• Daniel o'Donoghue

"Cycling isn't the New Golf"

We often hear the tagline “cycling is the new golf” to describe the boom in recreational cycling participation over the last decade. This statement is, at its very core, incorrect. Yes, cycling has experienced a boom in participation that in some ways mirrors the growth experienced by golf through the eighties and nineties, but there the similarity ends.

Golf at its roots was an elite sport, played at private members clubs, often at the exclusion of women and people of colour. Cycling was a working man’s sport, in some ways not dissimilar to rugby league. Both rugby league and cycling from early on were professional sports and were the bastion of the working class. The social elites fought long and hard to preserve the amateur status of the sports they participated in; rugby union, cricket and golf (and to a certain extent Olympic sports as well). And whilst golf has been professional for many years, it still has very strict rules around amateur status and the receipt of prizes and their value. No amateur golfer can receive a cash prize without relinquishing their amateur status and getting back your amateur status is not easy.

It took the late, great Kerry Packer to make cricket a full-time professional sport, much to the disgust of the likes of Don Bradman. Players prior to World Series Cricket were relatively poorly paid.

Nick Farr-Jones was working full time as a lawyer whilst captaining Australia in the 1987 Wallabies World Cup team coached by Alan Jones. Rugby Union only became a professional sport in 1995 after much resistance from the powers that be.

So here at its core is why cycling is not the new golf; because whilst golf became accessible to the masses (via improved access to both private and public facilities) and therefore become more of a blue-collar sport, cycling in a way has been taken over by the elites and has become a more of a white-collar sport. At the elite level, and in some European countries with a strong cycling culture, it remains a professional sport. In Australia at club and state level prize money is becoming more of a legacy of the sports past.

This change in the dynamic and demographic of the sport presents many opportunities but also significant challenges on many levels to the way we run the sport, for the events we promote and the way our clubs operate.

For the cycling industry in general this has been a boon as the MAMIL and their female equivalent line up to purchase expensive carbon bikes and accessories, all the latest kit, a power meter and employ the services of a coach. This new cashed up market has driven innovation and development in product and branding. It has also seen the massive growth of the participation, or gran-fondo style event as cyclists with disposable income line up to ride up “cols” and “monts” or participate in the UCI’s Gran Fondo World Series, the ultimate goal for any serious amateur rider.

Now all of these things are massive positives for our sport. However, the transition away from the week in week out racing formula that has been the heart of the sport, towards goal orientated, major event participation model has presented challenges to how we run and market our sport and how clubs, state and national organisations operate and grow.

An example of the demographic change and the response to it is the rise in both Sydney and Melbourne of the Rapha Cycling Club. Here we see an elite, high end brand targeted at a specific part of the cycling market, create a cycling club (both affiliated to CA in one way or another) that caters directly to their specific market. Unlike other clubs this is a for profit entity conducting club activities with one objective; sell more of their product. Their core charter is not to put on races or to develop junior athletes or to grow the competitive element of the sport. And here in lies the conundrum. Clubs like this will become more prevalent, and in doing so will take away membership from traditional racing clubs, but what will happen to the heart and soul of our sport if this is the case?

The change in demographic also presents other issues to the way the sport traditionally operates. Over the last few years we see an inconsistency in the number of entrants racing will attract, and particularly the numbers competing week in week out. I often hear as a reason for non-participation in a certain event: “it wasn’t in the program my coach gave me” or “I am training for such and such specific event and a such and such event doesn’t fit in with my training”.

Now, I make no value judgement on the validity of these reasons, people are free to choose as paying customers to enter the events they want to. I will point out that this does make it hard to plan events and put on a racing calendar when there is no certainty around participation. This is particularly so when you juxtapose this uncertainty against the increasingly difficult compliance requirements to put on cycling events and the increasing difficulty in identifying circuits convenient to the metro area. This all means racing is becoming more expensive and complex to run and at the same time the number of entrants an event attracts is becoming more uncertain.

When I became chair of CycleSport WA I firmly believed more racing was the way to grow participation. I think I was wrong. We do need regular racing to justify the cost of the license, but I think we need to change up the mix and be more targeted in our approach to provide both regular cost effective racing and the type of events the new demographic want and will therefore join a club to enter.

I think we are on the way to getting the right mix for the road season. We have a mix of cost effective club racing put on by clubs like Peel Districts CC and some of our country clubs and the more high-profile events that make up The Element series.

In total there are eleven days of racing in The Element, seven one day races and two events with two days of racing (The Cyclassic and York). In the metro area Peel are offering six club races including the Presidents Cup handicap. So, eighteen days of racing plus events like the Tour of Margaret River and state championships. In total over twenty days of racing with a mix of cost effective club events and bigger marquee style events.

We need more club events to get cost down, but the mix is getting there.

Our next challenge is to work on the criterium season with two main goals:

  • To offer more cost-effective club events to get participation up

  • Position “The Ring” as marquee series of events on closed roads

Planning is well advanced to achieve that goal.

Maybe the future of the sport is that clubs will be run by for profit companies like Rapha who put on events and provide services for members. If this happens, don’t expect events to get cheaper.

Our sport, for a number of reasons (demographics, technology, commercialisation, compliance and liability, digital disruption – think Zwift etc.) has changed forever. More and more I believe as national and state sporting organisations, as clubs and as members we need to change our strategy to embrace the new reality. Members can pine “for the good all days” but unless we embrace the new reality our beloved sport is doomed.

The opinions expressed above are my own and do not reflect the positions of CycleSport WA, Roues Chaudes CC or WestCycle.

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