The new rules of being an American pro

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Exhausted and dusty cyclists mingled at the finish line of the 2021 Unbound Gravel, their faces coated with dirt from the daylong adventure across eastern Kansas. A handful of pro riders sat together and discussed the upcoming racing schedule, to see who was going where, and to what events.

For these few pro riders, the 2021 competition schedule encompassed nearly every format of bike race imaginable. Lauren De Crescenzo was off to race the U.S. Pro road race championships, before tackling the Belgian Waffle Ride and SBT GRVL gravel events. Payson McElveen planned to tackle the Firecracker 50 mountain-bike race, the Leadville Trail 100 MTB, and a smattering of gravel races. Lauren Stephens was just days away from flying to Europe to race the Giro d’Italia Donne and La Course by Le Tour de France, before returning home to race gravel.

Eric Marcotte, the former U.S. road champion, had a full slate of road criteriums on his schedule after Unbound Gravel. And Peter Stetina’s race program was so chock-full of mountain biking, road, and gravel, that he was slated to compete nearly every weekend between June and Labor Day.

“Each of these disciplines can be amazing in their own way,” Marcotte told VeloNews. “Watching crits unfold is pretty compelling because it’s so barbaric. Then, you have a six-hour road race where it’s this tactical chess game. In gravel, you’re essentially traversing the land with the sun, using that energy to do this thing.”

This mashup of cross-disciplined racing schedules was indicative of what American professional cycling had become in 2021. Never before had the few Americans who earn a living wage from competitive cycling enjoyed such freedom to race such a diverse smattering of bike races.

Save for a handful of riders competing in the WorldTour, American pro cyclists in 2021 weren’t resigned to one discipline, one bicycle, or even to the sole pursuit of chasing results. They raced on-road and off. They tackled bizarre cycling stunts and creative riding projects, like Everesting, or long bikepacking adventures. And, most importantly, they documented their every move on social media, and also produced podcasts, YouTube videos, and other types of content.

The competition is no longer on the racecourse. It’s on social media with clicks and with views.

“The competition is no longer on the racecourse,” said Ian Boswell, the Unbound Gravel champion. “It’s on social media with clicks and with views. And it’s cool to see how quickly people have changed the way they approach cycling.”

This racing freedom was born from the rapid teardown of the old sporting framework that for years defined professional cycling across the USA. Social media and a waning sponsorship market chipped away at this structure for more than a decade. And then, the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out what remained of the old model of professional racing across the USA, shuttering events and grounding teams for more than a year.

What rose from the remains was a growing network of privateer pros with individual sponsorships, built on the bedrock of Instagram followers, mass-participant racing schedules, and media hits. And the sponsors backing the riders cared more about audience size and authenticity than race results.

This change was years in the making, but 2021 marked a critical turning point, when the new model of U.S. pro cycling seemed to surpass the old one at every turn. And as 2021 wore on, those few American riders skilled enough to capitalize on this sea of change helped further define what it meant to be a full-time professional bike racer in the new century.

“To be a pro these days has really changed from where it was — it’s really just flipped,” said longtime mountain bike pro Jeremiah Bishop. “Pro cycling in the U.S. takes a lot of different shapes, and I think it’s really cool because before we didn’t have the platforms to share with fans — we’d just race our bikes and hope for the best. Now, for athletes who want to be creative and try projects, the sky’s the limit.”

But the new model of pro cycling is not without its pitfalls or challenges. For every rider elevated into the spotlight — and toward a paycheck — the new American pro model leaves behind others with the physical skills and determination to win. And the model is hardly set in stone; with the future of U.S. cycling, and cycling sponsorship, still a mystery, the way of defining an American professional cyclist in 2021 is very much left in the balance.

In that sense, the finish line at the 2021 Unbound Gravel, and the state of U.S. pro cycling in 2021, was very much a moment in time, a snapshot of the state of things for a potentially fleeting period in the sport’s ever-changing history.

The women racers start with the pro men in U.S. gravel racing. Photo: Linda Guerrette

Big dollars for the brave

In the old days, the job of an American pro was simple: train, recover, race, repeat.

The economics governing U.S. pro cycling were similarly straightforward. Pro riders raced for UCI teams on the road, or for factory-sponsored teams in mountain biking. Teams took funds from paying sponsors, and then paid riders an annual salary with incentive bonuses. Riders focused their attention on winning.

Within the insular world of domestic road racing, salaries in the early- to mid-2000s ranged from the pitiful ($5,000 and a bike) to the generous for a lucky few ($80,000 to $100,000), with most riders earning something in between. In U.S. mountain biking, there were fewer athletes to pay, so top factory team riders earned anywhere from $30,000 to $70,000, with a few salaries approaching $100,000.

For all of these cyclists, however, the definition of the job was simple. Win a race and get your name in a magazine or newspaper.

“There were some media opportunities here and there — interviews and maybe writing a blog,” said Bishop, who was a star of the Trek-Volkswagen factory team from 2005–2009. “Winning was the real job. That was really it.”

In 2021, American pro riders faced a more complex modus operandi: train, recover, race, tweet, Instagram, edit video, publish a podcast, pitch sponsors, manage a budget, develop adventure ideas, plan travel, pay bills, then repeat. Pro cycling was simply part of a wider job that was focused on creating content.

It’s a full-time job for a lot of these athletes who are pursuing [cycling] as a career. They’re doing just as much work off the bike as they’re doing on the bike.

“I end up being on the computer all day,” McElveen said. “In racing you can train your brains out and the race doesn’t go your way. With content stuff, you get out as much as you put in. The more time you spend creating a video, every time you’ll get positive payback.”

The more complex job is indicative of a complex ecosystem of personalized sponsorships and media requirements. Riders who spoke to VeloNews said that today’s American pro riders can earn more than $150,000 by amassing a personal portfolio of sponsors. Nearly every element of a rider’s gear is open to personal cash sponsorship — from a bike frame, to tires, to wheels, and components, plus sunglasses, helmets, and apparel. Mainstream sponsors like Red Bull or Monster Energy can also pad a rider’s checking account.

“I didn’t think there would be this much money to be made in women’s professional cycling,” said De Crescenzo, who quit her job as an epidemiologist in 2021 after her CINCH Cycling sponsor paid her enough to race full-time. “I learned differently when they offered me the same salary I was making at my full-time job. It was an opportunity to get paid to ride my bike, and it’s amazing.”

But all of these sponsors want media value in exchange. And that value is driven by a combination of racing results, as well as content produced by the rider, like podcasts, YouTube videos, and images on social media. And producing all of that content takes time, creativity, and constant energy.

“There’s so much that goes into it — it’s a full-time job for a lot of these athletes who are pursuing [cycling] as a career,” Boswell said. “They’re doing just as much work off the bike as they’re doing on the bike.”

The shift in dollars was summed up by one marketing executive for a major U.S. bike brand. The brand, he said, in 2021 spent equal dollars on social influencer marketing as it did on professional racing.

Ian Boswell Photo: Courtesy Unbound Gravel

A slow and then sudden change

So, how did pro cyclists go from being winning machines earning pennies, to high-priced video and podcast producers? Dozens of factors contributed to the dramatic shift, and it took years to change.

The global media revolution in the mid aughts began to shift how fans consumed cycling, as social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter allowed all athletes, including pro cyclists, to bypass traditional magazines and newspapers. Suddenly, a pro rider could build a following of her own.

Meanwhile, the sponsorship market in U.S. professional cycling began a steady decline after the Lance Armstrong bubble burst in 2012. With non-endemic sponsors like Nissan, RadioShack, Volkswagen, and Subaru abandoning cycling altogether, bike companies stepped in to back teams. But their smaller marketing budgets equated to smaller salaries. Suddenly, $25,000 and a bike became good pay in U.S. pro road cycling.

Finally, the rise in popularity of gravel events corresponded to the rapid decline of the U.S. pro road scene. In 2019 the Amgen Tour of California ceased to exist, and in 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic halted the U.S. pro road scene in its tracks. Meanwhile, Unbound Gravel (then Dirty Kanza) and Belgian Waffle Ride began a steady march to prominence in the late aughts. And in 2019 gravel events like SBT GRVL, The Mid South, and others broke into the mainstream as well.

As this slow shift took place, a handful of American pros were early to break from the old team sponsorship model. Cyclocrossers led the way, with Tim Johnson and Jeremy Powers attracting personal sponsors by producing their own video documentaries on YouTube.

“I made more money from my Red Bull endorsement than I did from my road team salary,” said Johnson, whose The Nine Ball Diaries took fans inside U.S. cyclocross. “And I was getting more visual impressions than my team would. I was on every website and in every magazine as an individual. You compare that to a full road season with 15 athletes and six staff and a huge budget.”

This is where the excitement is and where the growth of the sport is. This is where it’s at in America.

Then, a handful of retired WorldTour stars blended the lines between sponsored ambassadors and full-time athletes. Ted King retired from WorldTour racing in 2015 and retained his ambassador position with Cannondale, which had him attend mass-participant events as part of his role. On a whim King raced Unbound Gravel (then Dirty Kanza) in 2016 and won, and the result garnered headlines across the world. King built that attention into a thriving brand.

“Some sponsors have performance incentives, and others have incentives for going to events as an ambassador,” King said in a 2020 interview. “More sponsors are coming out of the woodwork, and I’m in a blessed place.”

Alison Tetrick followed a similar path in 2018, and then Peter Stetina jumped from pro road racing into the gravel world in 2020.

Finally, athletes pursuing non-traditional racing formats helped push the model into an entirely different realm. In 2016 Colin Strickland won the Red Hook Crit series of fixed-gear criteriums, and in 2017 he launched a personal racing program for fixed-gear crits, road races, and gravel events backed by Pinarello, Giordana, and Texas-based coffee company The Meteor. The next year, criterium phenom Justin Williams used his platform in criterium racing to launch the L39ion of Los Angeles, a pro road team that blended the lines between influencer and athlete status. And almost every year, more athletes bailed on traditional racing pursuits to carve out schedules including mass-start events in gravel, mountain biking, and road.

So quick was the shift that some pro road athletes simply pressured their teams to allow them to race non-traditional formats.

“We’ve realized that this is where media and sponsors are now looking,” said Lauren Stephens, who in 2021 helped bring the Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank pro road team to gravel events. “This is where the excitement is and where the growth of the sport is. This is where it’s at in America.”

Isabelle King Photo: Courtesy BWR

More work, less pay

The sun baked down on Southern California’s Belgian Waffle Ride, and on the day before the race, hundreds of cyclists stood at the race venue to pick up their racing packets and snap photos.

Conventional wisdom was for pro riders to be at home, resting, with their legs in the air. Yet multiple pros riders shuffled through the crowd. De Crescenzo made her way from one interview to the next, and Stetina sipped a beer at the Canyon Bicycles booth as he shook hands and snapped photos with fans.

McElveen was also on the move, going from one photo opportunity and interview to the next, before finally settling in to record an episode of his podcast.

“It’s interesting to look around the venue and see which racers are there at 2 p.m. in the heat taking photos with people and slapping high fives with everyone, because there are a lot of riders at home with their feet up in the air,” McElveen said. “Hanging at the venue for six hours with everyone — that’s actually your bread and butter of what we do. Some racers don’t want to hear that.”

How the day in the sun impacted McElveen’s legs and lungs was up for debate. The next day McElveen struggled with a flat tire late in the race before finishing sixth, 10 minutes behind the winner, Stetina, and well behind some lesser-known riders.

McElveen’s experience highlights an element of the new model of pro cycling that is often hard for riders and even fans to comprehend. In 2021, it was not necessarily the fastest riders who earned the biggest paychecks, but rather the riders with the blend of racing accolades, media impressions, and creativity. McElveen’s loftiest accomplishment in U.S. cycling is still his two U.S. Marathon MTB national titles and his win the 2019 and 2020 editions of Mid South Gravel. Yet in 2021, three years after his most recent national title, McElveen was one of the highest-paid professional mountain bikers in the country.

But that’s a reflection of the changing value placed on pro riders in the United States.

A decade ago, the country’s richest cross-country mountain bikers focused on the UCI World Cup and the Olympics. Today, the value McElveen and others bring to sponsors is based on a wider swath of skillss. In 2021 McElveen produced and recorded a weekly podcast that featured accomplished athletes from cycling and other sports. He also produced, shot, edited, and starred in a video series on YouTube. In 2019 McElveen filmed himself riding the famed White Rim trail in Moab in an attempt to set the fastest known time, and by 2021 the video had amassed nearly 200,000 views.

Another video featured McElveen Everesting; another showed him riding all of the trails in Bentonville, Arkansas.

In the fall of 2021 McElveen documented his ride across Iceland.

McElveen has heard plenty of criticism about the gap between his sponsorship portfolio and his racing results. That’s simply a reflection of how he’s been able to play the game.

“I totally get [the criticism], but fact of the matter is the people who get to decide [on salary] are the ones with the checkbook,” McElveen says. “I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of what sponsors want and what consumers want. At the end of the day, racers don’t get to decide what is relevant. It’s the industry and the people cheering us on.”

Hanging at the venue for six hours with everyone — that’s actually your bread and butter of what we do. Some racers don’t want to hear that.

McElveen, like other successful pro riders, in part built his personal brand and sizable following off his wins and his persona. For him, this persona includes his recognizable cowboy-style mustache, which is referenced in the name of his podcast, The Adventure Stache. For Phil Gaimon, the gimmick was his love of cookies and Strava KOMs. For Tetrick, her Dirty Kanza win in 2017 was matched with her penchant for wearing cowboy boots and drinking whisky. For Stetina, it was his goatee and passion for craft beer. And for King, maple syrup and his two Dirty Kanza victories brought him national recognition.

“This whole ‘You’re only as good as your last result’ thing doesn’t hold true once you have a championship title,” McElveen said. “Even Gaimon with his Strava KOM thing. That’s your Ph.D. As long as you refresh it once or twice a year, and reinforce trust from your audience, the results are almost secondary.”

This shift away from results-based reward was not without its consequences, of course, and multiple sources pointed to traditional road racing as the victim of the new model. Young road racers coming up in the development ranks may abandon the hard road to the pros to seek out a paycheck in gravel or content creation, which could impact the number of Americans making it to the sport’s highest echelon in the future. And the growth of gravel has undoubtedly cast a shadow on road racing’s domestic pro ranks.

Boswell, who came up through the U.S. development ranks to race in the WorldTour, said he was worried that the new model of pro cycling might blunt the future of U.S. riders at the Tour.

“The attention this gets — I can see this being frustrating for younger racers,” Boswell said. “Athletes who have pursued this dream of getting to a grand tour their whole lives — this is the pinnacle of human performance on a bike — and there are riders in the WorldTour not getting any recognition because they aren’t winning. And they see us over here in gravel and we’re plastered all over the media.”

Yet the new model also opened doors for other athletes to rocket to the top without having to pursue the traditional pathway. The fourth-place rider at the Belgian Waffle Ride, Isabelle King, made a name for herself on Strava and Instagram before she ever won a race. Known for her flashy orange kit and her bubbly, outgoing personality, King was mobbed by fans at Belgian Waffle Ride, despite her relative lack of racing experience.

“I’m a Cat 5, so pro road racing wasn’t in the cards, and racing during the pandemic wasn’t in the cards,” King said. “It’s cool that someone who has never done a race can line up with girls who have done the Olympics.”

In that sense, the new model of pro cycling created a democratized landscape, where strong riders who wanted to hustle could quickly rise to the top.

Moriah Wilson Photo: Brad Kaminski

A model with cracks to fall through

Moriah Wilson slumped in her chair and munched a burger as crowds of cyclists shuffled past to revel in the post-race party at Belgian Waffle Ride. Wilson, 26, had just finished third, her career-best result at a national gravel event. And while other elite riders updated their Instagram pages with post-race videos, Wilson chatted quietly with friends.

“The whole influencer side of this has been difficult — so far in my career I’ve stayed away from social media and Instagram,” she said. “I haven’t been super engaged. I’m trying to be better.”

Wilson and other talented cyclists like her may be the ones left behind by the new model of American pro cycling, where Instagram followers and video updates are just as important as victories. She’s unquestionably a top up-and-coming rider in the U.S. pro scene. She excels at road, gravel, and mountain biking, and has beaten scores of talented pro riders at national events.

But Wilson admitted that her strengths on the bicycle were not mirrored by talents in social media. She’s shy and admitted to feeling awkward in front of the camera.

“I’m an introvert and a pretty private person, so it’s hard for me to open up on Instagram and then think that people actually care,” Wilson said. “I know I need to lean into it a bit more.”

The result of this trepidation could be seen in Wilson’s professional life — she maintained a day job in order to pay her way to the races. Wilson worked as a sales forecaster at Specialized Bicycles, and said that her ability to blend racing with bike culture helped her do her job. Whether her victories someday attract the attention of paying sponsors is yet to be seen.

And whether U.S. cycling’s focus on social media and content alongside results would continue was also undetermined. As the COVID-19 pandemic morphed and receded in 2021, more U.S. pro road events popped onto the calendar for 2022. The Olympics breathed some momentum back into the U.S. development pipeline for road, mountain bike, and track cyclists.

Yet the enthusiasm for mass-participant races, for cycling content, and for big personalities did not wane — if anything, it got stronger. And as American pro cycling left 2021 behind, the future seemed likely to bring more opportunities for those cyclists willing to train, race, tweet, podcast, and repeat.

The new rules of being an American pro

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