It's no secret that we all want everything that we can get, be that out of life, from our jobs or from supporters and sponsors of our avocation, racing bicycles. However wanting something versus feeling entitled to it are two very different things. The latter is the topic of this installment on my ongoing exploration of the sport of amateur cycling in general and cyclocross racing in specific. In this issue we will look at the trend in bicycle racing by which many racers seem, at least to me, to have a skewed perception of not only their ability but of the value and demand their special racing skills garner in the open market. They feel that as racers they are entitled to sponsorship. I think that this is simply a societal carryover but for the sake of argument and scope of this story, we will focus on cycling.
Let me first say that I'm no different than anyone else who is really into cycling and is not extravagantly wealthy. I tend to spend a lot of money but try to get the most possible for that money. As a New England Yankee, I also scoff at the idea of paying full retail. This means that I shop around for bargains and hammer Jeff/Anthony, Chris, Brian, BigAl and Dave at the shops I deal with for the best deals that I can possibly get. Each shop has treated me well, giving me some excellent cost+ or even at wholesale deals in the past, for which I am grateful and try to represent them appropriately within the cycling scene. I'm fortunate that I have an eye for bargains, I do all of my own bike work and I work with folks that treat me very well. That said, between Cathy and I we still spend more money on cycling yearly than some folks right here in the US make in a year. Cycling is an expensive sport, especially if you have expensive tastes.
When it comes to racing bicycles, many people seem to feel that their weekend efforts on the race course are worthy and deserving of sponsorship. It wasn't long ago that people just wanted to be part of a club and hit the races as a team. It wasn't realistic to think that lucrative deals were available to down-right mediocre racers or racers participating in lower level categories or races. Lets be honest, what kind of real marketing value does a mid-pack B racer really command? Take into account that the sport of cycling is on the radar of roughly 2% of the American population, about a quarter the draw of bass-fishing or pumpkin-chunkin, and that the pockets can't and rightly shouldn't be very deep to start with. I think that if we were to look at the top professional cyclocross, domestic road and mountain-bike racers in the US, it would become evident that the big money is not there. I'm willing to bet that as a professional software engineer, I probably make more than about 99% of the domestic professional bike racers in this country. So, in getting back to out mid-pack Cat3 racer, why would they expect celebrity status?
The answer is simple, their self perception and self worth is skewed. In short, they think too highly of themselves, a modern concept that has become entirely commonplace. However, in reality, unless you can provide some tangible benefit to someone you can not expect anything 'in return'. Do 'the fans' go out and buy some product or support some business or cause because you're using, promoting or are affiliated with it? The key idea there is 'in return', meaning you are providing value. As a member of a cycling club, I have seen first hand the skewed self perceptions of club racers that are part of teams funded by the hard work of volunteers within the club. The expectation of the team members is that the hundreds of dollars in goods and reimbursements that they receive from the club is in return for their representation of the club by showing up to some small number of races in the team kit. In essence, their racing cult of personality is all they had to offer, given that these teams were not results based. Effectively, they are self-labeled 'Pros' which I assume increases status among other 'Pro' racers.
I'm not immune to this misconception that I am better than I think that I am. In reality we all walk this line, the premise of self-confidence. I too have tried to obtain 'stuff' based on my marketable bicycle racing ability in the past. I was even a member of a mountain bike team a couple of years ago and received a team kit and discounts in return for race 'appearances' and service back to the club in the form of clinics and club development. Do I feel that this was appropriate and fair? Yes, I honestly feel that what I gave back in terms of volunteering was appropriate for what I was given. That said, I have not been a part of any sponsorship since that point, though I do still perform the same volunteer capacities within the club which do entitle me to a pretty excellent race-reimbursement program which does translate to real money back in my pocket at the end of the season.
Who, other than 'Pros' really are 'Pro', in that their personality or actions may influence others? Yes, there really is a whole category of cycling related professionals that don't race bikes. These are the folks that own or work at bicycle shops or within the industry. They are the advocacy folks like NEMBA, IMBA, MassBike or BCOM. They are the people who promote and organize, perform countless volunteer efforts, lead rides and are generally respected within the cycling community. These are all people who are visible to other cyclists and have the ability in many cases to advise and in part, influence the purchasing decisions of others. Wouldn't it then be in the best interest of those with goods to sell to have those people with influence using their equipment with the intent that they would then be in part, a promoter of said equipment? Of course it is and that is why there are 'pro-deals'. Pro in this case refers to 'promotional' rather than 'professional', as in it's not what professional bicycle racers get. It's usually chalked up to marketing expense and equates to sub-wholesale costs to the 'promoter'. Speaking of 'pro-deals', if anyone is looking for an old fat and generally slow guy whose wife doesn't even listen to, to 'promote' their spiffy 29'er MTB for the upcoming race season, have your people talk to mine :)
Most of us have a profession, which pays legitimate money for our skills and services and for which we are thus considered a professional. Most of us are not professional bicycle racers. Why then do we insist on acting like and in cases expect to be treated like one?
What can one realistically expect as a non-professional, non-influential, middle-of-the-pack bicycle racer who doesn't expect to give anything remotely tangible back in return? Ask yourself what you would be willing to give to someone in your place to represent you at the races. If you come up with much of anything I think that you are either lying or that you should just go ahead and sponsor yourself. Bam, you're 'Pro'!
Shut up and Ride!