ROAD magazine - May 2014

Cycling Refugees

Zach Bell 2014-03-10 06:15:03

Canadian National Champ Zach Bell checks in after spending time with his new team and discusses the state of North American professional cycling. At the end of 2013, the bombs went off , at least in the metaphorical sense, as someone pulled a very, very big plug in the cycling world and a crazy amount of money washed away from the top tiers of the sport. I don’t personally know what the exact number was in the end, but it certainly landed in the tens of millions of dollars, and it was basically all gone over the course of a weekend. This sudden lack of funding resulted in the systematic collapse of several WorldTour and UCI Pro Continental teams almost in unison. I know many readers will think, “Yeah, but there were warning signs, there was talk, it should not have surprised anyone.” However, the truth is, until a team actually locks their doors in this business, there is always conversation about what will happen next year. I have seen so many teams talk about closing down only to get bigger the following year, but last year was different. When there were only a few hundred million dollars spread across all the pro cycling teams, tens of millions disappearing was a pretty big deal. The dust settled with the shadows of team-less professionals all scrambling to find their place in the sport. Many just threw in the towel, declaring that if they could not be at the top of cycling, they didn’t want to be there at all. Th is was a reasonable choice, after all, as there is more to life than bike riding. Others with strong results held out until the witching hour, calling the bluff of teams in an effort to get a fair deal. For a small few, this may have played out well, but for most riders it likely hurt their bottom line in the long run. Then there was the race for those who just wanted to compete. It seemed to me that I was running this race with the same group of guys. We were all going from director to director, trying to find a way to put the pen on paper quicker then the other riders. Each director I talked to more or less had the same list of guys he was considering. In the end, the pieces fell back together in the cycling world with a little irony. It will certainly create a picture that is quite a bit different than years past, especially in the North American domestic scene. For years, North American pros worked hard and chased results in an effort to claw their way into the European pro peloton. During the first years of those programs, the North Americans (unless exceptionally talented) usually had to live more or less like cycling refugees. They moved thousands of miles from home, often to a country that didn’t speak their language, spending months in lonely or cramped apartments, working hard for their living while trying to make their cycling dream materialize. This year, the shoe seems somewhat on the other foot. Most North American teams have picked up riders that have vast amounts of European and even WorldTour experience. Many came to these teams simply because they didn’t want to give up the privilege of racing – they love the sport and have taken on what many of their peers deem to be unworthy positions. For 2014, I signed with SmartStop Pro cycling – a team that will have a whole new look because of the current state of cycling. Many of the squad's current racers would not have envisioned being there even a year ago but that doesn’t mean we are not grateful for the chance. Jure Kocjan signed with this team as well. He is not unfamiliar with North America having raced with Team Type 1 in years past, but he comes from a WorldTour team last season. As I got to know him better during team camp, I began to see the real human impact of where cycling is now. He told me about his wife and young kids at home, and how his schedule will look for the year. He will be traveling a lot, with big blocks of time away from his family. Kocjan’s cycling journey is a true blue collar story that will play out as the year goes on. His presence, along with a dozen others, will raise the level of the domestic scene across the board this year. The similarities between the challenges of North American and European pros are obvious. When I was with SpiderTech, our whole team operated much of the year under similar circumstances. There is a difference though – on SpiderTech, there was always the sense that we were pushing forward as athletes, getting closer to the big show. I admire these racers that have made the move to North America this year, especially those that come from the bigger teams. It makes a statement that they see value in racing the circuit here. It is a gesture that flies in the face of an elitist attitude that Europe is the only place good bike racing happens. I think it takes more character for these guys to be here since they are here because they want to race and not because they want to be at the top of the sport or not competing at all. They have a hunger to race. I challenge the North American fans to take in these cycling refugees. If they are on your favorite team, make an effort to give them a cheer. They are here because they believe in our programs. They are here to race for anyone who will watch. They are willing and keen to race, even if the sport is not in a state to support them in the manner they deserve. I think that is a great thing. Should the sport be in such a state? Probably not, but, when the dust settles, I think it will make for a level of intensity in the domestic racing calendar that has been absent for a few years. Make sure you come out and be a part of it. It could be a year of racing that only comes around once in a blue moon.

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