Doping Isn't What's Keeping Kids Away
By Steve Johnson, CEO of USA Cycling
From a young outsider's perspective, cycling can be intimidating and complicated. But there are many other, more significant deterrents for young riders that we must address.
The primary barriers to junior bike racing include cost, physical demands, complicated tactics, access to competition, risk of injury and perception of the sport. Our greatest challenge is to address the cost—not strictly in monetary terms, but in value. Is this sport worth it?
Cycling is expensive. Because of this, the USA Cycling Development Foundation assists parents and athletes financially. The Edmund R. Burke Travel and Training Grant Program has helped more than 200 athletes with travel costs exceeding $250,000. USA Cycling has returned more than $1.3 million to grassroots junior racing efforts through our local association rebate program.
Another profound barrier is access to competition. Although numbers are up—USAC junior licenses have steadily climbed since the mid-'90s—the stark reality is this: With 4,000 licensed juniors spread across our vast country, reaching a critical mass is difficult for all but a few regions. Fortunately, many of our local associations are having great success promoting junior racing. We've had success at the national level, too. A record 1,500 juniors participated in the 2007 national championships.
High school leagues represent huge opportunities. One prime example is the Nor Cal High School Mountain Bike League, which has reached a critical mass and is now self-supporting.
To address the physical, technical and tactical demands of the sport, USA Cycling launched the Coaching Association, which today has more than 1,400 licensed coaches, a number of whom focus on juniors.
Doping is a major issue in sport, in all sports. It's a fact of life that some people cheat. So why all the noise around cycling? Simple. Of all professional sports, only cycling has drawn a line in the sand and committed itself to a zero-tolerance, level playing field. Cycling tests more athletes, more times, for more substances and methods than any other professional sport. The fact we are catching cheaters is evidence that our programs are working.
Our challenge—and what cycling has already begun to do—is to raise the risk of cheating to the point that the risks and consequences of being caught outweigh the benefits of cheating. As we have all seen, this process can be ugly and noisy at first, but it has been and will continue to be effective. The end result will be the cleanest of the professional sports.
In the meantime, we should not indict cycling, but instead work to educate people that cycling is far and away the most aggressive professional sport on the planet when it comes to catching cheaters.
Cycling itself is an intimidating sport. My old masters racing team started a junior team with a mentoring component that has been very successful. Every team and club can do the same. There are more kids than ever on bikes these days. Next time you pass one of them, don't ride him or her off your wheel.
Instead, slow down and talk to them, provide a little encouragement and a few suggestions. You never know, you may be talking to cycling's next hero.
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