It’s been a long hiatus since our first dual column, but here, Lee Waldman and I put our heads together and talk about the new Cat 5 field in cyclocross.
LEE WALDMAN: I know this will come as no surprise to you, but … I have this propensity to act curmudgeonly at times. Well, given the fact that I’m ricocheting towards the middle of my sixth decade, there’s probably a good reason. I started racing my bike in 1981. Hard to believe! Did you know that when I started it was illegal to race in anything but black shorts and white socks? Look around. How different is it now? I’ll be the first to admit that most of the changes have been for the better. Changes in equipment, clothing, training, nutrition (at least legal nutrition) are among the plethora of things about cycling that have helped the sport grow in popularity. But this is a double-edged sword. Along with the increased popularity of cycling in general, and cyclocross specifically, it seems to me that there’s also a bit of whining.
MOLLY HURFORD: You, curmudgeonly? Noooo… But seriously, I have to point out that you’ve been racing for longer than I’ve been alive, and literally 10 times as long as I’ve been racing for! Looking at pictures of my dad racing, I know what you mean. Rules about shorts and socks aside, it seems like a lot of the simplicity has gone out of the sport. Honestly, it’s funny. I started as a triathlete and I know a lot of cyclists think of that as being way more gear heavy and complicated, but when I was doing that, I raced in a bathing suit. No regulations broken, no officials complaining, just wear what makes you most comfortable. I know at the highest level, there are rules on par with racing UCI, but something about showing up to a race in a bathing suit was just easy. There, look, you made me start complaining!
LW: In the past couple of years I’ve heard riders complain about courses being too hard, too bumpy, too “mountain-bikie.” I’m here to admit that there are technical courses that I don’t like because, to be honest, my skill set doesn’t meet the demands. On the other hand, there are also those courses that I love because they do fit my riding style. I have two choices, race them all and be prepared to suffer a bit more on some than others, or not race. Actually there is a third possibility, and that’s to complain. I vacillate between choice one and two depending on the week and my mental state. I only complain when I think a course is dangerous and then I do believe that it’s my responsibility to voice that opinion.
MH: I think virtually every person I talk to in cycling, and I include myself in this, complains about cyclists complaining. And then we go on and complain about the course. It’s rare that I go to a race that everyone loves. To some extent, I think the complaining is actually part of my favorite game, the “pre-race excuse Bingo.” If you complain about the course, its safety, its technical issues, et cetera, you’re already setting up a reason as to why your result isn’t what it “should be.” Also not my favorite thing that racers do, but certainly something I’m guilty of.
LW: I may be stepping out on a very thin and weak limb here, but I’m also wondering if that vocal component of the cycling community is also younger as well. In my other, “real job” as an educator, I observe almost daily the result of our society’s over-empowering of youth to the extent that a majority feel that they are owed something whether they work for it and earn it, or not. And now I’m wondering if the establishing of a Cat 5 in cyclocross is just another example of pandering to that need to feel successful without having put in the time.
MH: We’ll come back to the Category 5 rule change, but I’m not so sure about that being the reason. Plenty of the complainers I hear are masters, and a lot of that comes from the Cat 4 field, especially in races that don’t have a Masters Cat 4 field for them to race in. I’d say establishing a Cat 5 field is on par with having a Masters Cat 4 field, really. I’m with you on the over-empowering thing, but I think cyclists as a whole are a whiny lot, not just the younger generations.
LW: The most current rule change, adding a Category 5 to already crowded race day schedules must have been the result of complaining. The ugly side of increased participation is, it appears to me, that we now emphasize winning rather than on the process of getting better. Another of the continual complaints I hear, especially from new riders, is that they can never be competitive because the more experienced riders are winning all of the races. The newbies seem to struggle with the concept of working your way up through the ranks.
MH: I don’t know about that. In New England, the problem is that there are overflowing fields to the point that, especially in ’cross where starting position matters so much, a Cat 4 newbie is, at best, stuck behind a ton of people and has to work through an almost impossible amount of people to get to any decent placing while the higher ranked Cat 4s enjoy good starting positions, and at worst, is a safety hazard, since a good chunk of those newbies end up crashing out better racers because the course is simply too crowded. I don’t think anyone is bragging about winning Cat 5 races. I think it really is a safety and spacing issue. We’re growing, and like road racing, there needs to be a way that beginners can get in without as much intimidation. Cat 5 on the road exists so racers can learn basic safety, and now ’cross has grown so much that we need it there as well.
LW: I’ll admit it, I’m old school. I believe that you get what you work for. I have no problem struggling to reach a certain level of success. I’ve done it sport and in my personal and professional life for as long as I can remember. I also know that the limited success I enjoy has been that much sweeter because I know that I put in the sweat equity to earn it. Are we taking away that opportunity with Cat 5 cyclocross? I know the arguments on the other side, at least I think I do. The Cat 4 fields are too big! There’s no chance to learn to compete because the level of competition is too high. We’re losing ridership because of it. And, I have no empirical answer to some of those questions. I do have some practical thoughts though.
MH: I agree with a lot of what you’re saying but I do think that you’re missing the safety aspect. A lapped new rider in the Cat 4 field is a danger to the front of the field and to himself, and a Cat 5 field could not only make the Cat 4 race more fun, but create better racers who aren’t as intimidated at the start. As someone who’s had to pick through lapped riders on a couple of rare occasions, I can safely say that it is no picnic for me or for them, so if there’s a way of making beginners more comfortable and making races safer, I’m all about it.
LW: As a promoter, I can tell you that if I’m required to put on a Cat 5 race, those riders will be grouped with the Cat 4 riders simply because there aren’t enough hours in a race day to do it any other way. The ultimate result will be more pressure on my registration crew to keep up with additional paperwork and on my race officials to score yet another category. More pressure = less time to do things correctly = less fun, which ultimately = less willingness to promote or to help with promotion.
MH: So, this is the point I agree with whole-heartedly. We’re already talking in New England about adding a Masters Women’s field, and that will already cause some problems with scheduling. Another two fields? Yikes.
LW: Don’t get me wrong, please! I’m as invested as anyone in seeing ’cross grow and prosper, and it’s apparent from the increased race numbers as well as this new rule that it is. I’m also saying that we may become victims of not only our own success, but of the current social trend to make sure that everyone is a “winner.” Winning can and should be defined for each of us in our own way. Crossing the line first is one way. Simply finishing and feeling as if you did your best is another. I’m sure that there are a myriad of other definitions each depending on the individual. But, if we only cater to those who feel that winning is being first (or second, etc.), and if we continually try to tweak our existing structure to meet that need, then we are opening a Pandora’s box. In my district we tried this with Cat 5 road races. The result – Cat 4s raced with Cat 5s with virtually no difference between the two. Why create what I believe will be not only an administrative nightmare, but a logistical one for officials and race promoters? Race days will be longer. Races will be shorter. I don’t believe that anyone will get what they need.
MH: Again, I agree with you in principle, but I don’t think that this was the intention of the rule. I think it was for field sizes and for safety reasons. Maybe in the region you’re racing in, the Cat 5 road racing wasn’t a big success. Here, the fields are the first to fill up, and Cat 5s are quick to place well and get the hell out of the Cat 5. I’ve never heard someone brag about winning a Cat 5 race, it’s just a way to move up to Cat 4 around here. I think it’ll be the same in ’cross. I think if your field sizes aren’t big enough to have two large fields, combining is fine. But in places like New England where fields are enormous at the lower levels, it’s becoming necessary.
LW: O.K. I’m done with my rant. Time to go for a ride. You should do the same.