The National Cycling League, in its debut year, has already made serious waves in American cycling with its all-star team of investors and new format of racing for fans.
The format of the match is unlike anything we are used to. These criterium-like races take place in spectator-friendly, urban venues, where co-sponsored teams compete for points in each round over two races – a women’s race and a men’s race. Points are accumulated from one match to the next and the team with the most points at the end of the afternoon wins the match. Because of its high-speed nature, teams can replace riders as often as they like. There are no individual winners, only a winning team.
By reinventing the look of American bike racing, the NCL aims to reignite cycling fanaticism in the United States. But does it work? After watching the series opener from home, I went to the Denver NCL Cup race to see if the NCL is really changing cycling.
| Miami Nights won an exciting Denver NCL Cup
Denver certainly delivered on some exciting games. The tension between the Denver Disrupters and Miami Nights was palpable, and the small points difference made for some exciting matches. When the teams are separated by only a few points, every round of the match is extremely important. This is something unique to the NCL format and makes the matches more interesting. Often in traditional criterium racing, there are loose races and lots of laps where nothing major happens. In NCL racing, there are never lullabies as sprints take place every lap. The pit and unlimited rider change also contribute to this, as riders can come straight to the front after the rest, making the race extremely fast. In turn, it also makes the race extremely difficult for the riders, and I saw many riders drop from the back of the pack, unable to keep up with the pace. As a cyclist myself, I can appreciate the effort a race like this takes from a rider. But what do the fans on the sidelines think? Did they have fun?
I went looking for spectators who weren’t cyclists or cycling enthusiasts — just locals who had heard about the event and decided it would be a nice way to spend a summer afternoon. They enjoyed the match, but needed a little more context.
“The shape is a lot of fun to look at, the pits are a lot of fun, I think a little more clarity will help people understand more,” they told me.
After its inaugural event in Miami in April, the NCL took some feedback on board and made some changes to the points awarded in the final round of competition. In both the women’s and men’s races, the final sprint of the race had felt anticlimactic. There just weren’t enough points on offer to make a real difference in the standings.
That changed ahead of the Denver game, with the winner of the final round now earning their team 30 points – 10 times the amount of winning in a standard round – and a potential game-changer for the outcome of the match.
In my opinion, that completely changed the excitement and made for an exciting finale in Denver.
But while the riders delivered, the venue did not. Leading up to the NCL Cup in 2023, fans have been promised an action-packed weekend in the hearts of America’s biggest cities. That just wasn’t true in Denver.
The game was played at Dicks Sporting Goods Stadium, an out-of-town location that was little more than a glorified parking lot. One side of the track could not be seen or accessed, and the pit, where the rider exchanges take place, was quite far from the main spectator area.
And unlike a traditional criterium race, there were no amateur categories—except for a junior 15-18 race—before the games. So there’s not much else to watch and no reason to show up before the match starts. While there was an exhibition space, it was relatively small and didn’t offer food options for those who didn’t pay for the VIP pass – another big downside to the out-of-town location.
Spectators actually had to know about the game and make plans to get to the stadium to watch the game as opposed to stumbling into the game if it was downtown or somewhere with more traffic. Because of this, there was a limited number of spectators compared to a race like Tulsa Tough, which has a huge crowd.
The smaller crowd, however, no doubt had fun and enthusiastically supported the runners.
“It’s pretty viewer-friendly as a set-up. It’s fun to watch, the athleticism of these guys is really great,” one viewer commented.
It’s not all negative though. A standout feature of the venue was the large screen showing live race footage and live points totals, as well as the top three points scoring riders in each round. The pit had a second screen so team managers could watch and spectators from that side of the track could watch the action. They did have a lot of camera angles and drone footage after the race, which is more than most criteria in the US and it was great to see.
The NCL clearly puts a lot into the live streams of the match. Speaking with NCL founder Paris Wallace, I learned that improvements have been made there since the first race as well.
“The expectation was that the quality of the broadcast went up a lot, we learned a lot in Miami about a lot of things, but we expect to break the ratings from Miami,” Wallace said.
For reference, over 400,000 unique viewers interacted with their content in Miami, so the bar was definitely set high.
The GCN+ stream provides a massive global platform for the NCL to promote the new racing format. Speaking to viewers, we asked them if coming to the match would make them more interested in watching live streams of future matches.
“I think I have a better chance after coming into it because now I have a sense of what’s going on. You have to appreciate what it’s like to spend time seeing it differently,” one commented.
All in all, it was a very enjoyable event, with exciting matches and storylines from the series. The points system provides constant tension and keeps viewers interested throughout the race as it progresses towards the final round and the great points value on offer. Despite the early reviews, the NCL, to me, doesn’t feel like a gimmick, but a new form of racing. The racers seemed to feel the same and enjoyed learning the ins and outs and tactics to succeed in this format.
A canceled match, venue changes, new CEO. The NCL has certainly had its struggles this season, but I’m willing to cut them some slack. As a first-year organization, it will experience some growing pains as it figures out how to fit into the American cycling scene, but I see the potential for the NCL to stick around. With some recent new investors, the NCL looks to be securing its next season where hopefully it can build on what it learned from this year and continue to push the boundaries of what bike racing can be.
More about NCL
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– Race canceled and new CEO – big changes to the National Cycling League after just one race
– The National Cycling League made its much-anticipated debut over the weekend, but did we have fun?
– The Denver Disruptors dominate the first race of the National Cycling League
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