The inaugural season for the National Cycling League and its invitation-only criterium series, the NCL Cup, comes to a climax in Atlanta, Georgia this weekend. The two league-owned teams have dominated thus far, Denver Disruptors and Miami Nights, and only 18 points separate the squads going into the grand finale.
There are no chances for any of the other eight co-ed teams to catch the two, the Miami Nights leading with one race to go. Goldman Sachs ETFS Racing (women)/ Texas Roadhouse Cycling Team (men) secured third place in Denver last week, and they are 248 points away from second-placed Denver Disruptors.
It is a runaway two-team showdown for Atlanta, much like a Super Bowl title or a College Football Playoff national championship, both hosted by Atlanta in the past. The ‘ATL’ has become a magnet for men’s and women’s professional sports and the NCL wants to be part of the headlines and win fans in the deep South and across the US.
“Atlanta has a wonderful bike community. I’ve seen Atlanta in our forecasts and plans in the future moving forward,” Andrea Pagnanelli, CEO of the National Cycling League, told Cyclingnews in an exclusive one-on-one interview. “You know, we’re sitting here on Tuesday, August 15, coming off of another successful event in Denver. The first race of the season [had] 20,000 people on site, a $20 million impact to Miami Beach. You know, that’s been a testament to what we’re able to do with other cities. Our goal moving forward is city-based teams and city-based events.”
Ten coed-teams completed contracts with the League in the spring to vie for history as the league looks to revolutionise pro cycling with new scoring, allows rider substitutions, integrated technology, competition for mixed-gender teams and the first league with majority ownership represented by women and minority leaders. Back in the spring, there were four events and a $1 million purse for any one co-ed team to sweep the series, the Quadruple Crown.
But was the crescendo of the series in Miami? The first race was certainly a high mark for pre-race hype, estimated crowd size, economic impact and lofty goals for a $1 million bonus for one co-ed team. But it was reduced to a three-stop series when Washington D.C. was cancelled for September, the $1 million disappeared and now it is a two-team contest.
“We’ve captured people’s imagination, I think. Change is always exciting, but also confusing. And so I think once people have seen our first race and our first events on April 8, a lot more is going to be clear,” Paris Wallace, league co-founder and president, told Cyclingnews in a final week of planning for the debut.
Pagnanelli confirmed that any start-up has growing pains, and the NCL has tried to stay flexible. They listened to feedback from teams in April and changed the scoring system for the final two events to make it ‘more fan friendly’. So now the qualifier events represent 10% of the total scoring, and points are handed out to the top three riders on all laps of the race, with the final lap worth 30% of the total on offer, which was 30 points in Denver. That’s a drastic difference from no points in qualifiers and just 9 points for the final lap leader.
“Changes to the scoring system make it more fan-friendly. They’re scoring now consists of 10% of points with qualifier 60% of points for all laps besides the final lap, and 30% of points for the final lap,” Pagnanelli said.”[We wanted to] make it more simple for the average fan to watch and understand what was happening.”
That formula worked in Denver, as both the men’s and women’s races came down to final-lap sprints, each won by the Miami Nights.
The Atlanta race, which had been pencilled for a downtown venue on April 8, was moved eight miles south of the city centre to the Porsche Experience Center on August 20, placing it directly after the weekend in Denver as the series finale. The races on August 20 require a VIP Hospitality purchase, but fans can follow remotely on the NCL Twitter account and on GCN+.
The final NCL Cup qualifying event will take place on August 19 at 6 p.m. at Bearings Bike Works, a non-profit community partner. This event is free for all spectators. Bearings Bike Works, a non-profit organisation headquartered in southwest Atlanta, gives young people the opportunity to earn their own bikes while also developing essential skills for transitioning successfully into adulthood and the workforce.
The fledgling NCL launched over the winter with a star-studded cast of investors which helped generate $7.5million in funding, among them Jalen Ramsey of the Los Angeles Rams, Derwin James of the Los Angeles Chargers, Kevin Byard of the Tennessee Titans, former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho, to name a few. In the summer, they added additional investments from NBA’s Kevin Durant, ESPN college football analyst Desmond Howard, and DraftKings CEO Jason Robins. There is money, now the plans are ramping up for 2024.
“Looking at cities where we have teams is always a priority, but very much in an RFP [request for proposal] process with other cities, to see what’s possible, and where we can really make our goals come to life,” Pagnanelli said.
“And our goals are two things, the priorities I mentioned – safe race, broadcasts, fan engagement and on budget – and the other is staying true to our core pillars, which is diversity, community, sustainability and innovation. As we work through the budget for the year, making those decisions is always very clear.”
She said a competition schedule and any format changes will not be announced for some time. They will work with other criterium organisations across the country, such as the American Criterium Cup, for an agreeable calendar, for instance.
“The goal of innovating within sports is to build on tradition not to completely disrupt it,” she added. “And so what we’re trying to do is build on those values with innovation, and community, and taking what has worked in traditional sports, from a format standpoint, and where sports content is going, and bring that into the sport of cycling.”