Thursday, January 8, 2009

VERGE 2009

A New England Cyclocross racer's favorite thing to do right after the season ends is to debate how to improve the traditional race schedule and start times. Split masters by age, ability, combine this field or that, what on earth are we going to do with the women...

This year, the discussion was quite animated on the NE cyclocross yahoo group. So many people weighed in, it was difficult to keep up with.

Here are my thoughts. Some of this has been said before elsewhere.

To improve the Verge series I would:

1) Appoint someone or a group of someones to coordinate and promote host housing and car-pooling. (It's first on my list because I've not seen anyone else suggest it.) This is an important issue to me personally... at least the car-pooling part is and I'm a big fan of host housing vs. hotels.

2) Offer season passes with some sort of discount (as previously discussed) and eliminate day of registration. This means cash in hand and will ease the "day of" burden on organizers.

3) Line up riders by points and then scores, with pointless/ score-less racers at the back. If they are good, they'll move up. Using cross results would put racers in their rightful place. The only potential down side I can see with this (other than general bitching about Colin's scoring system which is something he has to worry about) is that some people use their ability to register quickly as a way of getting a better starting spot, even if they are slower. (That group of some people would include me by the way.) Using cross results could discourage a percentage of those racers from even participating at all, but it wouldn't be a large number I think. That number may even be offset by additional participation from others who see the equity in the new system and race when they normally wouldn't have, especially if they miss the opening of registration.
This staging protocol would create a more equitable and organized start.

4) Focus on the 300 racers who make the series great rather than the handful of racers that the series makes great.

There's many layers to this one, so I'll start at the top...

UCI status: I've read the Verge mission statement and understand the concept of a mini-series to provide high level racing with minimal travel. This promise has been kept in spades... for every field except the pro field, where we have seen consistent reduction in the number of top pros coming to Verge events. There is no question that we had great pro riders at our 2008 events, and we have sent and will continue to send some great riders to Europe, but the top US pros are racing outside of NE and VERGE with increasing frequency. The best guys seem to be starting here, rather than ending here. The evidence is clear that building up the series to 9 and now 12 races and getting the majority of them to UCI status hasn't had the desired effect of drawing the top pros, because while we add UCI events so does Ohio, and Kentucky and Colorado, and the elite field is spread out all over the country. It's the same thing that happened to the NHL: expansion diluted the talent. Except in the NHL there was an organized approach to adding franchises. With cyclocross, an indivudal promoter doesn't owe the rest of the promoters anything and the conflicting weekends go unchecked.

They say you have to race with the best to get better. If we are expecting our up and coming local talent to get better and the top pros aren't around, then we shouldn't be surprised when those up and comers don't stay around either. Adding UCI status to more of our events therefore isn't serving the best interests of our local talent. The Keoughs, Goguens and just about every parent with a talented kid in any sport nowadays has shown that they aren't afraid to lay out some cash to get their kids to the best events, where ever they may be. In fact, we've been lucky to see them here as much as we have.

I'd scale back the number of UCI races in the Verge series and work on getting the country's top pros here for two marquis weekends. Dare I say it... start money? I'd vote for Noho and/or Gloucester to be the showcase events but more importantly make sure that the highlighted events are the best options for any racer in the country and the rewards for participation are high. Spare no expense. Redirect resources from the other planned UCI events to these 4 races. Let's get the whole US cross scene here for two weekends and let our local guys race the best 4 times in their back yard. Let's show the rest of the country how we... as spectators, lower class racers, organizers, and communities... can put on a couple of world class events. The rest of the series will still be great because that UCI status really only applies to a fraction of the total participants.

Others have made the point that more UCI races mean more racers get a chance to collect UCI points. This is absolutely true, but points only matter for pro contracts and starting positions. We can toss the contract issue out for all but a handful of US pros, and the idea that your starting position will be significantly improved because you have points is flawed.
Consider two elite racers in 2006. Racer A grabbed the last UCI point (say 15th place) and Racer B was 7 spots back, out of the money and the points. With more UCI events around and the top of the field thinner, Racer B now finished 15th and finally grabs a point. Racer A also benefited from the thin field, and he won that race. In the end, the points may go deeper but the results are the same. Unless you have a breakthrough year, the guy who was faster than you before is still faster than you naow and will take more points than you.
UCI points have become basically meaningless. Everyone knows what the pecking order is for the top pros. We don't need 40 UCI races to rank our elite US racers, we could do it in 10 races. There aren't that many surprises in the list. Trebon and TJ will be at the top and the others will slot in behind them. If there were only 10 UCI races domestically, you'd be damn sure to see every pro there.

Series Expansion: The Verge series is expanging from 9 to 12 and I don't think this is such a good idea for NE cyclocross in general. The Verge races are without a doubt the best races in NE and I'll be at every one of them in 2009. They have the biggest fields, are always well organized, post prompt and accurate results, are brimming over with quality officials, offer a great NE cyclocross experience, and have some of the best courses. Most NE racers set their schedule by looking at the Verge events first as "must do" races, then fill in the rest of the weekends based on which races remain, how much cost is associated, whether or not they have other obligations to get to such as house work, employment, kids soccer games, holiday parties, whatever people do on weekends in the fall besides race cyclocross. With Verge at 8 or 9 races, most people can find time for the smaller races and these other things. Likewise, the smaller races have space on the calendar to peaceful coexist with the big series. With 12 Verge races, something will have to give. For the individual is probably isn't going to be the leaves piled up in the yard or little Johnny's regional semi-final: they are going to have to miss a race and it won't be Verge (at least not in my case). The smaller races will be battling for calendar dates and racers and you can be sure some will disappear as a result.

The smaller races have an important place in the NE cyclocross scene. They help others learn the art of race promotion, they donate to charity, they give racers the chance to race a different division than they would (or use a single speed bike or dress up in some funny outfit), they keep classic venues (like Palmer and Putney) alive, they give someone else a chance to win, they let you shake out new gear, they take the pressure off or at least take it down a notch. I worry about the health of NE cyclocross when one series grows too big.

Race Day Schedule: Plenty of people much smarter than me haven't been able to figure this one out yet so I don't pretend to have the answers. Personally, I'd like to see a singlespeed category and a costume race around halloween. I know that isn't enough time in the day towards the end of the year for these things though.

Looking at our schedule problems it seems that there are two. 1) slower riders sharing a field with faster ones are getting lapped and pulled sooner than they would like and 2) some group is going to have to wake up early to race.
Issue #1 can be resolved by putting smaller fields of similar ability together, but it seems that the available smaller fields are not of similar ability. The massive 4, 3/4 masters, 2/3 race and elite masters races don't appear to be suffering from these problems as much as the others: participation is high and people seem happy. I like the idea of making the elite masters race 1/2 only and make the 3s earn their upgrade, but can the 3/4 field handle the swelling that will occur when that happens until the appropriate number of 3s upgrade? Also, this would necessarily mean that racers in the 3/4 masters would have to upgrade if they were placing well to make sure that the 3/4 field is truly composed of 3/4 racers. Some folks may not like that.
Related to this is the question of what to do with the 3/4 master's field that comes up every year at this time. I'm not sure who starts it but I have an idea. These guys all seem pretty happy to race in a less cutthroat field, generally don't seem to mind the early start times, and don't necessarily feel like upgrading at all simply so that they can spend the last 10 minutes of a race worrying about staying ahead of Johnny Bold. Leave 'em alone, let them race at the level they are comfortable. The numbers suggest that they are perfectly content with the way it is, but as the 3/4 masters and 4 races are the cash cows of this series, it would be bad business to ignore their collective wishes. If 35% of your paying customers wanted to race at noon rather than 8 am... You'd be wise to make it happen.

In summary, I end where I started on this one. I don't have a solution for the main problem of smaller fields being combined and the slowest riders in that race getting lapped early.

Race Atmosphere: This is all still under the "focus on the 300 racers who make the series" section, which means we're talking about the masters (3/4 & 1,2,3, the 4s and the 2/3 fields. Lots of guys in these fields (hell lots of guys in all the fields) have families. What pulls these racers away from the venue after they are done racing most of the time? Their family. Want people to stay? Make these races a destination for families rather than a distraction from them. Bring some new thinking in to this such that racers come for not just their race, but come for the day, watch all the races, stay right through the pro race, and go home with everyone in the car happy and looking forward to coming back next week. Every effort to reach this goal will grease the skids for the next improvement and the next after that, so it doesn't have to be all or nothing. Kids races are a great start and every Verge races should have one. Make the pros help with this event and give them some cash for doing it.
I'd like to see more food vendors and of course beer vendors are great as well. Offer day care or some sort of sitting service so someone can bring their kids while their spouse gets some down time at home if they don't want to come. On site or affordable mobile showers would keep people sticking around too. Hay rides or sleigh rides or anything that would draw a crowd would work.

Parking: Go out of the way to allow parking as close to the venue as possible. This supports the race atmosphere concept above, with the idea being that people will be changing, warming up, partying, tending to the kids, etc at their cars more likely than anywhere else. If they are close to the race while doing this, they are more likely to become interested in the outcome and stick around longer.

Randomly Reward Participation: Not a unique idea, but randomly give prizes out to non elite fields. Hell, give out random prizes to racers in the elite field too. There are plenty of guys that are never going to finish in the money there.

I think that is all I can handle for now. As more thoughts come up, I'll post.

Flame away...