Title: American Pro – The True Story of Bike Racing in America
Author: Jamie Smith
What it is: The story of a minor-league American cycling team and its rise from the domestic to the continental ranks
Strengths: Like Daniel Lee’s The Belgian Hammer it’s a look at the less glamorous side of American cycling
Weaknesses: Unlike Daniel Lee’s The Belgian Hammer I’m not sure Smith ever worked out who his book was aimed at and what story he was really telling
Matt Curin had a dream. Watching the Tour de France one year – the book doesn’t say which year or what stage, but I’d guess it must have been one of the duller of both – he dreamed he ran a cycling team.
As a 15-year-old the year Greg LeMond did that incredible comeback thing, Curin had been racing in Detroit. A decade later he’d graduated from the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy and was working for a Swedish-American pharmaceutical company, Pharmacia:
“Once established in his role at the Pharmacia offices in Kalamazoo, Michigan, he took his first steps through the looking glass in an attempt to push his dream into reality. He sent emails to anyone in the organisation with ‘marketing’ in their title asking them for money to fund a cycling team. He stopped short of begging, but he didn’t stop until he finally found someone willing to earmark $15,000 from the public relations budget – enough to fund a five-person team consisting of four men and one woman who raced as amateurs throughout the Midwest.”
The first iteration of this Pharmacia-sponsored team carried the name of one of the company’s products, an incontinence drug, Detrol LA. That was 2001. The next year, the budget grew to $60,000 and the name on the jersey changed to the corporate identity, Pharmacia. The team folded just a few months into the cycling season, after Pharmacia was bought by Pfizer and the new owners pulled the funding.
In the UK and the US, approximately 20% of small business start-ups fail in their first year. About a third fail to make it to the end of their second year.
Shortly after the Pfizer takeover, Curin quit Pharmacia for the long-established American firm, Lilly. Once he’d got comfortable there, he did the email thing again. And scored another $60,000. Only not for a racing team: Lilly only wanted a corporate cycling club. So the dream got parked.
After eight years with Lilly, Curin joined a relatively new Japanese pharmaceutical company, Astellas. Where the email thing scored him another $60,000. And this time he was allowed to spend it on the dream of a racing team. Thus was born the Astellas Cycling Team, whose story is told in Jamie Smith’s American Pro.
In the UK and the US, approximately 50% of small business start-ups will have folded within five years.
After five years of racing, with forty-something men having raced in the team’s colours, the Astellas team folded toward the end of 2016. In November 2015 the company had informed Curin that 2016 was the last year they’d sponsor the team, by which time they were committed to chipping in $500,000. That sort of notice, it’s a luxury not a lot of teams get, a full year to hustle up new funding. And five years with the one title sponsor, that’s just one year shy of the longest Jonathan Vaughters has managed to hold on to a title sponsor: it’s not to be sneezed at.
The $500,000 expected for their final season, that actually only amounted to $350,000 after Pharmacia decided to cut its funding early:
“The team was dejected, depressed, demoralized. They understood how the business end of the sport worked and that Astellas’s decision was well within their rights. But still they felt disgusted with the state of the sport in general and its reliance upon a funding framework that doesn’t truly work. It was the bane of cycling’s existence, and now their lives were directly affected by it.”
A funding framework that doesn’t truly work. Bet you ain’t heard that one before.
“Where the model for sponsorship of American cycling got its start is difficult to pinpoint. As late as the 1980s, local clubs were very simple: a collection of enthusiasts banding together and wearing very plainly designed wool jerseys with just a few words embroidered or heat-transferred on the front and back. Around the time of the 1984 Olympics, which were the first Games to use corporate sponsorship extensively and conspicuously, and the rise in popularity of Greg LeMond in 1986, corporate logos became commonplace. When fabric sublimation techniques replaced embroidery and heat-transfer, it became easy to create a jersey that looked like the pro teams. No one ever asked ‘Should we?’ They just did. Suddenly, cyclists had an empty billboard to sell to anyone interested, and they adopted the model that cycling had borrowed from the European peloton, which they knew very little about before the arrival of Greg LeMond.”
Colour me confused here, but in the little bit of cycling history I’ve read, back on the days of Albert Pope – back in bike racing’s early years in America – riders were sponsored by the major marques of the day. Sponsorship, it’s not something that only arrived in America with fabric sublimation techniques, it’s not something that was imported from Europe. It’s part of American cycling’s DNA. But here, here Smith is serving up a story of those perfidious Europeans hoisting their failed capitalist model on the good old US of A.
Save the laughter, cause this one gets better. For the solution to cycling’s failed funding framework is a dose of good old fashioned American socialism:
“Oddly enough, the little-known summertime activity of competitive drum and bugle corps has some interesting parallels to cycling. Competing corps traverse the country at enormous expense to perform before crowds of wildly enthusiastic followers from June to August. Participants live a monklike existence as they train long hours for 11-minute performances. They endure long bus rides and extended time away from their families in order to pursue their passion. And, just like cycling, it’s an activity that the outside world doesn’t really understand.
“The glaring difference is that the top drum corps have operating budgets of $2 million with no reliance upon financial sponsors whatsoever. The smaller corps have budgets of more than triple that of the Astellas team. Granted, tickets are sold at each of their performances, but gate receipts make up only a portion of their annual budget. The largest portion comes from donations as well as grassroots fundraising such as bingo, casino nights, and souvenir sales. They recruit dedicated volunteers to run their fundraising programs.
“It takes a full-time effort to fulfil the budget requirements, but the model is sustainable, free from the woes of fleeting sponsorships, and focused on building up a dedicated fan base.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the funding model Jamie Smith thinks cycling in America should be adopting: pan-handling and gambling. Totes profesh.
You’ll have to excuse my cynicism here, but that profound insight into how cycling’s economic model can be reinvented comes two hundred pages into American Pro, after chapters that talk you through season one of the Astellas team, season two of the Astellas team, season three of the Astellas team, season four of the Astellas team, season five of the Astellas team. Three chapters per season, all the forty-something different riders introduced to you, many of the races and road-trips reported on. If you’ve ever tried reading Game of Thrones episode recaps without actually watching any of it, it’s kind of like that: names come and names go, races come and races go, it all just becomes a bit of blur and really rather boring. Even when the dragons come in. And – spoiler alert! – there’s no dragons in American Pro. Instead, we get the trade dispute from the Star Wars prequels, with impressive insights such as that the “phenomenon of amateur club sponsorship is somewhat unique to cycling.” Really? I’ll tell that one to my local GAA club.
From The Bad News Bears to American Flyers Hollywood has taken stories of little-teams-that-tried and turned them if not into box office gold, then certainly into something good enough to while away a wet Sunday afternoon on the sofa. They do it by focusing on characters, telling stories about people. A day after finishing American Pro I couldn’t recall the name of even one of the forty-odd riders the Astellas team had on its rosters over the course of five seasons. American Pro – despite its rather obvious nod to the lesser of Steve Tesich’s two cult cycling films – doesn’t do character.
What does it do? Well, for the first 50 pages, it does the business studies manual thing, teaching MBA-aspirants about cycling:
“Pro Continental Teams (PCTs) make up the second tier of pro cycling somewhat akin to baseball’s Triple-A league. The requirements set forth by the UCI are less stringent at the Pro Continental level. Bank guarantees and minimum wages are lower. Staffing requirements are fewer. There are PCT teams that are very bit as major league as their WT counterparts, with high salaries, fancy buses, big-name riders, and the ability to give schwag to fans, while other PCT teams barely make the minimums and must weigh every expenditure.”
Smith does try to leaven the thing with humour, even MBA-aspirants need a laugh, but the set-up required shows he doesn’t think actual cyclists are part of American Pro’s target audience:
“In June  a handful of riders were invited to take part in the Astellas expo booth at the ASCO conference, a four-day oncology conference held in McCormick Place in Chicago. They would ride on rollers at the booth while a video was projected onto the wall behind them. Rollers are like a treadmill for bikes with three rotating drums, meaning they are not easy to master. The ever-present risk of rolling off the side and launching oneself into a television, couch, or piano leads most cyclists to use a stationary trainer when riding indoors.”
So if the audience isn’t actual cyclists, who is the audience? It’s not those MBA students, the facts and figures dry up quickly and the sponsorship conundrum, while clearly being central to Smith’s thinking, really only tops and tails the story of the team’s five seasons and – I may have already mentioned this number before – the forty-something riders we have to get introduced to, give a fig about, and quickly forget once they’ve moved on.
The fact is, I don’t know who is the audience for American Pro. And I don’t think Smith does either. A carny barker at races in America, Smith seems to think that all you need to do is loose a stream-of-conscious run-through of the team’s diary, liberally laced with superlatives and clichés, all served with a side order of an inchoate argument about sponsorship, and presto, you’ve got a story that’ll keep the reader engaged. As American Pro clearly demonstrates, it doesn’t work like that.