It’s been a couple of years since I’ve raced a short track cross-country event, so yesterday I decided to break this hiatus and headed for Gorrick’s first Autumn XC classic at Tunnel Hill in Surrey. Well, i thought, might as well make the most of this cracking autumn weather and test Cannondale’s new Flash 29er in a race environment.
But before the start hooter had blasted, an interesting dilemma; which category to tick on the entry form. I ummed and arred about this for a while. Having recently turned 30, I was eligible for two categories: sport and masters, the former an ability-based class and the later for age-based racing.
So I entered sport, and found myself lined up alongside 17 other guys. 17, just 17. And as you might expect, after not too long I was alone and racing my shadow through the singletrack. Not so much a race as a time trial against the clock. The line-up in the expert category was even more dismal, just four riders turned out for that one.
A look at the results after the race reveals some rather shocking truths. Those categories based on age proved far more popular. Master male, for example, the other category I was considering racing, was occupied by 39 riders, a much healthier turnout than sport. Add in the 18 in super master and you start to see that people are entering those categories decided for them by their birth date, than based on ability.
So there’s clearly an imbalance going on, which only means those racing suffer as the fields are pitifully low. It gets even more interesting as we continue to scan the results sheet. The two biggest categories by far though were fun, with 64 lining up, and open with a staggering 99.
The difference between these two categories is purely down to the number of laps raced; two in fun and three in open. Clearly acting as catch-all for many riders unsure which category to enter, meaning open is frequently the most popular. But, it shouldn’t be, should it? There were clearly some racers who were more than fast enough to graduate from the open to sport category, judging from their lap times, or even the expert. So why are they racing in the open category?
It’s raises an interesting question, the categorisation of racing. It needs a shakeup. Mountain bike cross-country race currently consists of both entry by age or ability level, but clearly this doesn’t work as some categories are oversubscribed while others are severely lacking in numbers. The choice of which category to enter is down to the rider to decide which they want to race, the number of laps they feel able to compete, and the level of competition they are capable of.
Surely the category structure needs to be looked at to ensure a better spread of numbers across the board? A push to make it simpler for those racing, especially those new to the sport and even veterans of mountain biking like myself, would not only make racing more exciting with large fields, but ensure closer action and more lively and exciting racing.
It could be an ability structure, as in road racing. Here, racing is based upon ability and points earnt through racing. Newcomers start as 4th category riders, and move up the 3rd, 2nd and 1st categories based upon the points they accumulate in races. It’s a system that works well for the road, ensuring that you’re always racing against people supposedly of a similar fitness and ability level, ensuring fair and even racing. But I’m not sure it’s a system that would be easily or readily adopted in mountain biking.
Based on the evidence of yesterday’s race, perhaps entry needs to be decided upon age. If sport is getting so few entries and the age-based categories vast numbers in comparison, then surely there is a case for shifting the sport racers into their respective age categories? What is the point of sport when so few choose it?
So, with a restructure in mind, here’s my plan to simplify cross-country racing. It would be largely based upon an age-based category system, where by default you race against people of the same age. This would ensure categories would see bigger numbers. A few ability-based categories would cater for beginners and experts alike at the opposite ends of the spectrum respectively.
It would look something like this then: Juvenile, Youth, Junior, Senior, Master, Veteran and Grand Veteran would be the main age categories of racing, as currently exists. Alongside this, to encourage beginners and novices, two Fun categories; Fun and Fun Plus, two and three laps respectively. And at the other end Expert and Elite for the seriously fast, semi-pros or aspiring national level and world cup racers.
I’ve dropped Open, replaced it with Fun Plus, which is a more representative title, to encourage beginners who want a longer race challenge but still against like-minded people, and to discourage trophy hunters. Sport has vanished too; these riders being put into their respective age-based category. Or moving up to expert to bolster this flagging category.
Would such an approach solve the issue of some categories being poor and others bulging at the seams? Or do you disagree that there’s even a problem with the current entry structure? I feel entry needs to be made easier and fairer for all those involved, to help eliminate the dreaded trophy hunters and to create closer racing across the board.
Here’s the official category system explained on British Cycling’s website http://www.britishcycling.org.uk/mtb/article/mtbst_Mountain-Bike-Category-System-Explained