Sandbaggers and sandbagging in cyclocross. Illustration by Steph Wong
Everyone has had some experience with sandbagging. Perhaps you find yourself always being dominated by the same racers. Or maybe you find yourself coming home regularly with swag from B and C-level races? Perhaps you’ve bid on the eBay Upgrade Points auction offered by a group of New England racers that we covered in Issue 2. Regardless, we’ve all got a sandbagging story. Hector Finely offered up his for our premier Issue 1.
This story was originally published in Cyclocross Magazine’s Issue 1, November 2007, and proved to be a reader favorite.
Confessions of a Sandbagger
By Hector Finely
“Dude, I was riding beginners two years ago.”
“I have no bike handling skills.”
“I don’t ride my bike at all during Jan through Sept.”
“I don’t have any fitness or talent.”
“It’s not like I’m a Cat 2 racing B’s and winning everything.”
“I don’t race road or mountain like everyone else.”
“I only ride once during the week.”
I said those things repeatedly, trying to convince my friends, and more importantly myself, that what I was doing was okay. It’s not like I was lying, cuz all those things were really true. Sure, I didn’t tell them that I dropped down to beginners after a year in C’s. And yeah, I rode my spin bike several evenings a week, but with only one wheel, it doesn’t count as a bike. And my Climb-Master doesn’t really count either, since there are so few run-ups nowadays. But deep down inside, I knew what I was doing was wrong.
You see, I didn’t think going into the season I was going to do so well. History justified my expectations. The first year I stumbled across ‘cross, raced Cs and got slaughtered. I was typically in the bottom five including the kids race – some juniors even lapped me. I had fun, but it was embarrassing, so the next year I dropped down to First Timers. I did fine, but didn’t win. I didn’t want to be a sandbagger the next season, so I “upgraded” to race C’s. I did okay – mid-pack, but certainly wasn’t on anyone’s bagging radar.
But by then I was fully hooked, and the signs were already starting to show. I needed to be the best and needed prizes to show for it. I first set out to upstage my opponents by having better equipment. Craigslist, eBay, and swap meets were my focus, and within a few seasons, somehow I managed to replace my mountain bike with a real ‘cross bike. But it wasn’t just one…my garage started to fill up. Over just a few years, I nabbed a KHS softail, a Van Dessel Country Road Bob, a Kona Jake the Snake, a Salsa La Cruces, a Bianchi Reparto Corse, a Kelly Knobby X, a Seven Tsunami, and my two favorites, an IF Planet X and Steelman Euro Cross. I scanned listings 24/7, got to the deals first, and made sure I won the offering before any other potential C racer could. I guess I was starting to take ‘cross a little seriously.
While I won these deals and seriously upgraded my equipment, I didn’t see any reason to upgrade my racing category. During the previous season, the winner of Cs used to routinely lap the field. At the last race of the year, not only did that guy win the race, the series, and lap the field, he turned around and raced Bs and finished top 10. He broke my confidence, and his domination prevented many other competitive C racers from upgrading.
But this season didn’t even start with true bagging. My first race I finished a modest fifth. My second race I won, but I was convinced that result was a fluke because it had so much running, and running is the one area I don’t suck. But as my top five results continued to roll in, I was trapped. The possibility of big series prizes loomed, and I became even more motivated.
And that’s how it all started. Soon enough, I was religiously using my heart rate monitor. I showed up early to Wednesday night training races, getting in extra running and intervals before the guys showed up. I got my bikes tuned up by a local pro and brought pit bikes and wheels to the races. By mid season, I was leading one local series and was top 3 in another. Then the two guys in front of me missed a race. Now I was in first! And with each week passing, my name remained on top of the series leaderboard.
You see, I had never won anything before in biking, and for the first time, I had the chance to win both local series. How could I upgrade now? No chance!!! In my sights was a brand new ‘cross bike they were giving to the C series winner – a $1400 value – more than most A racers win a season!
Could you fault me for not upgrading with two races left? I wasn’t even winning most of the races, but was showing up, and was consistent. There weren’t any upgrade rules and the few guys finishing ahead of me weren’t upgrading. I still had to hold off a slew of racers less than a few points behind me. Most importantly, the promoters and sponsors offered great series prizes, and someone had to win them. It might as well be me.
With strong finishes in the final races, I ended up winning both local series. I stood atop the podium, got the podium girl kisses, and was showered with attention and swag. I won the $1400 bike, plus a few hundred dollars worth of gift certificates, parts and merchandise. I did it!
But then it hit me. I stood atop the podium, the top racer in the bottom category. I thought I’d feel tremendous pride and accomplishment, but instead, couldn’t wait for the podium ceremony to be over. I realized at that point, I was the biggest bagger of them all.
But there’s hope! Everyone can change for the better, and I’ve changed my ways since. I’m now a mid-pack Masters B rider. I let the Craigslist and Ebay deals go to needy racers. I heckle the other baggers out there, hoping that they see the light quicker than I did.
Learn from me. Bagging is no fun, really. While racing for a win is an invaluable experience to any racer, staying down and avoiding an upgrade stalls your progress and doesn’t feel good. ‘Cross should be about fun, not prizes. Now just tell that to the Masters B racer that lapped me last weekend.
What the Heck is a Sandbagger?
According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, a sandbag is a “bag filled with sand and used in fortifications, as ballast, or as a weapon”
But as a verb, to sandbag, is “to conceal or misrepresent one’s true position, potential, or intent especially in order to take advantage…”
Telltale signs your friend is a bagger:
1. Kicks your butt in training, but says he hasn’t been riding
2. Shows up for pre-season practice with jersey and shorts tan lines
2. Sleeps in an altitude tent or uses a power meter and isn’t racing As
3. Never needs to see the posted results
4. Tapes racer’s #s to his handlebar
5. Knows exactly what place he/she needs to come in to win a series
Hector Finely’s Top 3 Anti-Bagging Tips for Promoters:
Don’t offer series prizes for lower categories! It’s okay to offer single race prizes, but take it from a bagger – it’s hard to upgrade when nice prizes await someone who completes a full season of bagging. (Portland’s Cross Crusade avoids this by avoiding series prizes for Bs and Cs.)
Ask people to upgrade. Make it clear that the bottom categories are intended for newbies and to help encourage people to race. Implement USA Cycling’s point system for upgrades if necessary.
Offer smaller prizes for more entrants, perhaps even via a raffle. Or at the most, offer a small prize for the series…like a shirt or hat but not anything worth “bagging” for. To give out big prizes, use a raffle ticket for each race someone entered and combine all lower categories so it doesn’t matter what category you raced.