Zach Bell 2014-05-08 02:56:51
I am leaning on a desk— its surface shaped by years of homework, crafts and card games. My teammate puts a SpiderTech on my lower back so I don’t seize up during today’s effort to defend the team’s yellow jersey at the Redlands Bicycle Classic. The room around the desk is decorated with movie posters from the last ten years. Toys and puzzles are stacked around the room. Three of us sleep in the room on different types of bedding arrangements. While not the typical scene the average fan of cycling pictures for the life of a pro cyclist, professional cycling is not your typical professional sport, especially in North America.Redlands Bicycle Classic reminds me of yet another way North American cycling does things differently. Host housing brings to mind accommodations for a traveling church choir or school aged hockey teams away for weekend tournaments. It would be ridiculous to think of even the lowest level professional NFL or NBA team bunking up in the spare beds of strangers just to save a few bucks. However, this is normal practice during the North American race season and not just for the teams hard pressed for cash either. At many races, the bigger teams work with local families to accommodate their crew. It makes me realize there must be more to it then just the dollars.What other reasons might keep this phenomenon going? As an athlete, I look at the issue from the competitor’s perspective.What makes bigger teams opt for host housing even once they have the budgets for other adequate accommodation? As a former member of what is now the Optum Pro Cycling Team, I know they have a unique and longstanding relationship with many host families across the country. Their budget has grown over the years, but they still foster their relationships with host families. Jonas Carney has been at the helm of Optum since the beginning of the team. “We are in touch year round with some of our host families,” Carney says. “Sometimes they’ll come to other events to cheer for the team, and sometimes some of the riders will stay in touch and even visit them when they are in the area.” Carney also stayed with host families throughout his career as a rider, which might be why he is so comfortable using this model to accommodate the team. I wonder why he works so hard to foster these connections. What value do these relationships bring to the team? Carney explains, “It is sometimes just nicer to stay at host housing.When you are on the road all the time, having access to laundry machines and a kitchen is a luxury. An important part of what makes our team different and successful is the camaraderie amongst the athletes and staff . Host housing helps to build and maintain those relationships because the guys are interacting and doing things together rather than isolating themselves in hotel rooms. Plus we have host families that have been helping us since we started eight years ago. We look forward to seeing those friends each year.” I can vouch for this as an athlete. Team SmartStop has built success this year thanks to a similar program culture, and we have built that almost entirely by creating that “at home” type feeling at camps and races. We share the cooking and cleaning and work as a small community. Teams can win big when it comes to the host house relationship. I will grant that from time to time I occasionally hear stories of nightmare situations that involve pet feces and terrible conditions, but those accounts are rare and seem to fade as cycling becomes more mainstream and more ordinary people seem to willing to open their homes to these types of events. This all got me thinking that the tough sell must be on the other side of the coin.What is in it for the host families? To invite total strangers into a home certainly seems risky in this paranoid world. Often, families don’t have any control over which athletes they host—especially the first year they volunteer. I speak with Team SmartStop’s hosts from Redlands, Mike and Kelley, about their experience. They admit at first they where somewhat hesitant about the arrangement when they first volunteered in 2013, but those concern soon faded. “All of the racers that we have hosted have been so gracious to us for opening up our home. They are very easy to get along with, extremely polite and professional, and are very accommodating to any of our concerns that arise, if any.” Mike says. He elaborates explaining a heads up from the race organizers about the need for food preparation on a massive scale would be nice. Mike really surprises me when he describes how the host program changed his perception of the both the Redlands Classic and the sport in general. “Being part of the host family program certainly makes the race more professional in my mind. Especially since the doping scandal at the highest of levels, it is extremely nice to see that all racers do not dope […] All of the racers that we have met are very professional and extremely hard working…[The racers] are fantastic role models for our son. Nathan [age 10] certainly looks up to the racers, and he can get a first hand sense of what it takes to be the best in your field.” Kelley adds, “The hosting experience enhances the fan experience ten-fold!Having real conversations with professional athletes regarding training regimens or food choices only heightens that connection. Our family has attended the event of the Redlands Bicycle Classic as fans for years, and we have enjoyed all aspects of the race. But, since we’ve been hosting, our understanding of race skill and race strategy has deepened. This expanded understanding makes us feel more connected to the athletes.” Mike’s statement seems surprising. He was born and raised in Redlands. He is a lifetime resident and has seen the race year over year from its inception. He says he never felt much of a connection to the event until his family hosted the visiting athletes. He feels like, until then, he was on the outside of tight club, explaining, “The racers and support staff from many of the teams know each other and are a tight knit group.” The host program gives him and his family the opportunity to penetrate the outside of that club and relate to the racers in a way that made the sport both more personal and professional at the same time. From a North American fan’s perspective, the host system creates a relationship with the public that the sport desperately needs. It is a relationship that had a century to develop in Europe where it probably blossomed in similar scenarios.In North America, the host structure has been formalized a bit. If hosting is fertilizer helping to grow the sport, what is the best way to spread it? Carney explains, “I think [host hosing] should qualify for the [accommodation requirements of ] smaller UCI races in North America.Most of those events cannot afford to accommodate the entire peloton, but we need more UCI races here. We need to work with the organizers to help them achieve that status. There are a lot of differences between European and North America cycling, so our standards should be adjusted to reflect those differences. Host housing can work very well here and races like the Redlands Classic are a great example. For some events it is definitely superior to hotels.” Personally, my experience in host housing has always been positive. I agree with everything Mike, Kelley and Carney relate to me, and I am happy to hear that the benifits for both the event and the hosts run deeper than the novelty of having some athletes in their homes. As long as these attitudes persist towards the host housing, the programs will remain in North America. Figuring out how to integrate them into the UCI system could be the next step. This could bring UCI events to new towns While alleviating the prohibitive costs. Creating standards for host housing might be a start. Mike suggests even having some type of simple standardized incentives for families. Having local restaurants sponsor a dinner coupon so teams can take families out for a meal. This would reward the hosts and bring them even closer to the culture and members of a team. Cycling is already one of the most accessible pro sports. It only seems natural that host housing is a part of that culture. To globalize the sport, we must embrace the unique challenges and resources at each venue. The rules must be adaptable and accommodate the local demands on the sport.Host housing helps achieve this in North America. In Redlands, it seems to do that as well as improve the sports overall image. This is a goal our sport should strive for, even if it happens one family at a time. Kelly explains the family’s experience following our stay at their house during the Redlands Bicycle Classic,“It has been weeks since our team has gone. There are moments I wonder why I don’t hear the washing machine running or why there’s no line for the shower. We quickly get used to the hustle and bustle of what we call ‘Rider Week.’ We set the table the other night for dinner and commented that the table looked a bit empty.It’s important to open our homes to other people, to reach out to extend the borders of our understandings beyond our current zip codes. Every experience we have reaching out makes us a better version of who we are. I am happy to have made new friends who make their homes in other states and countries. I look forward to following their journeys and await the opportunity to see them all soon.”
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