American cyclo-cross – victim of its own success?

By Kirsten Frattini in Asheville, NC, USA | Saturday, December 11, 2010 9.00am

Cyclo-cross is the fastest growing discipline in American cycling. As a result of the sport’s massive popularity, it faces new challenges, the most prominent being how promoters can continue to offer what the racers came for in the first place: a fun, fair, quality racing experience.

USA Cycling statistics show there were nearly 72,000 cyclo-cross race starts this year – double that of five years ago. That number is predicted to rise dramatically when the UCI Cyclo-Cross World Championships takes place in Louisville, Kentucky in 2013.

The sport has gone from a rugged off-season pastime to a fully fledged professional season consisting of 381 events on the USA Cycling calendar and 56 UCI-sanctioned events across the country.

The boom in the number of participants isn't down to the Elites, who are limited to 80 riders per field, but the growing number of category level racers – Masters, Men’s Category 3 and 4, Women and Juniors – who flock by the hundreds (in some case thousands) to dabble in the weekend fun.

The question is: how much fun can a category racer have while competing against 150-plus racers on a standard 3km course? Furthermore, are these people receiving the quality experience that they're paying for?

Major growth, if unexpectedly

When approached by BikeRadar, USA Cycling’s chief executive officer, Steve Johnson, said there had been several consequences of the fast growth of cyclo-cross as a competitive discipline in the US. He went on to outline some of the strategies that the sport's governing body is developing to maintain (and even improve) customer satisfaction.

“Cyclo-cross offers a great venue because you can see the whole race. Significant others and spectators can come and watch everybody racing, and that's unique,” said Johnson. “The lengths of the races are very rider-friendly, ranging from 45 minutes to one hour; a nice brisk workout.

“But we’ve had an interesting evolution of cyclo-cross as a discipline. No-one ever contemplated that it would turn into such a large-scale participation discipline. We're very excited about that, and I believe a lot of the growth and interest in the non-UCI categories was driven by the UCI calendar growth.”

UCI-sanctioned Elite races have undoubtedly done their bit to raise the profile of the sport, and USA Cycling governed areas such as New England and California remain hotbeds of 'cross. But there's also been rapid growth in cities such as Portland, governed by the Oregon Bicycle Racing Association (OBRA), and Boulder, Colorado,  governed by the American Cycling Association (ACA).

“Lot of factors have contributed to the growth of this sport across the country,” Johnson said. “What we're running into at this point in time are issues associated with our own success and how we have to handle those. The problem now is that we need to create structure around a sport that's grown so dramatically. Cyclo-cross came from a time when it didn’t need a lot of structure to a time – now – when it does.”

100 riders, a default limit

The UCI (International Cycling Union) considers a field size over 80 riders ‘unethical’. However, it's common for American promoters to allow 150-plus riders in category level events. USA Cycling recently announced that it will enforce a 100-rider default limit for category fields in the 2011-2012 calendar year. According to Johnson, that number can be increased with the agreement of the chief official on-site at any event.

“We decided that 100-rider default was reasonable,” Johnson said. “It does become an issue where the promoter will need to work with the chief referee based on the characteristics of the course – how long it is, how difficult it is and the time of the lap. Together they determine whether or not the course can hold more than 100 riders. Everyone must agree that it can hold 100 without degrading the rider’s experience or making it too complicated to accurately score.”

One of the many massive fields of racers associated with the ’cross crusade:

One of the many massive fields of racers associated with Oregon's Cross Crusade

Similarly, the ACA, Colorado’s licensing body, currently enforces a 125-rider field limit unless otherwise stated by the promoter or chief referee. According to ACA executive director Jon Tarkington, the number of riders permitted on course is best determined by the amount of time it takes to complete one lap, with seven-plus minutes being the optimum.

In response to the rise in entries, the ACA have announced several changes to the structure of their sanctioned cyclo-cross race weekends for the 2011 season. These include: sub-dividing the Senior Masters 35+ from Cat 4, which frequently approaches more than 100 racers; separating the Senior Masters 45+ from the Senior Women Open; and allowing for clear and distinct course inspection times, while ending the practice of allowing riders to warm-up on course during other races.

“We're trying to figure out a way to encourage the continued growth of fair, competitive racing by exploring options that allow a tentative two-day format to have no more than 80 racers total, in one to two race groups, on the course at any given time,” Tarkington said.

Pacific Northwest: Mass participation versus fair competition

ORBA governs the Portland-based series Cross Crusade – a good example of the wild growth in participation, with 200-plus racers lining up in each category, totaling approximately 1,100 racers at a venue in one day. Series director Brad Ross is opposed to enforcing field limits at his events because the aim is to provide an entry-level cyclo-cross experience, not a high-caliber competition.

“I think offering field size limits depends on what kind of a race you're putting on and what the promoter’s motive is," Ross said. “The Cross Crusade’s motive is to promote the sport of cyclo-cross and show the sport to anyone who might be interested in coming out and giving it a try. It's against our charter for us to impose field limits in our races. We want to introduce this sport to people.

“On the other hand, UCI races and series like the US Gran Prix of Cyclo-cross need field limits because they're races of a different level and a higher profile. Our series is an entry point and as an entry point event we can’t have field limits. Our events are about having fun and for us, it’s a good place to make friends with other people; they race and then later on they can cheer for the other categories while drinking beer and eating a bratwurst.”

Courses: Timing is everything

The UCI established a standard course length of 2.5-3.5km that is generally followed in category level events held prior to Elite races. However, USA Cycling’s Johnson noted that the amount of time it takes to complete a lap of the circuit is more important than the distance when determining field sizes.

“An eight- to 10-minute circuit can easily handle 125 to 150 riders per category,” he said. “Complications arise when promoters allow large fields on courses that take less than eight minutes to complete.

"In speaking with organizers and riders, there's a lot of variability between the length of the course and the number of riders that the course can hold. If the course is a six-minute lap then 100 riders are about all you can hold without degrading the experience of the participants.”

Wider, less technical courses help promoters deal with fields in excess of 100:

Wider, less technical courses help promoters deal with fields in excess of 100

Ross designs his courses to accommodate hundreds of participants. His circuits are roughly 4km long and take around nine minutes to ride per lap. They're also wider than average to provide ample room for riders to move around, and less technical, to avoid injuries.

“It’s just because we have so many people on course and we're always concerned with safety,” Ross said. “The reason we make our courses longer and wider is so that the people who start in 100th place can still get themselves into a situation where they're competing in the race.”

The price of balancing the books

With the exception of Cross Crusade, some of the biggest category fields in the nation are held in conjunction with events that also host UCI-sanctioned Elite races, such as the Cycle-Smart International in Northampton, Massachusetts and the Boulder Cup in Colorado. Promoters rely on registration profits from the large number of category racers to pay for the cost of putting on the event. USA Cycling and ACA’s enforcement of smaller field sizes could potentially limit the amount of money a promoter can make.

The fees associated with running a cyclo-cross race include the cost of the venue, fencing, timing, officials, rider insurance and prize lists. For example, the Verge New England Championship Cyclo-cross Series (NECCS) sets a standard entry rate between $15 and $35 per rider – an amount that will allow its promoters to pay the event’s expenses. Series director Adam Myerson operates NECCS rounds five and six at the Cycle-Smart International event on a $40,000 budget and expects to make roughly the same amount back from entry fees.

“We judge the market and what it costs to put our races on with what kind of turnout we expect because we don’t want to lose money,” Myerson said. “We have a small amount of sponsorship that helps cover the cost of running an event and then I have to raise the rest of that in entry fees. My goal is just to not lose money and it isn't to profit on the race.”

However, paying the entry fee does not always guarantee a quality experience, especially if the promoter allows a large number of riders on a course that's of an inadequate length. Riders who start near the back of a 150-rider field can be pulled from the race by officials if they're lapped by the lead riders, sometimes within the first third of the event.

“You can’t really make a profit off of registration fees, unless you have thousands of riders in a day on a grassroots style course,” Myerson said. “But when you start to approach 200 riders per field, ethically, the promoter should start thinking about designing longer courses or having a smaller field because riders are trying to race for results." He added: "Large fields might work well in a place like Portland where people are really wanting to go out there and just have fun.”

Chip timing technology: A better experience?

USA Cycling recently approved chip timing as a legitimate scoring method to accurately identify racers and calculate results. The technology helps officials keep better track of participants in a large field and could be the solution that allows riders to stay in the race without getting pulled.

However, while it may keep riders from getting pulled, it adds a new element to the races, especially for those contesting the win. Those leading riders will be forced to negotiate lapped riders as well as their competition and the course. If a promoter chooses to use chip timing, they'll still require an official to hand score results at the finish line.

“I believe the introduction of chip timing is a nice technical benefit for both the riders and the officials,” said Mark Legg-Compton, Masters racer and husband to multiple national 'cross champion Katie Compton. “The officials can use it for scoring riders, although I’ve seen what happens when timing chip failures occur and the officials didn’t run a manual scoring of the race. The result was a lot of uncivilized behavior from the riders.”

“The traditional method of scoring is visually, with spotters and officials trying to figure out who's on what lap every time the racers come around,” Johnson said. “The natural tendency is to just start pulling riders to make it simpler. Frankly, our preference is to let people stay in the race, enjoy the full 45 minutes and finish on whatever lap they finish on.”

According to a recent press release from USA Cycling, the chip scoring systems are designed to complement what officials already do at the event and add value for the riders. The chips add another layer of identification every lap that allows the officials to verify the information they've gathered or to fill in information they may have missed. This still doesn’t address the issue of faster riders needing to ride through the tail end of their field.

“The 80 percent rule is working well to prevent lapped riders from interfering with the front end of the field and I believe removing it or allowing lapped riders to continue will interfere with the running of the front end of the field,” said Legg-Compton. “Either direction we go in, whether it’s allowing lapped riders to continue on course or pulling them, it will remain the paradox of Masters cyclo-cross racing without a clear and balanced answer for all athletes. I only hope we don’t burn both ends of the field and lose them from participating in races like the USGP series.”

A better system: National rankings in the works

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Unlike UCI Elite men and women, who are seeded and started according to points, category racers don't line up on the start line in any particular order, unless they've racked up points by racing the event’s corresponding series. Some promoters line riders up based on series points, others base it on when they register or draw random race numbers to determine start spots. USA Cycling is in the process of developing a nationwide points system that ranks category riders appropriately throughout the season.

“There's an issue with how to start riders,” Johnson said. “From our perspective, one of the solutions going forward is to develop a more robust ranking system to generate points and rankings for everybody so that we can begin to line folks up in a rational and thoughtful manner, at the non UCI category races. We're working hard with cyclo-cross promoters and our internal staff to develop that technology.”

USA Cycling is currently working on two types of ranking systems. The first will allow racers to accumulate points in USA Cycling-sanctioned events across the country, much like the UCI’s points structure. The second will involve a penalty based scoring system, similar to ski competition. "We're looking at both structures right now,” Johnson said. “Over the course of the next few months we'll make a decision on the points structure and start to do the necessary programming to have it ready for next year. We'll introduce it for 2012.”

USA Cycling will be hard at work over the next few months developing the national points ranking system, chip timing technology and considering course standards with respect to large field sizes. The emphasis is on providing its members with the best possible bike racing experience. “From our perspective, we're certainly aware of the growth and we want to make sure that we take every step possible to ensure that the quality of the participants' experience is maintained and even enhanced,” Johnson said. “We're focused on our events and the quality of the customer experience.”

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