Sunday, October 6, 2013

Ultramarathon Cycling's Demographic Problem

The author rides the Davis Double, circa 1985.
Ultramarathon cycling is aging, and unless the sport somehow convinces younger riders to take up the sport, demographics will catch up with our beloved double centuries and randonneuring events with disastrous consequences.

That's the unfortunate message that can be gleaned from the stats for riders in ultradistance cycling events.

Example: Statistics published by the California Triple Crown, which for 24 years has tracked the average age of the riders who finish the CTC series each year (completing at least three 200-mile "double century" rides). When the CTC started in 1990, the average age of a finisher in the series was 35. By 2013, the average age has risen to almost 51.

The figure mirrors the demographics for members of Randonneurs USA, the US organization for randonneuring. RUSA's members average 49.76 years of age; male RUSA members are slightly older (50.19), while female RUSA members are slightly younger (47.80).

Statistics for Paris-Brest-Paris, the most famous long-distance event in the worldwide randonneuring circuit, tell a similar story. In the most recent running of PBP in 2011, the average age of a finisher was 48.7 years of age. Male finishers in 2011 averaged 49.0; females 45.4.

The median age in the US in 2013, by comparison, is 37.1. The average age of U.S. men in 2013, by the way, is even lower--35.8 years.

Using that measure (because ultramarathon cyclists are overwhelmingly male), the average age of a long-distance cyclist is almost 16 years older than men as a whole in the U.S.

Why is this? It's probably true that other types of cycling--mountain biking, racing, etc.--appeal more to younger riders and attract younger participants. Long-distance cycling demands a measure of endurance and patience that many younger cyclists don't have. It's also expensive--the average double century now costs more than $100 to enter, and most require travel and overnight stays. All told, one ride can easily cost $500 or more. Many of the younger cyclists that we know can't afford that kind of scratch.

The author at the 2013 Davis Double
But that doesn't explain why the CTC managed to attract such a young crowd in 1990 (35 years of age, at a time when the US median age was 32.9). What was different then that a group of riders almost half the age as the current crop took part in the events? And what can CTC--and other ultramarathon groups--do to bring younger riders into the fold?

There are some bright spots. In 1990, the CTC had only 33 finishers. Last year (this year's season isn't over yet), there were 515. That's partly due to the larger number of double centuries to choose from (just six in 1990 and 24 this year), and partly due to the growing awareness of the series. Still, CTC participation peaked in 2007 with 555 finishers, and has exceeded 500 only two years since then.

We're interested in your take on this issue. Let us know what you would to do increase participation in ultramarathon cycling in the comments below.


  1. I do fewer doubles now because I have more cycling events competing for my time. I volunteer on two doubles every year, volunteer on numerous brevets every year, and yes, I also ride numerous brevets every year now. I ride maybe 1.5 doubles (one year two, the next year one it seems) a year when back in 07 and before I was more likely to ride 3 doubles a year. So, While still riding long events, I've actually contributed to the decline of CTC numbers by riding fewer of those events.

  2. The CTC stat that I'm most interested in is median age. Those who *do* finish the series are getting older, and they're getting older than the US as a whole at a rapid pace.

  3. Median age is only one part of the story: it's an important part but not the full story. For example, it can be heavily influenced by year-to-year retention, which can be a good thing. To get a fuller picture, you might want to know what's been happening to 1) the overall growth rate; and 2) the ages of new first-time participants?

    Which is not to say you shouldn't be worried.

  4. Good point. Perhaps RUSA or CTC has that information. It's certainly worth looking into.

  5. The CTC group is getting older, but a lot of that many of us are the same people who started doing doubles 10 or 20 years ago. We keep doing them because it is an obsession and every year we get older......New people are coming in when they recognize the joy of it all. We do need to reach out to them after they finish their first century.

  6. Don't worry. 650b is hip now. Sooner or later people will get bored of riding around the mission and figure out you can actually ride to other places.

  7. Who was the blogger who, just the other day, was bragging that he'd completed 24 straight CTCs? (Could have been CampyOnlyGuy?) In that 24 years, the average age of finishers has only grown from 35 to 51, instead of the 59 straight aging of the population would suggest. Sounds like there's some younger people coming in from somewhere?

  8. Yes, that was me. And yes, there seems to be some influx of younger riders to somewhat offset the aging of the group of participants. The progression toward an overall older roster of ultradistance riders, however, continues apace. There is something going on (other than guys like me sticking around year after year) that an event (the CTC) with an average age of 35 in 1990 now has an average age of 51. Keep in mind that, of the 3,835 riders who have been CTC finishers since 1990, only about 90 have finished 10 or more times. That's only 2.3% of the total participants--probably not enough to sway the numbers that much. Interesting to note that the youngest rider in the 10-or-more CTC finishing list is currently 44; a surprising number are in their 70s. It's necessary to go all the way down the stats to the 209th rank to find a rider young than 40 (he finished 6 CTC series, most recently in 2011)

  9. My tongue firmly in my cheek (sort of)

    The younger riders are:
    1. Concerned that their Garmin GPS only has 7 hours of battery life and the ride takes 10 hours so they might get lost on the way back home

    2. They know that the best speeds are obtained by cyclist that change gears at least 14.7 times every 15 minutes because some guy named Science-bike-Rider on a blog told them so based upon a computer model created on an old Commodore 64 and that means that their Di2 will not have enough charge to finish and everyone knows that it is just nearly impossible to ride cable shifted bikes, only fools would try.

    3. They are concerned that they will go someplace that is not within their wi-fi network and their cellphone won't work

    4. Their really comfortable riding position with the handlebars 9 inches below the saddle cause their hands to go numb after 45 minutes because they only spent $17,568.99 on the cheaper carbon fork

    5. The ride requires lights and those add several ounces to their bike making it weight more 14 pounds and everyone knows you can't possibly climb a hill on a 15 pound bike.

    6. The ride takes 12 hours. How can anyone go that long without updating their Facebook, posting twitter or checking their Email. OMG WTF LOL PEP HWT KKK MMM

    7. They don't want to have to explain why all those old guys on heavy steel bikes that they would consider too heavy, to low tech and too boring finish 3 hours before they do.

  10. You're missing the point. The age distribution in no way suggests an issue with the persistence of the sport. Younger people are simply disproportionally represented because they are less suited for (and less interested in) the sport. A review of the RUSA membership shows that older riders are more common (median age around mid 40s). The people who do the higher end events 1200K etc are also older. Ultra cycling takes lots of time and a surprising amount money- that favors older people. It also takes a degree of mental development to sustain the effort. I personally know very few 20 somethings that have the mental capacity to suffer for 4 days to complete a randonee. In fact I enjoyed the comment of one 1200K rider: "young people don't ride the sport because they haven't learned how to suffer: they've never had to endure a marriage and raising kids, they've never had a 30yr mortgage...." And older riders will tend to be attracted to endurance events- power declines w/ aging but the capacity for endurance persists and in some cases improves with age (never mind it's easier on the knees). It can be argued that the capacity to ride extreme distances (and enjoy the experience) comes from cumulative riding over many years. The high end 1200K riders that I know have been riding -many competitively- for decades. The flip side of that observation- in following DNF patterns in our club (and tossing records related to mechanicals), there's a trend for younger riders to abandon more frequently and are less likely to attempt 400k and longer events (giving support that the foundation of broad experience is important in being successful in the sport as well as the capacity to be stubborn!!)

    1. My question remains: If the average age for double century riders was so much lower in 1990 than it is today, what was different? In that year, younger riders were a much larger percentage of the overall group (resulting in the lower average age). What has changed since then? Why are today's younger riders less likely to take part in ultra distance events? How can we get the average age trend to start going down?

  11. Look at the average of the United States in that time.
    The whole nation is growing older.

    1. Yes, but ultramarathon cyclists as a group are much, much older than the U.S. population as a whole. In 1990, the ultra community (as measured by the CTC finishers) was more or less the same average as the entire population. We are aging faster than the overall population, which is a problem I think the ultra community needs to address.

  12. Perhaps it's a gradual rejection of the "if some is good, more must be better" idea so prevalent in the US of A? A century ride was always enough for Larry back-in-the-day and rides beyond this distance had zero appeal. An ideal day for me is riding a couple of hours before and a couple of hours after a nice lunch in the countryside. But what do I know, I put quality before quantity in pretty much everything.

  13. Ultra are very expensive,I can race a crit /RR for 30 bucks and ultras are 100s of dollars and some you need a support crew than theres the product you need to have like lites and food and than the travel time to get to them. Most youngster just dont have the funds and theres not much glamour either.