion that cycling is losing popularity. In the other, tentatively titled Be Careful What You Wish For, I was going to cover the proliferation of new cycling events, which seems to suggest that cycling is not losing populartiy at all. There’s the contradiction.

Because I’m lazy and not a real, dedicated journalist, I have to confess up front that my research into both these ideas remains sketchy. It is primarily anecdotal and subjective, with just the flimsiest scaffold of data to back it up. Many of us in the bike community have been talking about both issues, sharing impressions and sometimes real numbers, plus loads of theories. We have no shortage of opinions! 

Let’s look at the first issue first: that attendance is dropping in many “pay-to-ride” bike events. I’ve already made my disclaimer about being a lazy journalist with not a lot of data behind my narrative. Now I have to add a second disclaimer that my first area of interest here is double centuries. Doubles are, by their very nature, a small data set for drawing any conclusions about the wider world of cycling. They attract only a relatively small handful of participants, even on their best days. The level of commitment, in terms of training oneself up to that cutting edge of fitness, makes them serious undertakings. Very few people can decide to do a double on a whim.

But in some ways, that makes them all the more relevant if we are in fact seeing a drop-off in participation. I think of doubles as the canary in a coal mine of bike events. If you’re looking to spot a trend, you will see it first out at the edges, out where it takes that extra commitment to be, in this case. doubles-ready. If people are in fact dropping away from the sport, you will see it first in the events that ask for the most out of the rider.

I’m a classic case in point. I’m 70 now and I no longer have any interest in doing doubles. I might just barely be able to do one of the easier ones, if I decided it was important to me…if I put in the time and energy getting trained up for it in the spring. But I’m no longer motivated to do that.  Been there, done that…now other things are more important to me.

I’m an archetypal baby boomer, born in ’47…exactly nine months after my dad got off the train from his naval tour in the war and returned to civilian life. I am not alone in having moved on from challenges as daunting as a double. The aging of the boomers is often cited as the first theory as to why participation is tapering off on doubles. And it does appear to be tapering, at least according to some ways of measuring things.

I notice it in particular with regard to the event I have chaired or co-chaired for 25 years: The Terrible Two. Whether the TT is the hardest double of them all is subject to debate. On the days when it gets seriously hot—as it did again this year—it probably is. As such, it appeals to a very small cohort of cyclists. It’s always been a cult classic (and we like it that way). But even in that context, attendance is clearly dropping. Our attendance grew steadily between 1994 and 2007, but since then it has mostly been in decline (with an occasional exception). This year we had the lowest number of entrants in 25 years.

This fall-off is not confined to just the Terrible Two. I’ve tried to get a handle on this by studying the results posted at the California Triple Crown website. It’s difficult to get a really accurate read on overall attendance because some doubles only post their finishers and don’t mention their total entrants. Doubles have a fairly high attrition rate and some events in some years may have half the field drop out. Further, CTC’s big annual logs of Triple Crown “winners” only show the riders who completed at least three doubles, excluding those who only did one or two. But working with what I can get my hands on in the way of numbers (the CTC winners), I can say this much: between 2004 and 2007, an average of 124 riders finished each double; last year, the average was 94. That’s a loss of 30 finishers per event over the past ten years. 

Doubles are generally not big money-makers. For an organizer on a shoestring budget, the loss of 30 riders—at somewhere over $100 per rider—is a big chunk of change. Figure an attrition rate of at least 20% and the lost entrants jump up to 36 or more. Maybe $4000 in lost revenue for each event…on average. That may be the difference between being in the black or in the red…between being viable or not. 

Centuries are more accessible and therefore better attended than doubles. Our annual Wine Country Century is still filling up to our self-imposed limit of 2500 each year. However, it isn’t booking out as quickly as it used to do. Several years ago, when on-line reg opened at midnight on February 1, all 2500 slots would be gone in less than a day…a crazy feeding frenzy, with entries trading madly on E-Bay in the weeks leading up to the event. This year it took over two months to fully book out. I don’t know whether this is a trend across all or most centuries. I’m just telling you what I know for sure.

In the discussions I’ve been having with other riders about this, a couple of amateur racers have noted that attendance at local races is down as well. Some of this was just anecdotal but I was forwarded stats from several Northern California races, comparing this year’s figures with the two previous years. These stats were given to me privately and I’m not comfortable passing them along, but I can say that attendance at every single event was down this year, sometimes only a little but more frequently by between 20% and 40%. 

This too is a relatively small sampling upon which to be building a thesis about cycling’s popularity. It would be more instructive to see attendance numbers from ten years ago, as we can with doubles, but even this smaller window tells us a little. You look at a few numbers over here and a few over there and pretty soon you start to get the feeling something is going on.

If in fact attendance—on average, per event—is down, then we really do want to figure out what’s happening. The theory about the aging boomers certainly gets some traction, but is unlikely to be the whole story. In the microcosm of the doubles calendar, there is an often repeated assertion that there are now too many doubles. That brings me to the second of my topics: Be Careful What You Wish For.

I have written in this space on more than one occasion about how nice it has been that cycling has grown so much in popularity that the wider world—the mainstream world—has finally woken up to the fact that cyclists and—in some cases at least—cycling events are a financial boon to the community. Where we were once considered a ragged fringe of kooks and weirdos—more of a nuisance than anything else—we have more recently been discovered to be engines for making money. Chambers of Commerce, Convention and Visitors’ Bureaus, and an almost endless parade of promoters have been scheming and dreaming of ways to cash in on the sport, usually by staging some sort of century or race or triathlon or fondo (just a new form of packaging for a century).

Events have been breeding like rabbits and our back roads now play host to many more large group rides than they used to. This is true at least in cycling hotbeds such as Northern California. Because this column is already too long, I’m not going to spill much ink over the frictions and tensions that arise when so many cyclists are out on the back roads, at the same time that so many more wineries are opening and applying for “special event” permits, putting many, many more cars on the same formerly quiet roads. 

That’s a big topic but one I hope to dodge for the most part today. But it’s worth noting that not all of the new cycling events are homespun wholesome, put on by some local club or other small-town organization. Some of them are being visited upon us by out-of-town promoters, perhaps bankrolled by corporations with hundreds of millions in assets. This is—sometimes at least—no longer your nice next-door neighbors trying to raise a few bucks for their high school boosters club. This is big business for big profits, and those in charge do not always have the local interests at heart. We liked it when our oddball sport was validated as worthwhile and something to admire, when we started getting some street cred from the business community, from the hoteliers and restraunteurs and so on. But now, with the proliferation of events and whatever pushback those events may generate, we are at that stage of possibly killing the goose that has been laying the golden eggs for us: too much of a good thing.

Anyway…back to the question of declining attendance at bike events. Could it be that there are now too many events and that the available pool of riders is spread too thin across too many available rides? Going back to the little world of double centuries, we can find some support for that premise. Back during those peak years between 2004 and 2007, when there was an average of 124 finishers per event, there were 17 doubles on the calendar. Last year, when there were only 94 finishers per event (on average), there were 23 doubles.

124 finishers times 17 doubles equals 2108 finishers ten years ago. 94 finishers times 23 doubles equals 2162 finishers last year. So there were actually more finishers last year than back in the day, but they were spread out amongst more events. The number of doubles has expanded at a faster pace than the number of participants. This is what I meant with the title: More is Less: more events equals less participation at each event. That’s bad for the bottom line of the events. But hey, it’s the marketplace, right?. Sooner or later, the weaker events will be driven out of business. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always  mean the best events will survive. The events with the biggest budgets for promotion will carry the day, regardless of whether they offer the best support or the nicest routes, or whether they help to fund some worthy local charity (as opposed to lining the pockets of some corporate promoter). 

It’s probably fair to conclude that cycling overall is still about as popular as it has been for the past couple of decades at least. But that popularity has had some unintended consequences in the form of so many new events packing the calendar. So many people and groups wanting a piece of the action, a bigger slice of the pie. 

There is a parallel here with the growth of local wineries: so many more of them. The question has been asked many times: is there any upper limit to the market for good wine? So far, the answer seems to be no…they keep producing it and we keep drinking it. The market is not yet saturated. But it’s a little different with big bike rides. It takes a lot less effort to pull the cork out of a bottle of wine than it does to do a century or double or crit. I still drink as much wine as ever but am doing no doubles and fewer centuries than I did ten years ago. If the population is aging a bit—and it is—then the marketplace for pay-to-ride bike events may not be infinitely expandable. We may in fact have already reached our saturation point.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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