Addressing The Costs Of A Cycling Habit

Sep 2 2009

14241730_3051c8dfce Cycling is friggin’ expensive. No doubt the constant demand for costly and exclusive parts from well-heeled cyclists has contributed greatly to the sport’s clichéd position as “the new golf”.

That having been said, not everyone needs a pair of Obermayers. Far more burdensome—at least from my tax bracket—are the opportunity costs associated with being a competitive racer. Last summer, when I elected to pursue paid writing opportunities instead of training (and managing this blog), the roughly 10 hours a week I’d otherwise spend on the bike were quite effectively monetized; my least well paying gig was $40 for roughly an hour’s work.

Sure, I was chained to a computer for 12 hours a day (this was, after all, in addition to my day job), thirty pounds heavier, constantly irritated and under stress, struggling with pre-hypertensive blood pressure and a terrible diet—but I was also $12,000 richer. It was (and would still be) an extremely significant portion of my overall income.

Nowadays I’m poorer, happier, and faster. But it sure would be nice if there were some remuneration to reflect the most important societal benefit of a few thousand training miles: my improved health. A tax benefit from the state. A slice of my healthcare contribution back from my employer. Significantly reduced rates should I decide to quit and get my own heath insurance.

I suppose I should be thankful that people are beginning to at least try. From VoMax’s twitter, I got word of this nascent legislation, designed to allow up to $1000 of pretax deduction for fitness-related expenses, including race entry fees and equipment purchases. At first glance, that’s not an insignificant carrot

But the problem with this legislation is that it doesn’t reward people for being more physically active. It incentivizes them to spend money on things that facilitate fitness and physical activity—the same things I had even when I was fat and slow, and that millions of other out-of-shape Americans have gathering dust in a back corner of their garage.

Furthermore, the measure takes self-conscious aim at “rich” activities; hunting, sailing, horseback riding, and—most ominously—golf expenses are all explicitly excluded from the pretax deduction. With no lesser man than John McCain already taking aim at bicycle related “pork”, this thing is screaming for a bike-excluding rider, especially from a country obsessed with reviving its automotive industry.

Politics aside, it’s still tremendously complicated to quantify what being in shape means. Metrics based power output or speed are uncomfortably reliant on natural ability, and susceptible performance enhancing drugs. Awarding a benefit based on hours trained would be prohibitively open to fraud, and the old Body Mass Index standby is a pathetically inaccurate way to measure anything, let alone fitness.

If you think granting government access to more detailed information (blood pressure, percent body fat, etc.) would work, you clearly haven’t been following the news. Similar private sector efforts have met with lackluster support and, of course, are based on BMI. As lovely as it would be, I just don’t see any administrative solution to encourage getting the miles in.

So it seems the only recourse left for hard-training cyclists is to get their money’s worth and really, really love cycling. If I can be considered both a representative sample and a rational actor, the total benefits for a solid season of training are worth at least $12,000 a year.

That ought to make the pricetag on your next carbon wheelset a comparative bargain—even if the government never gets around to paying you back.

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