Beyond Categories

During my ‘Scottish Olympic Cycling Team‘ blog I touched on a possible solution to the issue of licences & race categorisation, without the stranglehold of the British Cycling system. If Scottish Cycling operated its own category system, to work better so riders don’t have to travel large distances to race against a full field of similar abilities, we may end up with something resembling the following ideas. It’s unlikely to be acceptable as long as we’re considered a region of British Cycling (by BC we are anyway), but if things change, the structure of road cycling in Scotland could be drastically overhauled, even introducing some very modern aspects tuned to the digital age.

The Current System

In Scotland, we use the British Cycling race categories for road & track, these are Elite, 1st Category, 2nd Category, 3rd Category & 4th Category. The requirements to gain a licence at each end of the scale are very different, a vast sum of points are required to gain an Elite licence, while any new rider will be awarded a 4th category licence, if they’ve not held a higher licence in the past. (Although this only applies to riders who were previously registered on BC’s electronic system it appears. So anybody who was for example, a 1st category rider in the old paper hand-marked system, can exist as a ringer on their return & race with the beginners, even if they rode the Olympics.)

Races are also categorised, I’ll not go into that in detail, but you can only enter certain races depending on what licence category you hold. Each category of event holds a different amount of points, with a different amount of placings being awarded points. You get the idea, it’s probably over complicated for what we need to develop cycle sport correctly & inclusively in Scotland.

Everybody In It Together

A radical alternative to the kind of system that we currently employ, could be removing the category system as we currently recognise it, while running the majority of events as handicapped races. You’ll probably recognise these as being called APR’s (Australian Pursuit Races) in our current race calendar. In these events riders are set off in perceived ability groups (often ranging from 8 to 15 riders in each group), with the first group given a few minutes on the ‘scratch’ group at the back. The ‘scratch’ contains all the fastest riders, whose aim is to create a situation where they are able to win the race, swallowing up all the groups ahead of them before they run out of tarmac.

If most races were run as APR’s, we’d achieve a number of positive effects on our race calendar…..

  • Inclusiveness: No matter what your ability, you can have a group of riders of similar ability to race with (until those a bit faster catch you obviously). Unlike today’s racing, if you’re not capable of holding a bunch with potential ‘ringers’ in it, you’re not going to develop much further.
  • Race Skills: Handicapped racing allows riders to experience working in a group, straight away. Rather than hanging onto the tail of a bunch, they immediately start developing race skills, ‘wheeling about’ with their peers in the attempt to stay away from the hounds behind.
  • Smaller Bunches: The issues that are often discussed, of riders suddenly being cast in an 80 rider field, with little experience of riding in a group & the resulting carnage, could be avoided to some extent. In their first race, the rookie rider will learn some ‘race-craft’ within a small group of no more than 15 riders, steepening the learning curve. It’s much easier to discover how races work in this kind of environment, than it is while being thrown in at the deep-end & attempting to manoeuvre yourself around a large bunch. We can help develop actual race skills at a faster rate in this environment, it’s less intimidating & it gets you involved in a race from the outset. They may end up in an 80 rider field at some point during the event, but at least they’ll have some experience by that point in a race.
  • Fell Like You’re Racing: I’d prefer to develop racers, than develop hangers-on. By encouraging riders to start their first event in what seems like a competitive situation, with several minutes on the likely race winners, can only encourage a competitive mindset. Even the first group in an APR can feel like a breakaway in a race, you are forced to cooperate with your peers, learning how to work together, a skill which some never learn, lets teach it straight away, even if it under a little duress.
  • Full Fields In Any Region: If everybody can race in a handicapped event, even the most sparsely populated areas can surely muster up a decent sized field, without the restrictions applied by the BC category system to who can enter.
  • Less Travelling/More Racing: Currently our fastest riders have to travel huge distances to find a race that their elevated licence category will allow them to race in. We can develop not just our beginner & ‘club’ riders with a predominantly handicapped race season, but we can also provide events that our top riders can take part in, without the ‘label’ of spoiling events for ordinary working folk. Riders of all abilities need events, if there’s a solution to allow everybody to race together, perhaps we should take it.

Championships

I’m not suggesting we do away with the current format of races altogether, there’s still very much a place for these events. National, regional championships & an ‘Elite’ series of events could be run as mass start, which is where your riders would gain their recognition to race elsewhere, they would have a national ranking from these events. My suggestion is that all other events would be handicapped.

Structure

As with all current APR’s, the seeding of groups relies heavily on a riders honesty & their enthusiasm to provide the race organiser with their full palmarès. Sometimes somebody will get into an early group they perhaps take the win with a little devious-ness. With an increase in APR style events, it would be plainly obvious who’s not playing the game correctly. So it may be wise to introduce a system where there are a set number of groups in every event. If every event had 5 groups plus what would be considered ‘Elite’ riders (and volunteer Elite’s), and if that format was carried across all races, then it would be reasonable to assume that an organiser could recognise which group a rider should be in, if their previous start groups & finish positions were required on their entry form.

The time between each group will initially be a bit ‘hit & miss’ I presume. But offering ‘primes’ early on in the events will encourage those riders in the front groups to get involved, even if the organiser decides he’d/she’d prefer a high-profile winner, by manipulating the groups as such. Races within races can sort these kinds of issues, a season long calendar of APR events could open up a few new ideas, even of the ‘scratch’ riders win the full distance event. We could even go as far as introducing the fastest Strava segments during the event, helping everybody get something out of the race is important & worthwhile.

The Gist Of It

The current race category system doesn’t work in Scotland, we need to start thinking about an alternative. Unfortunately it’s unlikely to happen under the current structure, if we were able to drop the BC category system, or be forced to drop it due to becoming independent, it may result in the rapid progress of riders & events. I’d expect a handicapped race calendar would stimulate local events, encourage beginners, provide hard training for the top riders looking to perform in big events, and also raise the status of the championship & series events which would be the only ‘exotic’ mass start races.

There’s plenty of ways our race calendar could be stimulated, this is just one that we can start discussing, I’ve already highlighted a few idea using the current system, but I think this is better. The discussion has to be started, the current system doesn’t operate as it should to develop the sport, not in Scotland or anywhere else in the UK. Maybe we should provide a situation where all riders can get involved in one event, providing a focal point in each region for all riders to get together, beginners, elites, juniors, this way we can promote our sport in an inclusive & positive manner. Perhaps even encouraging riders off the dual carriageways & into proper racing, where we provide a group & level that any rider can feel competitive in, would save them a lot of money in disc wheels & funny handlebars. Let’s develop some racers.

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