VeloNews' Andrew J. Bernstein sounds off against Steve Johnson, CEO of USA Cycling, on whether cycling's current doping crisis is impacting the sport's growth at the youth level.
Doping is Scaring Off Juniors
By Andrew J. Bernstein
Cycling's doping crisis is not only affecting the sport's image, it's hurting interest levels at the sport's grassroots level. Unless proactive steps are taken, junior participation will continue to plummet.
A case in point: When online registration for New York City's Mengoni Grand Prix opened last August, the pro 1/2 and Cat. 3 fields filled within hours. But a week before the event, promoters worried they might have to cancel the race's junior event, as only five racers started.
While not yet reflected by participation at national-level events, this situation is indicative of the coming decline in junior racing.
"When I was a kid there were lots of juniors, and you don't see them these days. We've had to cancel our junior races [in the past], because there weren't enough racers," said Mengoni promoter Ken Harris, who feels junior participation is dwindling. "Who the hell is going to send their kid into a sport that looks like you have to juice to succeed?"
Around the country, officials, coaches and team managers are finding ways to bring young riders into the sport, while showing them they don't have to dope to succeed. With the crises facing cycling on its most visible level, this is no easy task.
Farm Team Cycling, a junior club in Cambridge, New York, has seen tremendous gains in the past two years that director Dieter Drake attributes to keeping riders focused on riding, not the pros.
"Racing on the professional level is very symbolic, and it inspires people to either get involved or to shy away from it," he said. "But because of everything that's happening I've sheltered the kids a little bit."
The Hot Tubes Development Cycling Team is a bright spot. The program has produced more than 20 pros, and won more than 80 national championships and two world championships. And, as team owner Toby Stanton is quick to point out, no rider to come through the program has ever failed a doping control or produced a "non-negative" test result.
Stanton feels cycling can be cleaned up through "evolution," which may already be underway. "They think that doping will be gone by the time they are ready to become pros," Stanton said.
Former Hot Tubes rider Ben King, the current national junior road and time trial champion, said the decision to race clean is easy. "The reason that I race is for fun," he said, "and if [I] had to cheat to win, I think that would take a lot of satisfaction out of it."
On the West Coast, Casey Kerrigan, president of the Northern California Local Association (NCLA), said junior participation dropped off in 2007.
In Texas, coach Christian Williams said professional role models are necessary for junior involvement.
"What we need is another really good professional, like a Lance Armstrong, to get the parents to notice the sport, because it's hard for the kids to notice, since there's not much in the way of high school competition," he said. "When the cheerleaders show up we won't have any trouble recruiting," he said.
In the meantime, junior cycling advocates face an uphill road.