Cyclists are professional athletes. They ride bicycles to make money. Professional
cyclists can compete in different types of events, including road racing,
mountain bike racing, track, cyclocross and bicycle motocross (BMX).
Their main duty is to race bikes to win cash prizes and gain sponsorships.
To do this, the cyclists have to be in tip-top shape and stay that way by
doing lots of training.
Riders also do plenty of public relations. For example, they may attend
bike shows on behalf of their sponsors or be featured in sponsor advertising.
"There is more to being a pro than racing fast around a track," explains
pro BMX racer Matt Pohlkamp.
"Pros have sponsors that we represent. That means displaying a good image
being the best person and role model that we can be. There are a lot of kids
that look up to us and it's our job to set a good example for them."
There are two main types of pro cyclists -- team racers and free agents.
Team racers ride as part of a team, which is typically sponsored by several
big companies. Most pro cyclists are on teams, be they club teams or national
teams. Apprenticing riders typically race on club teams. Team riders earn
a salary and also get a portion of any prize money, which is split between
Free agents, or "independents," pay their own way, relying on prize money
to support their race careers. Riders often compete as free agents so they
can attract offers from racing teams. Those on teams are paid salaries and
receive benefit packages, such as medical and dental coverage.
Professional cyclists train about 25 hours per week and ride more than
16,000 miles per year, depending on their type of event. They race 80 to 100
days a year, spending eight to 10 months on the race circuit.
Racing season is usually March through September, but racers can find races
year-round if they try.
Professional cycling is an international sport. So, traveling around the
world to compete is a must for every pro cyclist. This means they can spend
almost as much time on an airplane as on a bike.
"I've traveled all over the world because of BMX racing," says Matt Pohlkamp.
"I usually race around 15 events a year. BMX has taken me to Japan, France,
Brazil, Puerto Rico and Colombia just to name a few."
This is an extremely difficult sport at which to make a living. Few riders
actually sign contracts every year. As in any sport, however, there is always
room for those with talent, ambition and a willingness to work. That's according
to Pierre Hutsebaut, past race director for a cycling association.
Professional racing is a full-time commitment, says Frank Sanders of the
U.S. Cycling Federation. He says some racers also maintain jobs outside racing
until they commit to the sport full time. But even then, training needs to
be a priority.
Income depends on the calibre of team you are racing on and how well you
perform individually and as a team. The money in racing is only great for
a few top racers, so don't expect to retire from racing and never have to
Pohlkamp currently makes his living BMX racing. But he also plans for the
"When I'm finished racing, I plan to put more energy into a family business
that we have been working on getting going for a while. A lot of retired BMX
racers have been known to stay within the industry in some capacity such as
marketing for companies within our sport."
The pro cycling world is a highly structured one. It is overseen by various
authorities. In the U.S., there are a number of organizations that act as
the governing bodies of amateur and professional racing, both road and off-road.
These include: the U.S. Cycling Federation (USCF), the National Off-Road
Bicycle Association (NORBA), the National Collegiate Cycling Association (NCCA)
and the U.S. Professional Racing Organization (USPRO).
Racers who choose to compete in Europe must first complete an unofficial
apprenticeship. Europeans are only granted professional licenses if they are
on a sponsored team. Teams are sponsored by large corporations such as banks,
insurance companies and sports manufacturers. Getting on a team isn't easy.
"You have to prove yourself. You've got to have enough top three finishes
and place consistently before you're going to get sponsorship," says former
road racing pro Ron Hayman.
"I strongly recommend that riders don't try to skip a step. Work through
the categories, spend some time in an apprenticeship. Make sure you have what
it takes to become a professional racer.
"I've seen too many racers skip steps and then come back from Europe --
disillusioned after they don't do well -- and quit the sport altogether."
One thing that's always changing in the cycling world is gear and the technology.
The biggest recent changes have been in mountain biking equipment, says Kevin
Eccles. Eccles works with a company that manages some of the professional
road and mountain bike teams. New gear means a smoother ride and more capable