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All photos by Jonathan Devich, The Fastrack.

 

David Chauner, CEO of Threshold Sports

Talks about USPRO 

and 

Growing American Cycling

 

By Jamie Nichols

On Sunday, June 9th, 2002, 200 of the worldís top professional cyclists, in an international field of 20 teams, will take to the streets of Philadelphia to contest the 18th annual running of the USPRO Championship. With the largest purse of any single day event in the United States, the winners take home a prizes totalling over $100,000. The first American rider over the line is crowned US National Road Champion, and dons the US Championís stars and stripes jersey. Previous winners of the race include Eric Heiden, Lance Armstrong, Sean Yates, Massamilliano Lelli, George Hincapie, and current two-time US Champion, Fred Rodriguez. The riders will loop through the streets of Philadelphia in a blur of vivid color and a whirr of chain rings over a 14.4 mile course for nearly six hours, covering a distance of 156 miles/250 km beginning and ending on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The principle challenge is the infamous Manayunk Wall, where literally hundreds of thousands of a race fans will line the streets to see the straining of muscle and sinew, and faces twisted in effort as the riders make their way up The Wall, with grades of up to 17%. They will face that climb 10 times on the day.

The city will be in fete, and the race has been called Philadelphiaís Rite of Summer. Itís a gigantic civic celebration with an elite level bike race thrown in for good measure. Over half a million Philadelphia natives and cycling fans from other climes will come out in droves to cheer the riders, clang the cowbells, toast them at every lap; even cool them with garden hoses. Hospitality tents and exhibits for the race sponsors will line the parkway, and American racers who spend most of their year on the roads of Europe, will have their chance to stretch their legs for glory in front of a home audience.

The USPRO Championship is the Superbowl of American bike racing; one of the few American events in the sport that can match the European cycling world in terms of the depth of the field, difficulty, and most importantly, popularity and attendance. Bike racing is a well established and beloved sport with a long tradition in Europe, but it struggles to be seen in the United States. As any American race fan knows, most American cyclists toil away in obscurity in local club sponsored races on under-funded teams in industrial park criteriums and out of the way road venues, a far cry from the glory and recognition of their brethren who ride in state through the cities of Europe.

On June 9th, in Philadelphia, American cycling will bring forth its best and brightest for its yearly moment in the sun, and that moment will be due in large part to the committed and sustained efforts of David Chauner, President and CEO of Threshold Sports.

It all began with three men who loved bike racing meeting over a pitcher of Sangria in Barcelona.

David Chauner and Jack Simes were partners in Omni Sports, a company that promoted cycling and ran the Trexlertown Velodrome, and Jerry Casale, now the Chief Operating Officer of Threshold Sports, was running a bike shop. The three were in Barcelona for the World Championship race in 1984, and the nascent USPRO Criterium race they had been running for the past two years in Baltimore had lost its sponsorship. That night, three men with a passionate love of cycling decided that America needed a big, international race, and hatched the audacious plot of having a big time, big money, high profile US professional cycling championship that ran straight through the heart of Philadelphia, and set out to bring that dream to fruition.

It wasnít easy.

They went before the city of Philadelphia, and sold it to the city fathers as a way to "boost the international image" of Philadelphia. They went to all the local television stations and finally found one, the local underdog, looking for an offbeat way to brand themselves: "If you find a way to produce it, weíll give you the airtime," they said. The big turnaround came when they got the sponsorship that would make their dream a reality from CoreStates. Going before a seven person board, they convinced four of them that sponsoring the race would set them apart, show that they "had community interest at heart." The idea struck a chord and the USPRO Championship, run in downtown Philadelphia, was born.

The race has succeeded brilliantly, and this year boasts its biggest field ever. Five or six years after the first running, says Chauner, he met with the directors of CoreStates, they said "When Dave first presented this to us, we had a 7 person board and we passed it 4 to 3Ö Now no one can remember who passed the dissenting votes!"

David Chauner has a long and illustrious relationship with cycling that began when he was a boy whose older brother brought home one of those "new, exciting bikes that came in to the local bike shop and had these dropped handlebars, and 8 speeds." He tagged along with his brother and his friends when they started a small cycling club, and was bitten by the bug. Chauner raced primarily on the track through 1972, and rode for the US Olympic team in 1968 and 1972, and rode the Pan American Games in 1967 and 1971. In 1973, he switched to the road. He rode for the National road team from 1973 through 1975, retiring after becoming the first American to ever win a stage in the Tour of Briton in 1975, known then as the Milk Race.

Convinced by then US National Team coach Oliver "Butch" Martin that he needed to find a real job, Chauner went to work for a company that manufactured seat posts and bicycle components, and got involved in putting together marketing packages and sales programs. Not long after that he was hired to work with Jack Simes to develop the Lehigh Valley Velodrome, in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania. Along with Simes, Chauner began his career as a race promoter by working as the co-director of the Lehigh Velodrome, and together they created development and racing programs, including the Air Products Developmental Cycling Program, that are still going on today. "We have 10,000 kids who have gone through that program, including guys like Olympic Gold Medallist Marty Nothstein. That program is one of the things Iím most proud of," says Chauner. "Iím convinced," he adds, "that one of the reasons we have so many good cyclists with so few numbers of serious racers is because the kind of person it takes to succeed in cycling is the kind of person who can overcome all obstacles, and for a kid to be able to start racing, is to overcome obstacles that most kids would never accept." The Air Products Program is free, and trains cyclists of all ages (5-99 years of age) in the sport of track cycling, opening the doors of the sport to thousands of kids.

 

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The Daily Peloton asked David Chauner about his experiences promoting cycling in the US, his future aims and his insights into growing the sport in the United States.

Cycling is fragile in the United States. What difficulties do you face in promoting the sport?

Well, itís a lot less fragile now than it was. Itís tough now, but it was tougher when I first started promoting. Back when I started organizing races in 1976, it was long before Americans had had many successes in cycling. The Olympic Games in Los Angeles, were a big awareness builder, and then a few years later there was the first American, Jock Boyer, to ride the Tour de France, but we were way ahead and laying the groundwork.

We started a lot of programs that brought cycling up, and Iím talking now about Jack Simes and I; he was my partner back then. We were involved in helping Coors Classic off the ground in the 70ís; and we started the Panasonic-Shimano Team, which was the forerunner of so many of the professional teams in the US: the 7-11 Team, which then morphed into Motorola, and later into the US Postal Service team, to some extent.

Why do you think cycling started to pick up speed in the US at that time?

The good thing about the mid to late 70ís is that there was a lot of interest in cycling, but not so much because there were marquee names, but more because people were getting into physical fitness. In 1972, in the Munich Olympics, we had the first American to ever win a Marathon running race! Up until that point, people who ran Marathons were basically bare-footed Ethiopians, and Americans were thinking that just the concept of 2600 Americans running a 25 mile footrace in the streets of Manhattan was just absurd. But at that time there was an endurance craze, and a fitness craze that really started in the late 60ís, early 70ís.

The whole bicycle boom was in the 60ís when the 10-speed became a household word, and the first year bicycles outsold cars in the US was somewhere in that time, too. The rise of the sport was really fueled by people getting out and riding bikes, and at the same time, we started having more competitive success. By the time of the Olympics in the mid 80ís with the successes of people like Mark Gorsky and Alexei Grewal, winning gold medals; and then Greg Lemond, winning the Tour de France. Finally, the sport really started to create a little bit of an awakening in this country, but we were working towards all that 10 years before!

Even so, for a lot of the smaller teams, itís still really a thankless sport.

Thatís true. The majority of riders experience that and the majority of promoters do, too. They do it as a passion. I have to hand it to the guys that do thatÖ itís the backbone of the sport! They do it because they love it. Itís one of my goals to see that improve for them, but weíre different, because we see it as real business here [at Threshold Sports]. We decided a long time ago, when we first got started that we were almost really promoting a whole different sport.

Our philosophy and our view of how to promote cycling was really different from the prevailing club mentality, with its whole, Ďlets do this in out of the way places and try not to disrupt peopleí approach. Our view was always Ďletís put it right in everybodyís face, and disrupt as much traffic as we can, and get as much TV and media as we can, and jump up and down and sell it everybody until everybody listens.í

Do you sense any kind of a conflict between the grassroots club mentality and the bigger business approach youíve taken?

Oh, I think most people with any sense of professionalism at all recognize how important it is to create high profile events and get the sport in the public eye as much as possible, and really, there are no people more authentic than we are in terms of commitment and passion for the sport.

I think what has characterized my life, good or bad, is that Iíve been wrapped up in cycling for so long, and wanted to be involved in it so badly, that I had to work really hard to create a business from nothing so that I could be involved. Iím not the kind of guy who wants to go around living in the backseat of a van eating granola bars, so I felt that in order to make a living at it, it had to be done professionally and at a much higher level. I feel very pleased that Iíve been able to make a real professional career out of cycling. There are only a few people who have been able to do that in the US, people like Jim Ochowitz, who ran the Motorola team, and Jim Schuyler who runs Team Sports, we do it here at Threshold, John Wordin has been knocking on the door with his Mercury team, and they are the people who have been instrumental in elevating the sport to where it is now.

What are the biggest challenges you face in trying to promote and grow the sport in the US?

The biggest challenge facing our business has always been building enough credibility for the sport to really attract big sponsorship dollars.

With some of the things that weíve created around our events, with media tie-ins, live television all that, I think we have created a very sophisticated marketing strategy thatís as strong as a lot of other sports, but we donít command the dollars because the recognition is not there yet. However, the interest is starting to surface more than ever before. The sport really depends on corporate sponsorship: 90% of the revenues in cycling come from corporations. Money doesnít come into the sport from gate receipts, itís not from participant entry fees, itís really from the sponsorship that we can attract. The way you attract those sponsors is to put together a valuable proposition for them. For the corporations, the bike race is almost incidental to the on site opportunities they buy with sponsorship.

The truth is, we stack up pretty well against other sports, like tennis or golf, but our demographic is a little bit different. People kind of scratch their heads and say, Ďwell, who rides bikes?í and the reality is that more people ride bikes in the US than golfers, skiers and tennis players combined, and thatís a huge untapped audience that hasnít been directed.

Weíre seeing it happen in our races in San FranciscoÖ

That race in San Francisco was great. Iím a journalist, but Iím also a huge fan of cycling, and I just had a great time that day!

Yeah, and thatís what people donít realize. Unless people have been to a race or seen a cycling event, they just canít conceive of it. They just donít know what it is! But, when they come out and see what it is what they see is something that any corporate sponsor just drools over!

Our job is to translate a real grassroots level interest in the sport to a legitimate demographic, so sponsors can say ĎYeah!í Even a five day Tennis tournament can only take 25,000 people per day in the stadium, and thatís less than a third of the fans we get in a single big bike race.

My sense of it is that fans of bike racing are likely to respond well to companies that support the sport they love.

Anheuser-Busch was sort of the first company to understand that, and they are the biggest spenders of sponsorship dollars in the world. It didnít take them long to understand that the guy who experienced their beer at a ski area, doing something he really enjoyed, would be likely to buy that product again. Thatís exactly the point, and the challenge we have: to get that across.

There are studies that show that consumers are more likely to buy a brand that is associated with something they like to do, and now our job is to prove that there is a huge audience out there who loves cycling, and that their brand preferences are going to be made accordingly.

What are you working on now to grow the sport? What are your future objectives?

The main thing that weíre working on, our number one mission, is to develop the Pro Cycling Tour over the next few years into a really definitive series of American bike races. Right now thereís USPRO week, The San Francisco Grand Prix, and weíre adding the Manhattan Grand Prix this year, which is going to be huge. Thereís also Miami, and weíd like there to be races in three or four other cities within a few years, and have that become the defined program in the United States. Then we can be able to build American personalities, and make it a meaningful series with strong media ties, sponsorship support and so on which will give the sport commercial legitimacy.

You have to sell it. You canít apologize for the sport. You have to really show sponsors what a great opportunity it is for them!

 

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