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...


rosey said...

it's been a fun topic to discuss and you've done a good job of adding valuable ideas to the mix. ultimately it will come down to whether or not the Verge series wants to continue in its quest to be a UCI destination series or instead focus on making 2 or 3 marquee events that are supported by a stellar group of 3 or 4 non UCI weekends. my vote is for the latter.

G-ride said...

I can't believe I was not the first to read/comment. Been anxiously awaiting your return...

1. Start a yahoo group for necyclocrosscarpooling. its free and anyone can do it. Runs itself if mod is off. Your welcome.

2. I like a seasons pass, but I suspect promoters have no real incentive to do it. They pay officials/volunteers the same either way, but they lose money by offering a discount. Verge always sells out, so I cant see them wanting to. Great idea, and I would love it.

3. Hell yes. In fact, for verge it would be sooo easy cause EVERYONE in New England has points if they have EVER gone to a race. Total no brainer, and gets rid of this stupid race to register crap. Which is just that, CRAP.

4a. Yes, 6 weekends is alot. I probably win the most miles per season award, and I will do all 12 or 85 or however many it is this year. But it feels like Pedros in MTB in the early 90s (when I stopped MTB racing...). Killed the sport for me.

4b. Gewilli races A now, so its not him. The M3/4 race seems like a good time. Its big so the start time seems fine.

4.c. Making A Masters 1/2 would be a mistake. I think no one realizes who is what category. I wish Colin would figure out how to integrate that stat. I suspect a HUGE number of the A Masters are 3's. I would guess 60%. I also _think_ that technically masters dont earn upgrade points in masters races. Also, the M3/4 field is already full. Finally, the same people would be scoring points in the M3/4 field, I suspect. As a top 20 M3/4 guy (in my mind) I never did, nor likely ever would, get close enough to score any points. Which is why I self upgraded to the elite race. I prefer it anyway for a long list of reasons. I can also state definitively that I would race half as much if I had to do the M3/4 race. Both from driving so early, and cause I just would not be motivated to race.

4d. Single speed YES. It would become a big field, and very likely to get double racers, more then doing B young and A master, or A master A elite, or other? combos. And I am the target audience, so I should know. I like doing 2 races, and I like SS, and I rarely get to do 2 races with the current schedule.

5. Atmosphere - YES. I bring my kids and when there is something else going on they love it. My wife might even come. And YES to a kids race. Parking hardly seems like something they can control though.

6. YES YES YES. The only prizes I have ever won at a bike race have been randoms. And even then, pretty damn rarely. Its super nice to get something though.

Colin R said...

Responding to Jerry:

(1) Yup. Do it and advertise it. done.

(2) It would be nice but I'm not sure it solves a real problem, you're basically asking the big races to take a hit so that a few more people show up an ME and VT.

(3) Feel free to campaign for this on my behalf, I cannot publicly push for this because of the obvious bias...

(4) 6 is too many. Going from 9 races to 12 is crazy... even turning Sterling into yet another double is kind of annoying. Crazy that all these promoters want to keep upping the ante.

4c) Find me a place where racer category info is available online in a searchable way and maybe it would happen. I agree that making A masters 1/2/3 is pointless.

4) There's no time for a single speed race guys. None. Zero. Did you not follow the endless debates about adding an 8th race to split up Women and Juniors, and the ensuing argument about who is going to race at 8-freaking-AM so we can fit everything in?

If you actually think a SS race is important, show me a way its feasible. I mean, I'd like a pony, but it just won't fit in my apartment, so I don't go yapping about it. You know?

(5) Isn't this a promoter thing, not a Verge thing? Family-friendliness = turnout, but can Verge really dictate that to promoters?

(6) Yes. Screw podium prizes for non-elite cats, just do a random draw for some decent swag.

G-ride said...

i say on my blog version that it would be a combined race. clearly no time for it.

Colin R said...

What field are you going to combine it with?

G-ride said...

that is why i stay outa this stuff. i would say women's / juniors/ 55?s I dunno.

G-ride said...

i know i know, dont bring criticism if you dont bring answers. how do that fit all this in PDX?

gewilli said...

how do they fit it all in in Portland?it stays light out there longer? maybe a tiny bit.

But really how they do it is not doing UCI/USAC races (from what I gather).

The A Masters race with the Elites. The B Masters race with the Bs and so on and so forth.

They have 200+ people on the course at once and somehow seem to manage to get lap times for most everyone and not screw the results up too much. A good number of the A Masters get lapped by the Elite As but it doesn't seem to be a problem out there.

Anyway, but if our series is a UCI race, well ya can't do that.

Season pass. Don't discount it too much. Knock 5-10% off the price for the season pass. Hell Maybe Bikereg will pony up the difference. It seems the biggest headache for them is cross race registration for the verge races. Put that all into a season pass and BOOM. All done.

HUGE HUGE side benefit for ALL the promoters with a season pass?

You keep the same number all year.

That'll save a dollar or two. No? Everyone gets a Verge Number. We all know these things don't ever wear out. Wash it, pin it on the following day.

Cuts down on waste and all that. Your number becomes your season ticket. Check in at reg, show em your number, sign the form, done.

might actually post this idea to the list... hmmm

anyway - just a couple comments

Colin R said...

I must make more negative nancy comments:

Season pass. Don't discount it too much. Knock 5-10% off the price for the season pass. Hell Maybe Bikereg will pony up the difference. It seems the biggest headache for them is cross race registration for the verge races. Put that all into a season pass and BOOM. All done.

Adding a seasons pass would be additional programming for bikereg, and the end result is quite possibly less revenue. Why would they encourage this?

You keep the same number all year.

Oh, hey, I lost my number. I need a replacement.

That'll save a dollar or two. No? Everyone gets a Verge Number. We all know these things don't ever wear out. Wash it, pin it on the following day.

1000 numbers can be had for $100. It's a ten cent per racer expense.
If you were a promoter, would you want to relinquish control over numbering to save 10 cents? You still have to have numbers on hand for non-seasons pass racers.

You're adding the headache of managing racer numbers over the course of the season to someone. Who does it, Verge? Adam? I get reissued a number, and he goes into the master spreadsheet and changes it?

I realize this would be nice for racers, but if you look at it from a promoter standpoint, it's a bunch of extra work when promoting is already one headache after another.

Negative Nancy OUT.

G-ride said...

yup, dollars and cents. i think its a net reduction in revenue. i bet some promoters love the 5 dollar day of charge.

josh said...

collegiate series has numbers all year, its not that hard and somehow we make it work. even us irresponsible kids remember our numbers.

5 bucks for a new number if you loose it, or you don't race. pretty simple.

you upgrade, you get a new number for free, so long as you turn in your old number (which is given to someone else most of the time)

you get a number first race you enter, you keep it for the year, season pass or not. 0-199 is A's, 200-299 B's, so on and so forth. put the series sponsors on the number (add some value for them perhaps? maybe? probably not?) and have them pay for them and save every promoter $100 bucks. numbers are run by VERGE. Alan does it for collegiate season, so he knows how to do it.


mkr said...

Good stuff!

I like A Masters the way it is, don't touch a thing unless you make A Masters 1/2, B Masters 3 and add a C Masters which is 4 only. I think that would spread out the crowded Masters 3/4 and Cat 4 races but would make a for a very intimate A Masters race with only the 1/2's.

My thought on the expanded schedule is that you are going to start seeing fewer participants at the Verge races. Last year's Bedford race showed that lots of folks would rather stay local and race in a monsoon than drive 3 hrs. Next year expect that there will be back to back local races that weekend (heck, our club is even talking about it) and if there were two races in my backyard on a weekend, I'd be hard pressed to drive 3 hrs. If the local promoters organize and standardize their races (run the same race categories and schedules making for a familiar look and feel to the local races) I think even more people may defect.

Single speed may be an equipment choice but it sure as heck should be a category IF you want to increase participation. As Colin and Thom saw, the SS freaks will seek you out if you have a category. Moreover, most of them will double up on races. I know I did and would.

And thats all I have to say about that.