Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Demise of Cyclocross - Part I: Rankings

I've been thinking and talking a lot recently about the state of cyclocross racing in New England. The sport has been in an intense pattern of growth for the past half a dozen years, not only in the Northeast but across the country if not across the world. Recently though, there have been developments that I feel are starting to change the face of the sport. For years it has been a rabid love affair where you couldn't do anything wrong. This has started to change. There are now rumblings and complaints of events, of racer demographics, of scheduling, of officiating and of rankings. My plan is to do a series of posts on the topic, each exploring one subject or facet of the phenomenon, at least as I view it, and we all know just how objective I am.

New England has long been a hot-bed for cyclocross as well as for cycling and bicycle racing in general. We have seen the advent of numerous cyclocross related web sites, the explosion of available cyclocross equipment, we have ever seen the addition of a cyclocross specific magazine. Racer numbers have continued to swell in the Northeast with "small local races" seeing racer participation numbers approaching 500 for a single day event. The bikes have gone from being a mix of custom steel framesets made by small artisan craftsmen and rigs cobbled together from parts to ultralight carbon-fiber framesets with carbon-fiber tubular wheelsets and ultra-spiffy parts picks that would represent a down-payment on a home. This is just in the Cat4 (beginner) races.

Fast forward a couple of years and a local cross/MTB racer and computer nerd puts together a web site that tracked cyclocross racer results and statistics. At first this site was a novelty. People joked about their ranking and the victims and nemesis' but it was mainly all in fun. Starting last season though, additional emphasis started to be placed on the rankings when some of the local races began using racers crossresults ranking in order to seed the starting order for the race categories. Obviously in a large field of racers, people need to line up in rows. Being closer to the front is clearly advantageous. In the past, small races used random ways of determining where one lined up, like order of registration, from which the term "race to the race" was coined. There was also the staple method of simply not using a staging order and having it left to the racers to sort it out. This had a similar effect to Black Friday at Walmart. Don't get me wrong here, I am not trying to slam crossresults at all. I'm simply presenting what I perceive to be the current course of the sport based on my observations.

So, now people are starting to pay attention to their ranking, they are doing things to preserve their ranking and are making decisions based on their ranking. Race this race but not that race, not necessarily based on the quality of the race but by who is going to show up or how well one perceives they can do. Heck, with the crossresults Race Predictor, all of the guesswork is taken out and you basically know where you will finish, statistically speaking.

Another side effect is that people are less likely to do a second race or a fun race (such as an open single-speed race) that will likely have a lower points ranking as they risk a poor performance counting negatively against their ranking. Sure, we can argue that many of these issues and practices are long standing but the fact of the matter is that it is now in your face. What is my point in all of this? I'm not sure :)

Below is a message that I sent to the necyclocross email list in response to responses to my original posting regarding scoring of DNF's (acronym for 'Did Not Finish' the race) on Basically the responses to my post dealt with irregularities in what is reported to USA Cycling Officials in terms of competitor start lists as well as others feeling regarding being penalized for participation.

I agree on the start list format and the DNF reporting inconsistency, which was the point of the message; to try and promote standardization. It only works if everyone does the same thing, in terms of reporting. I would think that USAC 'should' require that the start list be accurate so that they can account for everyone on the course, which I would assume is of primary concern ie. you don't want to leave dead racers off the side of the trail in the woods. Pre-reg clearly doesn't mean much but racer sign in would be a better approximation in terms of who is actually on site. Am I missing something? Isn't a DNF binary? You either finish the race, or you don't, right? Crossing or not crossing the finish line is the test. Sure, there are many extenuating circumstances but unfortunately the end result is the same, you didn't finish the race.

As we start to affix more meaning, such as seeding/start order, to the points average that a racer has accumulated, it becomes more and more important to get an accurate count of the true picture. Accounting for DNF's need to be part of that picture, otherwise you start to risk the integrity of the numbers. For instance, you could argue that in order to preserve your ranking and if a DNF didn't count, strategically you should always DNF any race where you are going to finish with points lower than your current average. Or how about two racers, each starting 10 races, racer 1 beats racer 2 in the first race then DNF's the subsequent 9 races because he is behind racer 2 while racer 2 scores at or below their starting average so as not to improve their average ranking. Is it then fair or accurate to start racer 1 ahead of racer 2? Is it just me or does that seem wrong? Maybe I'm a bad judge though as for better or worse, I haven't DNF'd a cross race.

In terms of not being penalized for participation, I don't think that is realistic. Whenever you are scored or graded in competition or in life and you perform below your current average, you are effectively penalized for your participation. If you were that worried about negatively impacting your average, shouldn't you just stay home or do better?


Colin R said...

Hey Mike, you make a fair critique. Just wanted to let you know that high on the todo list is to come up with a way to only take the best points from a racer for a single day for rankings -- so a second race wouldn't negatively affect you.

I as dismayed as you are by how much this seems to affect people's racing habits. Shut up and ride is ride.

Michele said...

I love the image of you battling time accompanied by your kittens!

Also love the second-race idea from Colin.

mkr said...

Right on, at the end of the day, it's just bike racing.

tmc said...

Guess I'm naive - my crossresults points have never factored into a decision about how to race, where to race, which race to race, etc. I'm still more annoyed that I'm racing against women 1/2 my age (very nice to see womens masters categories showing up for some events!) - maybe crossresults should start factoring in age. ;-)

NH biker chick said...

It seems to me like 'cross racing is getting waay too serious. Is there anyway of going back to the old days when it was just a fun way to get some off-season fitness?

gewilli said...

well said mike, it's taken me a good part of the season but i've come to terms with ignoring the points raking except for curiosity. it hasn't affected my selection of races this year (i've acknowledged the points and potential but not let it factor in).

I really don't like the DNF guys that don't get reported. BUT. I make it a point to check the # or starters and # of finishers and take a bit of pride and consolation that a few more people than the one or two on the sheet finished "behind" me ie didn't finish.

DFL is better than DNF which is better than DNS

rosey said...

I blame roadies. They make everything less fun. Frankly, caring about this ranking enough to impact your race schedule is pathetic. If you're racing to win anything other than elites, you're probably racing below your appropriate cat. It's bikes, we're amateurs, having fun. Leave the seriousness at the office.

RMM said...

It never occurred to me to pull out of a race for any reason other than the intense suffering, serious injury or an unfixable mechanical.

It saddens me that anyone would even consider pulling to preserve such a ranking.

mkr said...

I think that it is all too easy to fall into the ranking trap and take both the site and yourself too seriously. After all, this is competition, if you don't care about results why do you pay to compete. However, in the past there hasn't been a good quantitative indicator of ranking. For me I know that I do personally care about my results in every competition I enter, which is why I enter the competition, to see how I fare against others so I'm one of the fools that took it all (and myself) too seriously. What I've come to realize is that it is too much info. I need to take it race by race and evaluate how I feel I did. Unfortunately what it means is that I don't pay attention to the site any longer.