The Premier Pas Dunlop. A Winning Formula

Kids riding bikes on the road.   Seems so hard nowdays?
One of the recurring laments around this wielercafe is that age old question:

Where have all the Juniors gone?

You'd think that after over a decade of American Tour de France victories, a road bike marketing explosion, and all the cycling video and content you can digest at the click of a mouse, that young guys would be eating the sport up, and lining up in droves.

Sadly, not the case.   Why?  Well, there's a lot of reasons cited, none of which fully explain it, but all likely contribute in some way.

There are some bright spots though. Read that California High School mountain bike leagues are booming.  That's very cool.  But still I wonder... where are the road racing juniors?

Case in point:  Here a benchmark:  A snapshot of Junior road racing available to teenage hopefuls in New England this year.


Any resemblance between Flahute
nd Mr.Peabody is entire coincidental
About half of these great USA cycling road events don't even run a separate Junior category race anymore.  I admit, it's somewhat a pet peeve of mine.  I understand why, it's a classic chicken-egg problem. But the trend saddens me.

Enough lamentation.  OK Flahute, it's time to climb into Mr. Peabody's 'way back machine'....

Back in the 1970's and 80's this scenario would have been unthinkable.  Or at least, not the norm.   I know.  I was there.

1978.  No cycling on TV.  But about a hundred Juniors.  
One of them racing that day in Fitchburg was named Greg.  He went on to win the Tour de France.

It was a time when we never saw cycling on TV, and had to wait till September for a small black and white newsprint Velonews or Bicycling article to get any info on what really happened in the Tour de France.  Yet despite the relative information dark age, Junior category road races and criteriums were filled.   The big criteriums- Tour of Sommerville, Hartford, Fitchburg - would see close to a hundred 16-18 year olds lined up.  The smaller regional races, anywhere from 30-60.  Almost every weekend, from April till September.

Start of the Junior Race, Fitchburg MA, 1978.
Lots of reasons get cited for the drop-off.  Post baby boom demographics, competition from more scholastic school programs, less active kids who'd rather play video games, childhood obsesity, increased danger with more traffic, and helicopter parents with real safety concerns.   And of course, the sad fact that teens just don't ride bicycles on the road that much anymore.

I think there's another reason that's the key barrier.

Accessibility.

And by accessibility, I don't mean having access to a road bike, or getting a lift to the races either.   I mean having local access to enough races, and a means to progress that doesn't break the bank.  Access to a defined pathway, to the promise of being a champion.  A pathway where there's a light at the end of a tunnel you can actually see when you enter it.

USA cycling has the Lance Armstrong Junior Race Series (LAJRS).   It's their program designed to discover and develop Junior, and now U23 talent.  The site claims120 races nationally, but right now with the season ready to roll, the series has 30 races listed on it's site, scattered all over the US.

If you're in the Northeastern US, there's one, one hour criterium in April listed that's accessible to a beleagured, non-cyclist parent with a kid interested in trying racing.   Right now, just a few weeks before the race, 7 juniors are entered.  Seven.

I'm not surprised.  If you're an average half-attracted, half-interested American teen here in Rhode Island...(or Iowa or South Carolina for that matter) of middle class to modest means, getting stuck into the LAJRS series is about as accessible as a flight to the moon.

I know.  I was that kid once.

The formula is wrong.  A way better formula would be a national race series like the one Dunlop developed in France to discover teenage talent at the beginning of the last century - the Premier Pas Dunlop.

The Premier Pas Dunlop - (that's French for Dunlop's 'first-step' or 'first time') was created by Jean Paul Ruinart of Paris' Levallois Bicycle Club and Jean Petavy.  The famed Parisian club started a series of races for debutants way, way back before the first World War in 1914.   Some good history and photos here and here.  And an INA video here.
Premier Pas Dunlop in the fifties

In 1922 with the backing of the Dunlop tire company (Irishman John Boyd Dunlop's invention of the pneumatic tire facilitated the modern safety bicycle), the series was re-formatted into a national championship for 'debutants' consisting of regional (departmental) qualifying races, and a national final.

The formula evolved over the years to become an event only open to first year licensed riders aged 16-17, becoming the de-facto Junior championship of France.

The Premier Pas formula - accessible regional races, restricted to teenage 'beginners' - qualifying for a highly publicised national finale - was wildly popular, and very successful.

The formula was simple, and worked like this:  Open only to first year licensed riders, you'd only be allowed one bite at this apple.

Local hopeful scrapes together enough equipment to race, enters the regional qualifier after a crash course of training rides with his local club, or perhaps his schoolmates.   And if he could place near the top against other rookies in the same boat, he'd be on the train to Montlhery, Montlucon.. or another venue for a highly publicized race for a red-white-blue french tricolour jersey with yellow and black stripes at the collar (the Dunlop colors).   A race that was filmed and shown in theaters on newsreels.

If you won, bada-boom.  You were a national star. Overnight.   But even if you could show well, say top 15 or so, you were on your way.   A big club would take you on.  It was, as the name advertised quite truthfully, the 'first step.'   A confirmation and affirmation of his possibilities, to his skeptical parents, to a nacent tribe of local supporters.  But most important, to himself.

And it worked.  Despite the relative poverty of the general population and the expense involved with getting a racing bicycle back then, the Premier Pas drew almost 10,000 participants in it's heyday.  The series discovered generations of French professionals... and many, many champions.
Raphael Geminiani beat Bobet to win the Premier Pas Dunlop in 1943.
(Photos from the book Raphael Geminiani, Le Grand Fusil,
La Verdique Histoire, Jean Paul Ollivier)  

Champions like pre-WWII Tour de France star Roi Rene Vietto, who competed in the final in 1931.

Nothing stopped the Premier Pas dream.  Not even the World War that stopped Le Tour.  In 1943, in the midst of the German occupation, when travel was dangerously impossible but offset by an even greater need for distraction from the misery of the daily situation, a son of Italian immigrants from Clermont Ferrand named Raphael Geminiani won the Premier Pas final.

Gem would go on to fame as a 50's Tour de France contender, Fausto Coppi's teammate, and later Jacques Anquetil's Directeur Sportif.   In that same race, a young unknown Breton named Louison Bobet rode well, finishing 6th in his first big race, on his first trip outside of his home region.  He came back home impressed not only by Gem's power, but by the fact that the cows in Montlucon were white!

Just a few Premier Pas discoveries (L to R):  Vietto, Trentin, Morelon, Martinez, Bourreau, Barteau.

French Idol.  Bernard Hinault:
Premier Pas Dunlop winner, 1972.
1961?  Won by future Olympic track champions. Pierre Trentin 1st, Daniel Morelon 3rd.  1965?   Future Tour KOM Mariano Martinez won, beating a farmboy named Bernard Thevenet into 4th place.  1968?  Future Peugeot star Bernard Bourreau lifted the bouquet.  1980?  Future Renault stars and Tour de France Maillots Jaune Vincent Barteau (1st) and Charly Mottet (3rd).

But the most famous, representative edition was in 1972, when a young long haired kid from Brittany showed up at the national final.  He didn't have real cycling socks, so he just folded down tennis socks to look the part.  But he broke away from an attentive favorite named Bernard Vallet, riding to a 30 second solo win.   Voila, champion of France.   It was the discovery of Le Blaireau, Bernard Hinault.

The Premier Pas worked because its formula was 'American Idol' for cycling hopefuls.  Scrape together a good-enough bike and do enough training to get to your local qualifier.  One day. One race.  An opportunity to qualify for a big national final.

And if you perform there... possible on a level playing field against other inexperienced first-year riders your own age... Boom.  Big time discovery, national publicity.   You could see a path to your dream.   It made stardom not just seem more attainable.    It made it actually more attainable.

Hinault in the Dunlop winners maillot, 1972. 
For decades the Premier Pas was a great coup for Dunlop, who relied on it's extensive national distribution network and publicity power to help organize and publicize the race.  It was so successful that it became the de-facto junior championship of France until 1982 when Dunlop..by then out of the bicycle tire business... stopped, and the FCC took over the event folding it into their national championship program.

No disrespect to USA cycling, or the many hard working people and promoters who put on the LAJRS, but it's not the right formula.   Racing that 'series' is not accessible to most young teens with interest, talent but modest means.  It's geared to the elite, the affluent or the family-connected.  And the road to the possibility of discovery and fame is too long, too expensive, and too undefined for American teens with short attention spans, and more accessible sports with more structure competing for their time and attention.   Camps, races, travel.  Do the math.  Unless your have a dad who's a cycling fanatic, you don't have a flippin' chance.   And even if you go, your first race will be filled with 'ringers,' with years of experience.  

A level playing field of debutants.  Low barriers to entry.  The possibility of instant gratification thanks to a crystal clear, two-step path to stardom...if you have the talent, and the will.
It's dream accessibility: That's the formula that makes American Idol work.  And made the Premier Pas Dunlop work.  And it drew many to the sport for life.

So USA Cycling czars, take note.    You've got the huge advantage with pro road cycling all over the TV, slick glossy mags on the newstands, a new slate of US Pro races, and popular emerging young stars, thanks to your programs.   But despite this, you're not building the base of the pyramid, on the road anyway.   And that's because you've got the wrong formula.  Your strategy, your product, and your marketing is all wrong.

You need a 'Premier Pas' over here.

If you're interested, just ask me.  I've got your turnkey plan to do it ready to go.

Comments

  1. I see Neil Hall (next to me) on the front line and Bobby Comeau in the Astro-Daimler jersey - the following year Bobby almost won the National RR in a solo breakaway only to be caught by Lemond in the last lap.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Good old day, eh Ted! I'm in the third row, anonymous that day, but was in there... After Thurlow Rogers soloed early, I think I remember that race was won by Ron Kiefel over Greg Demgen. All those guys coming from the Junior Worlds held in DC a week or so before. Aussie Allan Peiper was there too I think... Great race.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Eddy...
      I did two or three of those Jr races in Fitchburg. It was a very big deal back in the '70s when you, Ted, and I were
      young punks. I agree that racer development is strange. Ted and Bruce Bocksteal did it, Steve Pucci at your old club did it in spades. A lot of other things for kids to compete at these days, and cycling is expensive with all it entails.

      I offer another question. I look at the results of New England races each weekend and there are no Rhode Island Woman racing. OK...maybe one or two. But out of a 50 rider field, one RI woman?? Thoughts?

      Delete
  3. No discussion would be complete without mentioning Mike and Billy Rounds.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Ahh,I remember Mr.Rounds getting us together to get to Central Park very early.

    So there were a bunch of Jr's back then. I was one, Mike Rounds,
    Ted was one, and other good, fast kids.

    Good question Eddy, maybe the fast kids will grow up at the new track in
    South Carolina. I wish we hade one close by!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi there blast from the past Jeff Mullaley says Hi

    ReplyDelete
  6. Jeff!! How are you? Still riding I hope... check out your picture
    here... http://www.flandriacafe.com/2011/09/old-cross-dogs-never-die.html

    ReplyDelete
  7. Saw it. Living in Me. Ride in part because of gas prices. Hehe. Email me....jaminnwood@hotmail.com
    How are you

    ReplyDelete
  8. Sad but true about junior cycling. Larry wonders what the participation in ANY sport or athletic activity is in this age group vs "the good old days?" In these days of video games, etc. he would guess it's less overall. Add this to the "master's syndrome" where the elder statesmen of the US cycling world seem to care only about their own cycling with no time or interest in helping juniors discover the sport. Finally, consider the prevalent "instant expert" situation these days where few seem to actually want to LEARN anything - if it can't be mastered in fifteen minutes they're on to the next thing. As everyone who is reading this knows, cycling is not one of those activities. How many times as an old-fart have you tried to give a suggestion to a new rider about position, pacing, riding in a straight line, etc. only to be called a tyrant, curmudgeon, cranky old-fart, etc? Even someone really interested in helping juniors to learn gets tired of this kind of response quickly. With the popularity of the "new golf" as they like to say, the business of cycling is too concerned with making a profit compared to the old days. Who wants to waste time selling a junior some cheapo bike (or trying to help him or her build one?) when the rich dentist is standing there waving his credit card to buy that Pinarello with DI2?

    ReplyDelete
  9. Good idea, Ed. Need an extra pair of hands to get it going?

    The juniors in our section of NE, when I was involved, were coming from 2 primary places.

    First, the prep schools were racing, and the adults working with them were very good at extending those local riders into the USCF season.

    Second, the BMX racers from the Attleboros were getting older and looking to continue their love of competition. PJ Moore, anyone?

    The presence of so many younger riders worked well with the then-marketing being done through E Providence Cycle's Rob Foulkes. It was a market differentiator.

    Add the dedication of Barry Spadea, Paul Domingue and Ted Furtado to that...and you had something sustainable. Chuck Harris figures in there as well.

    The families that grew up racing bicycles-the Rounds brothers and Attleboro's Hall brothers-added a continuity and tone further assisting things.

    None of that explains Eric Jacobsen, Bill Yabroudy, Jon DiPippo,Tom Ghillarducci et al, except that for them, juniors provided an outlet for competition and betterment.

    That said, BMX racing still exists, and kids still grow out of it looking for new challenges. I suspect we forget to go out and make the grassroots efforts independent of the national organizations; make the effort to actively look for talent.

    Mike Rounds, Ted Lewandowski and Neil Hall all had someone identify their abilities and support them best they could. It's an expensive sport, certainly, and all-consuming if done well.

    I have a greater and deeper appreciation for a Fred Mengoni each year.

    ReplyDelete
  10. A question to Larry and Heather...

    I work with young kids everyday. I isn't easy. Finding the kids who am interested
    in whatever you are selling...key.

    I was a kid who was eager, hungry. You need to be into it. Hard sport, talent and disire. Rare.

    ReplyDelete
  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Gotta weigh on this topic since I'm also in the Fitchburg photo (Jim Trudeau, NEBC/Motobecane top left next to Jeff Slack (I think- obscured) and Chet G behind me. Lots of other familiar faces in there. As a sprinter, loved these 10-15-20 mile junior crits, (and hated the never-ending 50 mile/2-hour senior crits that followed!). We were lucky to race in that era.

    Ed's national "Bill Koch league" for cyclists would help, but I think cycling growth as a participant sport is better started later (college/post college) where funding and responsibility are more available. Road cycling is generally too expensive, too equipment/mechanical aptitude requiring, too spread out, too dangerous (on road training) for most knucklehead teens. I've got a teen son now, and have enough exposure to his peers to know that most can't deal with the self-reliant nature of the sport. If a coach is yelling at them, driving them, scheduling them they do okay. But without this they are late, lost or even forget uniforms and gear! Mountain biking's (and cx) self contained courses and training areas avoid some of the trouble and dangers, and provide more expressive, technical options that appeal to teens.

    My son did win his first ECV-orgsnized kids bike race (at age 5 or 6!) but there are many more losers in each race. I've seen several NEBC and ECV kids races and poor performances are obvious (kids finish way back) and they suffer it alone. They also crash and get hurt. Some kids are engaged, but more are turned off. My son also did Bill Koch league XC skiing: lots of fun activities, but at once a week it was hard to bond as a team. Junior cycling suffers this also, even in the late 70s with relatively lots of racers, your team/friends were usually several towns away and I trained solo most of the time.

    Perhaps with the rise of bike commuter culture, we'll see more embracing of the road by families and kids. Most kids don't ride around the neighborhood like they used too.

    ReplyDelete

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