The Premier Pas Dunlop. A Winning Formula
|Kids riding bikes on the road. Seems so hard nowdays?|
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
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.|
I think there's another reason that's the key barrier.
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 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.
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.
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.|
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.