Are mountain bike races overly sub-divided? If so, is there a way to fix that?
Yes. And yes.
It’s time to re-imagine the age-group.
Age-groups are an easy way to classify different people. But in the case of bike racing, they are too vague, and do not accurately represent who should be racing against who. Grouping everyone who happens to be between 30 and 39 years old, who calls themselves an “expert” looks fine on paper. But when the top riders in each group all have similar finishing times, there is a disconnect in the way we are sub-dividing racers and the results out on course.
Shouldn’t the racers who most closely mirror each other be racing in the same flights, regardless of age?
I think so. That’s why eliminating age-groups, and installing a road-inspired category system could make racing more exciting for riders and spectators, and easier for promoters and volunteers.
Something like this*:
Open: This wouldn’t really change (except that maybe its ranks would grow). These are the professional riders racing for prize money. On the local scale, these are the riders who have out-paced the Expert groups, or who have been easily winning those races.
Category 1: The top 30-40 percent of Expert riders. These are the guys who are consistently landing on the Expert podiums of both XC and endurance events, or fighting for those spots.
Category 2: The rest of the Expert riders. These riders are competitive, but aren’t winning races, or finishing in the top 1/3 of the group.
Category 3: The top Sport riders. These are riders who are winning Sport races, and are getting ready to upgrade to Cat 1/2.
Category 4: Sport/Beginner riders. Cat 4 is for the riders who may be experienced riders, but are not experienced racers. It would resemble today’s Beginner Class, more than the Sport Class.
*The Singlespeed and Clydesdale classes could carry on as usual.
Why would a system like this improve grassroots racing? Because the races would become more competitive, and more accurately determine who the best racers are, and where everyone stacks up across a broader sample, rather than the arbitrary age groupings. It would make upgrading easier, by helping riders avoid mis-timing the move to a faster category. It would also eliminate the out-dated terms “Expert”, “Sport”, and “Beginner”.
For example, I’ve re-organized the Men’s Expert results of a recent local race, based on time/ability, rather than age. There were 33 total racers in the Expert fields.
Modified results, based on a Cat 1/2 grouping. † = 19-29; * = 30-39; ß = 40-49
1: 56:03 *
I separated the 2 categories somewhat randomly, and far too cleanly. I looked for a break in the spread, and one appeared around 56 minutes. So anything faster than that, I placed in Cat 1, everything else, Cat 2. Obviously the actual results would look a little differently, based on where the riders self-sorted. I’m certain there would be overlap. But the point is that instead of 3 pretty evenly matched categories that are spread out on the course, we now have 2 really competitive groups that get to race among themselves in what is (theoretically) a more contested, more exciting race.
For example, The top 5 in Cat 2 are separated by just 30 seconds, instead of several minutes.
Sub-dividing the same group of riders based on time, instead of age, can lead to better races-within-the-race, will eliminate smaller age-based categories, and will help produce more significant race results. And because the steps between categories is a little smaller, it may help diffuse sand-bagging by encouraging more subtle upgrades. Eliminating the age-based micro-dividing would unclog the start-line (fewer groups), and quicken the handing out of awards. It would also make those awards more meaningful to the people who earn them.
Are there shortcomings?
Yes. Primarily, field sizes. This is especially relevant in Cats 3/4 where the field sizes can be large. But most courses can accomadate a large group of riders. There have been very few instances, in my experience, when the field has overwhelmed the course. If problems arise, adjustments can be made, such as course altering (in the design phase) where possible, or even splitting categories into heats, and then sorting out the overall results later. That’s not ideal, but I think the need for something like that would be extremely rare. The total number of racers at any given event wouldn’t change, instead, only the way we are divided would change.
I realize this might be kicking at pricks. Age-groups are a time-honored tradition. But that doesn’t mean they make any sense, or are the best way to divide amateur racers into flights. There has to be a better way.
Let’s re-imagine the age-group. And by that, I mean, let’s get rid of it.