Are 'fan first' spectator friendly crits the future for bike racing?

Two races in, we've seen how the new racing format stacks up to traditional races, and I'm hopeful

Scenes from the NCL Cup's second race in Denver, Colo, on August 13, 2023
(Image credit: Snowy Mountain Photography)

The National Cycling League (US), in its debut year, has already made serious waves in American cycling with its cohort of all-star investors and new, fan-first racing format.

The race format is unlike anything we're used to. These criterium-like races take place in spectator-friendly, urban centers where co-ed teams compete for points every single lap over the course of two races — a women's race and a men's race. Points aggregate from one race to the next, and the team that has amassed the most points at the end of the afternoon wins the race. Due to its high-pace nature, teams may substitute riders as often as they want. There are no individual winners, only a winning team. 

By reinventing what American bike racing looks like, the NCL aims to reignite cycling fandom in the United States. But is it working? After watching the series opener from home, I went to the Denver NCL Cup race to see if the NCL is indeed changing cycling. 

     | Miami Nights take the win at a thrilling Denver NCL Cup

Scenes from the NCL Cup's second race in Denver, Colo, on August 13, 2023

A battle for the line at the NCL's second race in Denver, Colo, on August 13, 2023

(Image credit: Snowy Mountain Photography)

Denver certainly delivered on some exciting racing. The tension between the Denver Disrupters and Miami Nights was palpable, and the small point differential made for some fascinating racing. When the teams are only separated by a few points, every single lap of the race feels extremely important. This is something unique to the NCL's format, and it does make the races more interesting. Often in traditional criterium racing, there are lulls and many laps where nothing significant happens. At the NCL races, there are never any lulls as sprints take place every lap. The pit and unlimited rider substitution also contributes to this as riders can come straight to the front after resting, making the race extremely fast. In turn, it also makes the racing extremely hard for the riders, and I witnessed many riders fall off the back of the pack, unable to keep up with the pace. As a bike racer myself, I can appreciate the effort that a race like this demands of a rider. But what do the fans along the sidelines think? Were they entertained?

I went in search of spectators who weren't bike racers or cycling fans — simply locals who'd heard about the event and decided it'd be a nice way to spend a summer afternoon. They enjoyed the racing but needed a little bit more context.

“The format is super fun to watch, the pits are super fun to watch, I just think a little bit more clarity will help people understand more,” I was told.  

Scenes from the 2023 Miami Inventional, the inaugural National Cycling League.

Fans crowd the course at the NCL's opener in Miami in April 2023

(Image credit: Gabriel Diaz)

After its opener event in Miami in April, the NCL took some feedback to heart and made some changes to the points awarded on the final lap of the race. In both the women's and men's race, the final sprint of the race had felt anti-climactic. There simply weren't enough points on offer to make a real difference in the standings. 

This changed ahead of the Denver race, with winner of the last lap now earning a whopping 30 points for their team — 10 times the amount of winning a standard lap — and a potential game changer for the race outcome.

In my opinion, this completely changed the excitement and delivered a thrilling finale in Denver. 

But while the riders delivered, the venue did not.  Leading up to the NCL Cup in 2023, fans were promised an activity-filled weekend in the hearts of America's biggest cities. This simply wasn't true in Denver. 

The race took at the Dicks Sporting Goods stadium, an out-of-town location that was little more than a glorified parking lot.  One could not see or access one side of the course, and the pit, where the rider exchanges happen, was quite far away from the main spectator area.

And unlike at a traditional criterium race, there were no amateur categories —save for a single junior 15-18 race— preceding the pro races. So there is little else to watch and no reason to show up before the pro race starts. While there was an expo area, it was relatively small and offered no food options for those who didn't pay for the VIP pass — another big drawback of the location outside of town.

Spectators really had to know about the race and make plans to get to the stadium to watch the race as opposed to stumbling into the race if it was downtown or somewhere with more foot traffic. Because of that, there was a limited amount of spectators compared to a race like Tulsa Tough, which gets an enormous crowd.

The smaller crowd was, however, undoubtedly entertained and enthusiastically supported the racers.

“It’s pretty spectator-friendly as a setup. It’s fun to watch, the athleticism of these guys is really great to watch,” a spectators commented.

It is not all negatives though. A standout feature on site was the large screen showing live footage of the race and the live points totals, as well as the top three riders scoring points each lap. The pit had a second screen so team directors could keep track and spectators on that side of the course could keep up with the action. They did have plenty of camera angles and drone footage following the race, which is more than most criteriums in the U.S. and was great to see.

The NCL is clearly putting a lot into their race live streams. Talking to NCL founder Paris Wallace, I learned that improvements were made there since the first race as well.

“The expectation was that the quality of the broadcast went way up, we learned a lot in Miami about a lot of things but we expect to break the viewership numbers from Miami," said Wallace. 

For reference, more than 400,000 unique viewers interacted with their Miami content, so the bar certainly set high.

The GCN+ stream provides a massive global platform for the NCL to promote the new racing format. Talking to spectators we asked them if coming to the race would make them more interested in watching the live streams of future races.

“I think I am more likely to after coming to this, because now I have a sense of what is happening. You have to appreciate what it is like in person to spend time watching it otherwise," one commented.

Overall, it was a thoroughly enjoyable event, with exciting racing and storylines from the series. The points system does provide constant tension and keeps spectators interested the whole race as it builds towards that final lap and its big point value on offer. Despite early critiques, the NCL, to me, doesn't feel like a gimmick but rather a new form of racing. The racers seemed to feel the same and enjoyed learning the ins and outs  and the tactics to succeed in this format.  

A canceled race, venue changes, a new CEO. The NCL certainly has had its struggles this season, but I am inclined to cut them some slack. As a first-year organization, it will experience some growing pains as it sorts out how to fit into the American cycling scene, but I see the potential for NCL to stick around. With some recent new investors, the NCL looks to be securing its next season, where hopefully, It can improve on what was learned from this year and continue to push the boundaries of what bike racing could be.

More on the NCL

- After a 4-month wait, the NCL continues in Denver this weekend - here's what to expect

- Is the National Cycling League in trouble already?

- A cancelled race and new CEO - big changes at the National Cycling League after just one race

- The National Cycling League made its anticipated debut over the weekend, but were we entertained?

- Denver Disruptors dominate National Cycling League debut race

- Fan-first, gamified bike racing: the NCL readies for its debut as domestic teams get on board

- L39ION of LA and The Miami Blazers have no intention to partake in the National Cycling League

- The newly formed National Cycling League: a gimmick or the future of American bike racing?

- The National Cycling League announces its first teams, stacked with internationally known talent

- NBA All-Star Bradley Beal and NFL pros pump $7.5m into the new US cycling league

- The National Cycling League announces a $1 Million dollar prize purse

- Inaugural US National Cycling League could see fans virtually racing the pros in 2023

- Why American cycling needs a new Greg Lemond or - whisper it - Lance Armstrong

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Henry Lord

Henry Lord is a Cycling Weekly Intern. He grew up in southern Maine and was introduced to mountain biking by his dad. Lord grew up racing mountain bikes and cyclocross across the East Coast as well as downhill and XC skiing. He moved out west to Durango, Colorado to start college at Fort Lewis, where in the last two years he has focused on road racing in addition to studying Communication design and marketing.