Tuesday, February 21, 2012

USAC vs. USAT - Categories versus Age Groups

The 2012 bike racing season has begun in Arizona. For those that don't know, I bit the bullet and started bike racing again. I still train and compete in tri's, but I've found that I missed bike racing and the competition that it offers. Hopefully it will also make me a stronger biker in the tri's.

I've raced in several bike races since late last year, and there are many more races to come. One of the things I like about bike racing versus triathlon is the concept of 'categories'. In tri, there are only age groups and elites. If you're not an elite (or pro), then you're competing with everyone in your age group. Actually, even if you ARE elite, often times you're also competing with the age groupers. This means if there are a lot of really great racers in your age group, you're never going to win anything. There are a lot of great racers between 35-50! I can usually check the list of competitors to see if I'm going to place very well.

Bike racing places people in categories regardless of age, at least in the beginning. The full list of categories and upgrade requirements are listed at the USAC, but basically the more you race and the better you do, the further up the category list you go. Starting as a 5 (women start at 4), you have to race in at least 10 mass start USAC races (e.g. TT's don't count, nor do 'timed events' like the Tour de Tucson). After you upgrade to a cat 4, you need to get points to upgrade - though the new rules also allow 20 finishes 'with the pack' to move up to a cat 3. If you keep winning and getting points, you can move to cat 2, etc. In fact if you win too much (get too many points) there is a mandatory upgrade!

People still have the option to compete in 'masters' races, though it's not like age group racing in triathlon. Many of the masters racers are former pros, cat 1's, etc. In other words, don't expect to race in masters and find lower levels of competition.

The thing is, if racers continually win a category they will eventually move up. This keeps the playing field a bit more even. It also gives an incentive to race more and train harder. This is something that seems to be missing from triathlon. The push in triathlon is to finish for so many of the participants. Some people are trying to win, of course. For most people in reasonable shape and with a bit of training, finishing isn't as hard as advertised. In fact, if you can swim the distance and know how to ride a bike, many triathlons can be finished within the prescribed time with a slow run-walk protocol. I'm not trying to diminish the feat, as it's still a great accomplishment. For many, the act of completing is much bigger than for the people who have been athletic most of their lives or haven't had to overcome any sort of life-changing medical issues. As far as competition goes, however, it's vastly different from the head-to-head showdown that bike racing gives.

Personally, I think USAT could learn a lot from USAC. The idea of racing people with similar goals and abilities as I have would make the competition part more fun. They could still have the age groupers but for people who have a competitive spirit, racing others in their same category could add an element of fun and incentive to race more.

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