Much like the physics of riding a bike, Derek Bouchard-Hall has struck a balance between the worlds of athletics and business that have comprised most of his adult life.
The southern California native and CEO of USA Cycling moved to the East Coast at the age of 6, growing up in Massachusetts. He earned his undergraduate degree in structural engineering from Princeton and a master’s degree from Stanford. But his love of bike racing supplanted any plans to be an engineer.
“I got into bike racing in college and absolutely loved it,” he said. “By the time I got through college and graduate school, I was pretty good at it.”
Bouchard-Hall spoke with the Business Journal this week about his role in leading USA Cycling and building the sport and making it safer for future generations.
How did you get into professional road racing?
I had the opportunity when I finished grad school to take a job as a bridge engineer in Pittsburgh or travel around the country in a van riding my bike for prize money so I’d have enough to make it to the next bike race.
The latter sounded more interesting so I pushed off an engineering degree to race bikes for the summer. That went really well and I thought, ‘I’ll do it for one more year.’ That turned into one more year, and then one more year. Before I knew it, I’d been doing it for 10 years. … I did it all out as long as I could, totally loved it and got good enough to race on the world-class level — but never good enough to get noted at that level. I raced professionally until my early 30s and decided it was time to stop for a range of reasons — I had some injuries and I did know I wanted a career post-bike racing. It was kind of a dark era for the sport and the peak of the doping scandals.
What did you do?
I retired from racing at 32 and had been away from engineering for so long that my interests had changed. I was a lot more interested in the organizational elements of my sport, how racers were managed and how they found sponsors — the business element.
So I went to business school at Harvard and started a career in management consulting. I ended up working in London … There was a global online retailer there focused on the cycling, triathlon and running space and I knew someone running the business. I left management consulting and ran the international business of that organization. My family and I were having a wonderful time and we had a great life in London. My two daughters grew up as British. We lived there for nine years and my youngest was born there.
But the phone rang one day and it was a recruiter looking to fill this position. I loved bike racing and knew this organization, and it was a great combination of my cycling and business pasts. I couldn’t say no.
When did you come here?
Almost three years ago. For two years my family stayed behind because of my wife’s work and kids’ school. They’ve been here just over a year. I was going back to London every two to three weeks for 20 months. I’d stay anywhere for a weekend to a week depending on my schedule. I was perpetually jetlagged.
Can you explain the scope of your organization?
We’re the national governing body for the sport of bike racing, which has five disciplines: road, track, BMX, cyclocross and mountain bike.
Our responsibilities are similar to all the other [national governing bodies of sport]. It’s a combination of elite athletics and trying to get our American athletes to have the greatest success possible on the international stage … and then the second piece, which is supporting the sport at a grassroots level, keeping it a vibrant activity that can be enjoyed at all ages and interest levels.
Those are often considered to be two different missions but they’re closely linked. They’re all part of the cycling ecosystem. You need athletes achieving at the highest level, which gives visibility to your sport. But we also need the grassroots and everything in between.
Talk about your role as CEO.
We have 57 employees, a 20-person board and a foundation that raises money. I try to create a coherent strategy as to what we’re trying to achieve with our resources, and I try to get as many of those resources as we can. … And, as much as it’s appropriate, I try to be a spokesperson for our sport and our organization.
The head of an NGB has an interesting role. On the one hand, we’re a $16 million business with products and services and customers, but also a nonprofit trying to fulfill a mission. And we have responsibilities to the broader Olympic movement.
The CEO sits at the intersection of stakeholders who care about what we do and on the ground to actually get the work done. … It’s more complex and difficult than I saw in the private sector.
What’s the economic impact of cycling here?
We don’t have specific measures for here, but Colorado is a hotbed for cycling broadly. Lots of people here enjoy the sport. USA Cycling and related organizations and clubs keep the sport alive and vibrant. I don’t know the exact number of organized events in Colorado, but it’s in the hundreds.
We also have several thousand licensed racers in Colorado, but there’s a broader community, probably 10-times larger, of people who participate in the sport of cycling even if they choose not to race.
In the Springs we have the Olympic Training Center and the velodrome. We bring a lot of athletes here to use those facilities and also have great road, gravel and mountain biking here.
We, as an organization, also host a lot of events here for officials. We have conferences with local associations and community representatives. We hold about a half-dozen conferences here of about 100 to 500 people each. I’m not sure what that adds up to, but we know we are certainly an important part of the fabric of the Olympic movement here in Colorado Springs.
Talk about your support for a proposed mountain bike course at the former Transit Mix quarry scar?
There’s a range of reasons why that will be important for us as USA Cycling. It would be a great facility for our athletes to use. Colorado Springs is a core training venue for us because we have a covered velodrome that we can use year-round. We’re at altitude, which is great for aerobic training. We can bring athletes here for nutrition testing and there are sports psychologists here. We even have a wind tunnel in town. But having a facility like [the proposed Transit Mix course] would be one more asset for athletes to use. The other thing about it is it will be a venue for events and we can host races there. And we know great facilities draw participants. It will also be a great amenity for Colorado Springs, which will help us attract employees here.
How does bike infrastructure in the city impact your mission?
Our core mission is around racing and sport, but we’ve broadened it beyond those who just choose to race. There is a clear link between how many people are on bikes and to the sport. That’s very obvious. Kids who ride bikes are more likely to get into cycling. If you’re a parent who rides a bike to work, you’re more likely to get your kid in the sport. It’s really important for our sport that the community is riding bikes.
Colorado Springs is becoming a pretty darn good place for cycling. I give Mayor [John] Suthers and the rest of the administration credit. Bike lanes are going in across the city and I know they’re sometimes controversial. But when I was a bike racer here 15 years ago — I’ve seen dramatic change and it’s great for our organization.
How have past doping scandals impacted USA Cycling?
The challenge of doping hit cycling particularly hard. We had the most visible doper, perhaps of all time, in Lance Armstrong. It was a double-whammy. We lost our icon. Lance brought visibility to our sport like we’d never seen before. He was incredibly powerful for our sport. He could have just retired and it would have been difficult. But he did more than retire. We were left with this legacy of doping and it’s hit us hard. We’ve seen it in our membership growth and it’s been challenging.
On the other hand, it drove a dramatic change in our sport. Now cycling is almost, inarguably, the best sport there is in battling doping. There is no other sport, in my view, that is battling it as hard as we are. It’s not a war that can be won, but we can control and contain. The sport’s in a better place now and we’re not seeing widespread abuse. Clean athletes are winning the biggest races in the world.
In light of recent USA Swimming and Gymnastics controversies, what role should NGBs play in athlete safety?
We absolutely have a responsibility. We’re part of the solution, and our responsibility is to make sure we implement sound sensible policies and make sure our membership adhere to those. … It’s come out to the public recently the extent of the problem, but the USOC and NGBs have been battling these things — sexual misconduct, emotional abuse and bullying by coaches — for years.
There are a range of things we do: having very clear policies about violations, having clear methods of adjudicating issues is really important … We issue licenses and we can suspend people from participation, we have background checks that require coaches to get certification, we have communication programs to let people know who to call. … We, as a movement, have gotten much better.