The Flawed Calculus of the Cat. 1 Professional
Should professional cycling be a career choice?
That is, where did anyone get the idea that one can “make a living” by riding a bicycle? In this cold-hearted post, I forget all the joy and beauty of cycling and lay bare the (mostly economic) problems with the idea of the professional cyclist.
1) Disproportionate Pay.
Despite the cost of bikes, entry fees, and travel, the monetary barrier to entry in cycling is low. A cyclist can buy the fanciest gear and live for years on the cost of tuition at a private college. It isn’t the lifestyle, but the payout, which is disproportionately skewed. I recently hosted an aspiring professional at my house who remarked that one can make a “decent living” by winning cat 4 races every weekend. His attitude embodies the flawed calculus of many cyclists. These riders think of income in terms of the here and now. Money is mentally parsed in terms of new wheels, groceries for the week, lodging, gas money and coffee. In reality, one can win a cat 1 race every weekend of the season and still come up short of the funds to pay for health insurance.
2) History, like Weezer, says it aint so.
Ever met a professional cyclist without a second job? I bet there are more single-occupation beekeepers than single-occupation cyclists. Conversely, I am also willing to bet there are far more aspiring professional cyclists out there than aspiring beekeepers. Duh, you say. Of course there is one NBA player for every 5000 aspiring kids. Of course people are attracted to the glamor of cycling over beekeeping (no offense, beekeepers). The difference lies in the closeness one can achieve to pro’dom in cycling. Beginning racers go through the same rituals and courses as the pros (albeit at a different pace and distance), use the same porto potties, have the same equipment (sometimes better equipment!). Pro’dom seems like it is only an upgrade and a couple thousand more training miles away.
3) It’s Free
Cycling is vastly popular, but its popularity hinges on the accessibility and free nature of the sport. The Tour de France has a deep history as a working man’s event, and changing this openness would be a crime against humanity. Whereas the Super Bowl or World Cup can generate gajillions in ticket sales, cyclists hope for a check from Fasso Bortolo, who is left hoping the millions who watch le Tour will remember to buy their cement.
I admire the grass-roots ideology and the suffering of aspiring professional cyclists, but part of me questions the framework around which this ethic is built. Being a sports professional, like being a Hollywood movie star, is a fundamentally selfish career choice. It is the acceptance that one’s contribution to society will be as entertainer and, in rare cases, role model. Most of the professional cyclists I have met chose their career because of the free lifestyle: untethered from desks, the ability to travel, freedom from the 9-5, the interesting people. This is an attractive way to live, but, for the reasons above, an almost impossible way to make a living.
Afterward: The author would like to say that he hates this post and cannot believe he wrote a piece which suggests money is a good reason to do or not do anything. He would like to announce that he does value the beauty in sport and is not suggesting one choose a career for money.