Pfluke was understandably frustrated, calling the combined age groups a “mighty sore subject” and admitting she wouldn’t have made trip if she knew she’d be racing with the younger group. “Would I have come to this championship had I known the age groups were to be combined? My answer is no. I am 55 this year, so I targeted this year to finally try to win the gold.”
“I raced my whole race only concentrating on my rivals, and literally ignoring the younger women on the course,” she recalled. “After the finish, I discovered much to my dismay that I should have raced very differently because those younger women on the course were in my race.”
Clear As Mud
While losing out on what she thought would be a silver medal ride was disappointing, the biggest frustration for Pfluke was competing in an event without even knowing who her competitors were and how it was to be scored.
“The arbitrary way that women’s age groups are grouped together at the last minute is a continuing source of frustration for me and many other women, and certainly a reason that many women choose not to participate,” Pfluke says.
Can you blame her? The ambiguity is creating a vicious cycle in terms of older attendance, as racers don’t register or make the trip because of the risk of their category being cancelled. And then more categories get cancelled due to small field sizes.
We’ve searched the UCI website for published rules on the minimum field size without luck (but maybe we suck at this Internet thing), but the ruling at the 2013 Masters World Championships was six racers. Joan Hanscom, one of the initial promoters of the event, and rehired by USA Cycling when they took over, confirmed this:
— joan hanscom (@joanhan) January 4, 2014
Yet in Gossau, even that rule wasn’t implemented. Swiss Alexandra Baehler was the lone registrant for the 45-49 women’s race, but that category ended up being combined with the three racers in the 40-44 group, to make a total of only four starters. France’s Stephanie Koenig is listed as a DNF but never took the start. (Baehler finished fourth, out of the medals, when just the day before, a quick look at the start list would have had her visualizing wearing the blue striped jersey all next season.)
With a race of only four starters being recognized, why not let the four 55-59 racers have their own scoring as well? It’s not like awarding the jersey takes up another time slot during the day, since multiple age groups were on course at the same time.
We reached out to the UCI and promoter to get more insight into the category decisions, but did get an immediate response. [Update: UCI’s Peter Van den Abeele responds, see bottom of this post.]
Stop the Cycle, Solve the Problem
The Masters World Championships are a unique event, and one that hopefully encourages the world’s very best to attend and race. [See Steve Tilford’s opinion on Masters Words’ policy on excluding racers with UCI points.] Scheduling the event well ahead of time, in a fashion that is compatible with most national championships, is certainly one key to encouraging attendance. But giving people a chance to know what they are signing up for and training for is even more important.
Minimum field sizes might have their place in legitimizing a win. However, when registration continues well past the date anyone who lives far away would book travel (let alone plan their training), determining whether a jersey gets awarded at the last minute based on who actually shows up seems like an amateur policy unfitting for what is supposed to be a world-class event.
Finding the perfect solution isn’t easy, but there must be better alternatives. Simply determining age categories beforehand, and then honoring them with jerseys and medals is one option. Then age groups can be reconsidered before the next event if adjustments need to be made. Once you open up registration, honoring those categories seems to be the easiest and most logical thing to do.
Another option could be to hold categories based on pre-registered racers, way ahead of time, three to six months in advance. Make people commit with money, and if there are enough sign ups, the category will be held, regardless of whether people get sick or injured, life just gets in the way, or people just flake and don’t show up. Sure, it can open the door to older racers convincing others to register with no intention of racing (or buying it for them), but at least the promoter and the UCI can decide well in advance which categories are held and people can plan accordingly. Not enough entrants to award a jersey? Offer those entrants a refund. Gossau wasn’t planned until August, making such advance planning difficult, but for 2015, there is time.
“If the UCI wants to grow these championships and encourage women to attend, they need to guarantee that an event will take place so that more women will be willing to make the investment to participate,” maintains Pfluke .
But it’s not just women who are impacted and care about this issue. Riley agrees, saying, “If it’s a category, then whoever races in it should be awarded accordingly. It shouldn’t be a problem just because there are fewer older racers. Combining categories contradicts the whole idea.”
Riley makes a strong point. If one old, hard, fast dude shows up in the middle of winter ready to race all-comers, isn’t he worthy of the title? He didn’t make up his own age group. If you have a category, award the jersey.
Pfluke says the arbitrary rules and unpredictability have already prevented her participation in other World Championships. “I can unequivocally say that I did not travel to Australia when track Worlds were there, nor South Africa or Brazil when mountain bike Worlds were there, specifically because I did not want to travel literally halfway around the world without knowing if my event would take place,” said Pfluke. It’s a sentiment shared by some Americans this year, based on their 2013 experience.
Many of us have many valid reasons for not entering or racing an event. It doesn’t work with our schedule, we can’t afford the travel, we know we have no chance of winning or might even get lapped, or the event bans hand-ups. So we don’t sign up, violating Rule Number One and ending our chances at winning. That’s our problem, our violation.
Lillian Pfluke didn’t violate Rule Number One. She showed up. She raced hard. Why should she be penalized and lose her silver medal because of others’ violations?
Update: Peter Van den Abeele of the UCI responded to Cyclocross Magazine’s inquiry and reported, “This topic is often a discussion point at Masters [Worlds]…I have no feedback from the President of the commissaries panel [yet].” In other words, they are aware of the problem at recent Worlds. When presented with our suggestion to just hold all categories available at registration in order to improve participation and trust, Van den Abeele responded, “that would be easy to set.” So Masters racers may have reason to be optimistic this issue may be solved before the 2015 Masters World Championships. Stay tuned.