Who will control cycling in 2001? By Les Earnest

USCF has held power for 47 years. Will there be a successor soon?


Originally published in Cyclops USA, August 1989

[Bracketed statements in italics below, such as this, are explanatory remarks added in November 2005.]


The United States Cycling Federation (USCF) has been the National Governing Body (NGB) of cycling in the U.S. since 1941 and is the third such organization in U.S. history. Its predecessor controlled racing for just 44 years and the one before

that ran things for only 17 years before it was overthrown. Will the USCF be resilient enough to adapt itself to the needs of the modern world and defend against would-be successors, or will it too be replaced?


This venerable organization has exhibited inflexibility throughout most of its existence. It is now showing increasing signs of weakness and there is a growing number of predators lurking about. Time will tell.


The Amateur Sports Act of 1978, under which USCF is now formally recognized as the NGB of cycling, requires that each such body “Demonstrates that it is autonomous in the governance of its sport, in that it independently determines and controls all matters central to such governance, does not delegate such determination and control, and is free from outside restraint . . .” [Federal Public Law 95-606, Section 201(b)(4), Amateur Sports Act of 1978].


In fact, the Federation seems to be losing control of a number of aspects of bicycle racing, which means that it may be subject to challenge and replacement as NGB by a competing organization, under procedures specified in the Amateur Sports Act. This is unlikely to happen in the next year or two, but if current trends continue, I believe that it is likely to happen by the turn of the century. I wish to propose some schemes for dealing with this situation, but first let me review some of the history of how things got so screwed up.


The first three NGBs

The first national governing body of cycling was the League of American Wheelmen (LAW), which was organized in 1880 and had no connection with the modern organization that uses that name [later changed to League of American Bicyclists]. It conducted both amateur and professional racing programs on road and track.


The peak of the first bicycle boom was 1895-96, when there were over 400 bicycle manufacturers in the U.S., including Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtis, and Charles Duryea. In 1897, LAW had 102,636 members, which is the high water mark for any cycling organization in the U.S. through the present.


In 1894 a new cycling organization was formed by a group of board track owners who were mainly interested in the professional part of the sport. Their National Cycling Association (NCA) held its first national professional championships in 1895. The racing programs of the NCA focused mainly on track racing and its organizational goals were closely identified with sustaining the financial success of the tracks.


In 1898, a group of clubs in San Jose, California decided that they wanted to race on Sundays, which was against LAW policy. LAW denied permission and the entire California contingent quit the organization. NCA took advantage of the situation by agreeing to hold races on Sunday and inviting riders to jump to their organization. Many racers sided with the NCA, especially the professionals. The influence of the LAW on racing began to fade and by the turn of the century had essentially vanished. By that time, bike racing was largely a professional sport controlled by professional promoters.


The riders who jumped to NCA failed to gain any degree of representation or control over the affairs of that organization.

As a result, it continued to be run primarily for the benefit of the promoters. The Amateur Bicycle League of America (ABL), which later changed its name to United States Cycling Federation, was formed in 1920 by racing clubs in the New York-New Jersey area and immediately began trying to overthrow the NCA as national governing body. ABL had to function as a subordinate to the NCA for 25 years and did not win by political maneuvering, though there was a lot of that. The victory came primarily because NCA suffered a financial collapse -- the public stopped coming to six-day races and other track events that NCA depended on to pay its bills.


PRO and Con

Bike racing was a closet sport from the time the ABL took it over at the end of World War 2 until the early '70s. Most kids in the U.S. rode sturdy one-speed bikes with fat tires and had never heard of bike racing. The ABL had an opportunity to take control of all bike racing as soon as NCA went out of business, but they didn’t bother.


In the early 1970's, a Dutchman who had raced in the six-days in Europe and the U.S. tried to revive this kind of event in the U.S. Chris vanGent formed a governing body called the “Professional Racing Organization” (PRO), incorporated it as a nonprofit in his home state of Colorado, and got it affiliated with the international professional body, FICP. PRO put together races in several parts of the country and talked a number of U.S. riders into turning pro, but it was a financial failure and promptly went out of business.


After the collapse, VanGent allegedly invited ABL to assume responsibility for professional racing in the U.S., though whatever documentation of this offer existed was later lost by the ABL President. In response to this offer, ABL changed its name to U.S. Cycling Federation in 1975 so that it could deal with professional racing, but the USCF administration foolishly failed to formally change PRO's affiliation with the international body, FICP. They also neglected to do anything about developing the professional part of the sport.


In 1980, a promoting organization called Omni-Sports started looking into the possibility of reviving professional racing. They asked for and received the USCF Board's blessing to propose a development program. One of their colleagues (Artie Greenberg) subsequently discovered in a UCI magazine that USCF had failed to get itself recognized by FICP as the successor of PRO. Omni-Sports then struck a deal with VanGent to take over the remains of PRO and assume control of the (nonexistent) professional branch of the sport.


The USCF Board of Directors subsequently managed to work itself into a frenzy over this apparent deceit and set out on a “holy war” that has still not completely ended. In 1982, there was a large increase in USCF rider licensing fees that was primarily a result of the legal and travel expenses associated with this war. PRO incurred similar expenses in that struggle, but had no large rider population to tax, so they sank into debt and have not yet recovered. That struggle was arguably the largest waste of money so far in the history of the Federation, though I have faith that someone will eventually find a way to top it. [Indeed, they did.]


For some time the USCF Board has had the means at hand to merge so-called amateur and professional bike racing by gradually erasing the distinction between the two, but they have been inconsistent about pursuing this strategy. Nevertheless, two of my legislative proposals in this area have been adopted: the maximum daily winnings per rider were increased from $200 to $1000 beginning in 1985 and to $2000 beginning in 1988.


Professional racing in the U.S. remains quite weak and is certain to merge with the rest of the sport if USCF plays its cards right. One way to hasten the process would be to pay USPRO, as they now call themselves, to go out of business.  This now appears to be a real possibility. If USCF fiddles around until USPRO gets strong, a merger on favorable terms will not be possible.



BMX bicycles were invented in 1972 by some kids in Southern California who were apparently emulating off-road motorcycle designs. Bicycle manufacturers took notice and began building them when an enormous demand arose.

BMX racing soon became popular, sustained by the “Little League parent syndrome.” As BMX racing developed, the USCF looked on and did nothing -- it appeared that the administration was embarrassed by the fact that this branch of the sport got away from them, but they couldn't figure out what to do about it. Independent federations formed to control BMX and what began as a small fad became substantially larger than the USCF in terms of number of participants, at least for awhile.


As luck would have it, the subsequent growth of this fad in Europe led to demand for international BMX racing, which is now being organized under FIAC. Given that the USCF has a FIAC monopoly in the U.S. as long as it remains the NGB, it now has a second chance at gaining control of this branch of the sport. So far, the Federation still seems puzzled about what to do about it.


Human powered land vehicles

In the early 1970s, some people in Southern California began experimenting with aerodynamic fairings on bicycles. In 1976 they formed the International Human Powered Vehicle Association (IHPVA) to foster development of human powered land, air, and water craft. IHPVA organizers approached UCI regarding possible affiliation, but were rebuffed on the grounds that they were proposing to “break the rules.”


Given that the USCF has generally followed UCI regulations on what constitutes a bicycle, USCF and IHPVA may be considered to be in different sports. Nevertheless, they share a common pool of athletes -- the fastest bike riders are the fastest HPV riders. To head off potential problems regarding Olympic eligibility of athletes, I initiated discussions with

IHPVA President Peter Boor and negotiated Articles of Alliance, which were approved by both organizations in August 1980. Relations between the USCF and IHPVA have been generally cordial ever since.


Mountain bikes

Mountain bikes were invented in the late '70s by some intrepid Northern California bikies who used them to make kamikaze runs down the fire trails of Mt. Tamalpais. These sturdy fat-tired bikes started another fad that can be thought of as BMX for adults. Mountain bikes are very similar to typical kids' bikes of the '30s and '40s, though their component technology is more advanced.


While mountain bike racing is similar in many ways to cyclocross, it emphasizes rugged courses that require sturdy bike construction. Mountain bike racers are mostly disorderly free spirits who hate organizations such as the USCF. Naturally, when they formed their own organization, the National Off Road Bicycle Association, they botched it, producing a financial disaster.


A Santa Barbara fireman named Glenn Odell subsequently became NORBA President and put his own money into it. In 1983 and 1984, I tried to negotiate an alliance with NORBA using as leverage the threat of suspending USCF riders who competed in NORBA events. Negotiations stagnated for awhile, but Odell and I were finally able to work out mutually acceptable Articles of Alliance that were approved by both organizations in April 1985.


The NORBA-USCF alliance provides that NORBA obtains USCF race permits for its events so that Federation riders can compete in them and still be covered by USCF medical insurance. In other respects this agreement paralleled the earlier USCF-IHPVA alliance.


In August 1985, Odell approached USCF Executive Director Dave Prouty with a proposal that he be bought out -- in other USCF would assume his debt and take control of the organization. Prouty summarily rejected this idea, foolishly I believe. I had just left the USCF Board of Directors at that time and later learned that Prouty kept this offer secret from the Board.


[After reading this article, Dave Prouty informed me that there was more to this negotiation that I knew about. In particular he said that as a condition of the sale, Odell would be hired as a staff member by USCF to run the organization and would, in effect, remain in control. Prouty felt that would be inappropriate and also had misgivings about covering Odell’s alleged investment in NORBA that had no documented basis. Those are certainly valid issues but I still believe that the negotiation should have been disclosed promptly to the USCF Board. Under 20/20 hindsight, of course, it would have been much cheaper to buy it then for $20,000+ than to buy a few years later for $150,000+, as happened].


In 1987, Odell finally sold NORBA to another group. I understand that the new management has reneged on the USCF-NORBA alliance and is no longer taking out USCF race permits. The first response of the Federation should be to try to renegotiate a mutually satisfactory alliance with the new NORBA management. If simple negotiation fails, the issue should be forced by counterattacking with a combination of incentives and penalties -- promoters should be offered an alternative program of mountain bike racing through the USCF and any USCF riders who compete in NORBA events should be suspended. There should be no pussy-footing -- the longer we wait, the harder it will be to force them to negotiate.


Ultra-marathon Racing

The Race Across America (RAAM) was organized in the early '80s by a Southern California group headed by John Marino and has been run each year without a USCF race permit. This “outlaw” event constitutes another threat to the USCF's control of the sport.


In anticipation of gaining control of that event, I drafted appropriate racing rules and got the Board of Directors to adopt them effective in 1983 -- see Rule 2I, Cross-country time trial. I then issued 30 day suspensions to participants in the 1984 RAAM who held USCF licenses. This had the desired effect -- John Marino applied for a USCF Race Permit the next year.


Unfortunately, Dave Prouty had not bought this scheme. He declined to issue the permit, giving the excuse that “RAAM-style racing is certainly not USCF-style racing,” even though we had already adopted special rules to accommodate their event. Thus, an excellent opportunity to normalize relations was lost and the various events organized by the Ultra-marathon Cycling Association now continue to be run independently.


I believe that the Federation should offer to issue race permits to RAAM and other Ultra-marathon events and should consistently use its suspension authority in cases where no permit has been obtained. Failure to do this advertises that the USCF does not control of part of the sport, which could jeopardize its NGB status.


Other “Outlaw” Events

The Federation shows weakness in permitting promoters to cheat it without incurring penalties and allowing riders to compete

in outlaw races. For example, there is a series of mass participation team time trials being run in a number of cities this year under the name “FourMan Cycling Challenge,” with entry fees of $200 per team. Quite a few USCF riders are participating, some in the belief that it is a USCF race, and the Federation has no program to either warn or suspend such riders.


The pilot event of this series was run last year under a USCF permit, but the promoter defrauded both the Federation and the riders of thousands of dollars. The only disciplinary action that the Federation has taken so far is to suspend the promoter -- it has made no attempt to recover the moneys owed.


Opening an Umbrella

As I have argued above, the Federation should keep track of changes in bicycle technology and shifts in public interest and establish programs for the development of new branches of the sport. Instead, the USCF Board has rather consistently sat back and said “That isn't bike racing, so we won't get involved.” In some cases, the Federation has been invited to take over new segments of the sport and still has declined.


This attitude is suicidal. If it persists, one of those little spinoffs is going to grow up and eat the Federation. In order to avoid being usurped, the Federation must reconfigure itself to provide a home for all branches of the sport and must aggressively seek affiliations using all available tools of persuasion, primarily marketing, negotiation, and (alas) rider suspensions.


The sport has now gotten too complicated to be governed by a monolithic body. What is needed is a holding company under which a number of semi-autonomous affiliates can operate. The primary function of the holding company will be to provide some financial support to the sport, particularly for the development of new branches, and to settle any jurisdictional disputes between affiliates. Financial support for this umbrella organization should come from corporate sponsorship and taxation of the established affiliates.


USCF is the logical body to transform itself into the holding company, though this will require major surgery. Alternatively, a new entity could be formed. The specific structure of the subordinate organizations will inevitably be determined by the subtle interactions of changing bicycle technology, marketing, fads, and politics. Here is one possible breakdown.




Road and track


Off-road (cyclocross & mountain bike)

Human powered land vehicles

Centuries & touring


Note that the first three affiliates are age-group oriented, while the other subdivisions are based primarily on technology variations. The age group affiliates would presumably be concerned with developmental events using conventional bicycles only. The road and track would manage what are now the senior racing programs.


In this scheme, the interscholastic affiliate would inherit the existing Junior racing program from the USCF, but its primary charter should be to develop interscholastic racing programs involving high schools and junior highs. Note also that I am proposing that cyclocross and mountain bike racing operate under a single affiliate, though there would continue to be different racing programs favoring the two kinds of bikes.


The human powered land vehicle affiliate would also presumably be affiliated with the IHPVA. Note that I do not propose that there be a separate affiliate for professional cycling. I believe that dividing the sport along those lines is pointless. In any given class of racing, there should be a spectrum of competition levels with commensurate prizes, so that riders can choose a level appropriate to their abilities.


Start Stompin’

The Federation would be well advised to get going on diversification and start clobbering any cycling organizations that choose not to affiliate. Failing that, the Federation will wake up one day and discover that it is surrounded by predators.


The main problem that has existed up until now is that different segments of the USCF Board of Directors are pulling in different directions. Some would like to live in the past and others fear losing power. The first and most important task is to develop a consensus within the Federation regarding what the new structure should be. If we can't agree on a plan, there is no hope of executing it.


Remember the lesson of evolution: adapt or die. The USCF today looks to me a lot like a dinosaur.

If it wants to survive the next ice age, it had better start stompin'.



Epilogue, November 2005


I later came to the view that using the threat of rider suspensions as leverage for taking over competing organizations was inappropriate and possibly illegal. I eventually co-sponsored legislation to remove that authority from USCF Racing Rules.


In accordance with my earlier recommendations, USCF purchased the National Off-Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) in 1989, but for a price many times what they could have gotten it for in 1985. In the early 1990s, USCF President Rich DeGarmo talked the USCF Board into reconciling with USPRO and giving them large amounts of cash in return for nothing, another very foolish maneuver. After bailing USPRO out financially, USCF later paid them an additional exorbitant amount to go out of business.


In 1993 I initiated a reorganization proposal that would bring all major cycling organizations into a single parent organization with democratic representation of all participants. This new parent organization came to be called USA Cycling, but only after its democratic structure was distorted through deceit and illegal actions so as to give control of the organization to commercial cycling interests making up less that 1% of the participants. This corrupt organization still controls the sport of cycling today, but that is another story.


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