We’ve all seen the photos and videos of European cyclocross crowds, and they’re typically more than 20 times the size of the biggest crowds in the States. But less obvious is the fact that top cyclocrossers in Europe can earn 20 times what a top American cyclocrosser can earn. Multi-time National Champion and Masters World Champion Steve Tilford weighed in on this topic recently on his blog, and we’ve got the full piece below.  

by Steve Tilford

I recently saw an article that said that the Telenet-Fidea ’cross team offered Zdenek Stybar €500,000 to ride for them, plus they estimated that he would earn at least €300,000 in appearance fees and prize money, maybe more. And he turned it all down.

Zdenek Stybar is seeing rainbows © Bart Hazen

Zdenek Stybar turned down his former sponsor’s big money offer to race a full cyclocross season. © Bart Hazen / Cyclocross Magazine

Man, that is a lot of cash for a ’cross season. €800,000 is approximately $1,100,000. I very much doubt he gets paid that much to ride on the road, but what do I know about that? He did have a pretty good road season last year.

Anyway, if he did take the offer and won the prize money that Hans van Kasteren, team manager for Telenet-Fidea, estimated, then he would be for sure making more money than all the salaries off all American cyclocross racers combined. By a large margin, probably by a factor of two or three. Is that crazy to think? We have more participation in the sport of cyclocross than anywhere else in the world and one road rider in Europe can demand a salary more than all riders in the US combined.

Stybar relaxes pre-Paris-Roubaix. © Paul Burgoine

Stybar relaxes pre-Paris-Roubaix. © Paul Burgoine

As far as I can tell, only the cycling industry is cashing in on the cyclocross craze here. And I’m not so sure they are even doing that to a large degree. USAC is getting a lot more money from entries and sanctioning races. And the UCI is making a ton more money from sanctioning too, for sure. But the riders aren’t making squat.

For cyclocross to become a viable sport in the United States, there needs to be sponsorship to pay enough for a sustainable National Circuit for professionals. That isn’t the case. It has never been the case. The travel costs for flying around the country, chasing UCI points, just for lining up at races, mainly Nationals, is astronomical. So astronomical that many riders have already started to just bail on the travel and focus on their local series. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but it isn’t going to advance the sport to the next level financially. Right now Elite level ’cross racing is a just hobby for nearly every racer involved.

There are only a handful of riders in Europe who make any money racing ’cross. Most are Belgian. There is only one other guy that gets paid what they offered Stybar, and that is Sven Nys. All the other riders are on a lower level of salary, but they still make a good living racing ’cross.

Are American companies seeing value in that European audience? I was mildly surprised to read that Trek is going to sponsor Sven in 2014. Nys has been riding Colnago for as long as I can remember. And he probably gets paid a pretty penny for his bike sponsorship. Trek already puts some money in to their Trek Collective Cyclocross program, including Katie Compton, but for the money that they are paying Nys, I’d think they could have a pretty unbelievable Elite National program here in the US.

California Giant Strawberry/Specialized has a pretty good regional, more than regional, program going. I’d say they have the most consistent, best program for cyclocross the last decade. Anthony Gallino, czar of Cal Giant, is a huge supporter of the sport of cycling, plus a really nice guy. They have sponsored more up-and-coming ’cross riders, men and women, than any other program. Plus, they have awesome strawberries.

I’m not sure why Stybar gets to race ’cross and Mark Cavendish can’t race on the track, when they both race for Omega Pharma-Quick Step. That is probably because Patrick Lefevere, team manager for Omega is Belgian and probably likes cross better. Maybe he likes Stybar better too?

Cyclocross Magazine Issue 17

Read more on this topic in Issue 17: Is There Money in Cross?

I hope Stybar decides to race the World Championships in Hoogerheide this year [Stybar raced Worlds in Hoogerheide in 2009, finishing second to Niels Albert). He already has dabbled, winning his teammate Tom Boonen’s charity event again for the second year in a row. He has said that if the Worlds course isn’t muddy, then he has a higher chance of doing it. That would make the race way more interesting. I’m sure we’ll see him racing over the Christmas holiday like he has the last couple years. He sort of changes up the rhythm of the “normal Belgian” tempo of a race, which makes it more exciting to watch for afar.

Do you think cyclocross in the States will ever attract the fans, sponsors, and TV coverage it does in Belgium? And does it matter to you? Drop a comment below. 

See our in-depth Money in ’Cross article in Issue 17  for an objective look at cyclocross salaries and the sport’s financial health, both domestic and international.