Professional road cycling is returning to Colorado in 2023 as part of a new series boasting a $1 million payout.
The National Cycling League (NCL) is planning to roll out four criterium races in Denver, Atlanta, Miami and Washington, D.C. And the overall prize purse for men and women will be the largest in U.S. crit racing history.
“Creating the next generation sports community starts with valuing the athletes and their contributions to the fan experience,” Paris Wallace, co-founder and CEO of the venture, said in a news release. “The $1 million purse is just one component of a comprehensive infrastructure designed to equitably support and reward top male and female professional athletes."
Billing itself as the first pro sports league in the U.S. that is majority-minority and female owned, the NCL will offer equal pay for men and women. Three National Football League stars — Jalen Ramsey, Kevin Byard and Derwin James — have invested in the cycling series.
Ten teams, including two created by the NCL, will compete in each city's invitational on a downtown criterium course that involves multiple laps on a road course. Points are awarded after each lap, encouraging intense racing on a layout littered with tight corners.
The fan experience will be markedly different from Colorado's most recent brushes with the sport.
In 2011, the USA Pro Challenge launched in Colorado Springs with much fanfare, as elite male cyclists from around the world arrived for seven days of stage racing. The field of more than 100 riders included former winners of the Tour de France, with stages in Crested Butte, Aspen, Vail, Steamboat Springs, Breckenridge and Denver. While thousands of fans lined the course, the race proved unsustainable. After suffering multi-million-dollar losses, the Pro Challenge folded not long after the 2015 edition of the event, which for the first time included a women's race.
In 2017, the Colorado Classic brought professional cycling back to the state with a fresh approach that replaced the seven days of long, point-to-point routes with four days of shorter circuits in Colorado Springs, Breckenridge and Denver, plus a three-day music festival in the Mile High City. That format, which included men and women, lasted two years before organizers made the bold move to create a women's-only race for 2019. The event was scrapped because of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 and because of a lack of sponsorship this summer.
Now comes the NCL with its crit style of almost nonstop action and a $1 million purse. Olympians, national champions and former World Tour riders are expected to compete.
“The biggest stages draw the brightest stars,” David Mulugheta, co-founder of the NCL, said in a news release. “The cycling talent is out there, and great athletes and big stories are yet to be discovered. With (Wednesday's) announcement of a historic prize purse coupled with the decision to host public races on city streets, professional cycling is poised to achieve levels of inclusion and community integration that stadium leagues can only dream of.”
Organizers say each invitational will include music acts and food options that showcase the flavor of each market. Dates have not been finalized for the 2023 races.