Wednesday, November 10, 2010

how big is too big? questions for OBRA and USA Cycling

A discussion has come up on the OBRA mailing list that speaks to the incredible growth of cyclocross participation. OBRA officials do an incredible job of keeping track of the largest start fields in US Cyclocross, sometimes under ridiculous conditions (racers at Hillsboro were hosed down as they completed their final lap to remove mud from their numbers). But it's only going to get harder to manage so many racers at a one-day event, and current discussions are focusing on electronic timing chips as a way to more easily process a rider's final placement in a field where there could easily be over 300 people on the course in any given hour.

I think the larger issue is a question of how much OBRA really wants to grow the sport, and in what way.

If we are seeing 1,700 racers at Alpenrose on opening day of Cross Crusade, that's an overwhelming number of racers to handle in one day -- and not only from a tracking standpoint, but from a safety standpoint as well. Can you imagine what PIR [road] crits would look like if there were 200 women in your race, and there were three womens' fields running simultaneously on the oval at any given time?

Last week, the Juniors got their own race slot, without adults on the course. They liked it more, and so did the adults who didn't have to race with them. But there are only so many hours of daylight for a race day, and I fear that we will approach a crtical mass with the sport -- especially with 'cross -- that will require OBRA to take steps to stem growth. I kicked these ideas around with a friend and am putting them out here:

--offer online pre-reg ONLY with a strict deadline, after which no one can sign up to race. NO on-course or day-of-race registration. Limited numbers of racers on the course for each start time. This is harsh but may prove necessary; USA Cycling is already enforcing something like this for Cross Nats (apparently, Cat 4's can't race for a jersey anymore) and I think it will catch on at the regional level. (USA Cycling recently added a national champion's jersey for Singlespeed cyclocross at the 2010 Cross Nats, meaning that even the grass-roots, homegrown discipline of singlespeed racing will now have rules and regulations to limit and control participation at the elite level.)

--limited numbers of racers being allowed to upgrade at a time, to avoid overfilling a category (I see this mostly as an issue with talented Beginners moving quickly to B's or A's, rather than Master C's moving to Master B's, but it's still an idea).

--Novice-only events where skill-building is the focus and then skills testing allows you to sign up for other races (similar to pro baseball's Rookie League in the minors). This would require more folks to stop up as event organizers and/or sponsors and may not be practical from either a logistical or financial standpoint, but the need is certainly there.

--A careful and nuanced discussion of exactly whom the target group is as far as attracting new participants to bike racing. If we restrict registration at races we run the risk of discouraging potential new participants. If we don't restrict registration then we will see larger and larger start fields at Alpenrose and elsewhere, until the start fields become completely unmanageable and unsafe.

So I think the tech thing matters, but I also think OBRA needs to ask itself how big they want to be. Certainly, I was taken aback at my first cyclocross race. I adapted, dealt with it and survived. I went on to love participating in the sport. But I will never make a podium or set the world on fire; at what point does participation by someone like me need to be sacrificed (or at least severely limited) in the name of safety and/or common sense?

This begs the stickier question about USA Cycling, the national organization that sanctions bike racing in most regions of the US (except for Oregon and a couple of other place which have their own independent organizations).
What is USA Cycling FOR? Is it to encourage participation in bike racing as a fun, healthy sport with friendly competition between racers of all ages and skill levels; or is it to find and groom the very best racers for international competition where large purses and possibly endorsements are at stake? Is it possible -- or, admittedly, desirable -- for USA Cycling to do both?

We certainly can make room for everyone to participate in bicycle racing who wants to -- there are millions of kids playing Youth Soccer, Pop Warner football and Little League baseball across the country and somehow we seem to make room for all of them. How can we best manage the mere thousands (by comparison) who want to participate in bicycle racing and create a system that is fair, equitable and continues to welcome new people to the sport?


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