Depth and Breadth
Generally speaking, the increase in numbers within each of the grades wasn’t an overnight jump, but rather a steady trend over the past 5-6 years. This is reflected more so in the lower grades rather than A Grade numbers. However, from where I sit at the back of the pack, I can see that A-Grade has gotten much stronger over the years and it’s nearly impossible for a regular guy to win one of these races. The depth of these A-Grade fields are incredibly good now and all season long there are professional riders in the mix. The AIS, VIS, NSWIS, etc are pumping out some unbelievable teenagers who in their first year of racing and already winning some of the most coveted races on the scene. Caleb Ewen, Alex Morgan, Jack Cummings, are just a few examples of kids who are setting world records and winning massive races who we get to mix it up against every week.
I’ve done a spot check with CCCC and SKCC race numbers over the past few years. It’s difficult to notice a massive jump from one season to the next, but SKCC sent me a good snapshot of their growth: In the 2010/2011 season the average numbers were 202 riders per crit. This year (2011/2012) the average has risen to 225. I figured that it would be more than a 10% increase, but encouraging nonetheless. CCCC states that their numbers and grown between this year and last year are similar.
A couple years ago SKCC had only 8 riders racing in E-grade. It now has almost 30. B and C-grades are becoming increasingly difficult to get a placing in as there’s a logjam of riders trying to move up into the next grade. A-Grade is now getting so big that SKCC is looking into putting an “Elite A-Grade” category into its races.
SKCC now holds A, B and C grades for women’s racing ad 25% of their membership is female. It’s great to see this side of the sport growing at a phenomenal rate. It’s only one or two years away before the depth of women’s racing is so good that the female professionals no longer race with the men in order to get the level competition they need.
Another positive thing about the increasing numbers in club racing is its attractiveness to sponsors. If you go to any of the larger criteriums you’ll see hundreds of racers and spectators who have money to spend on their cycling. To have access to communications with these people is a sponsor’s dream. Savvy clubs can leverage their races, newsletters, websites and membership to the sponsors who can help fund the growth of the club and the sport.
Challenges With Success
The increasing popularity of club racing doesn’t come without it’s challenges. Formalising a handicapping system is on many club’s agendas. The balance between strength, skill and experience is a tough one to get right. While I see some riders in A-Grade who are a complete danger to the rest of the race, riders in lower grades see many participants as sandbaggers. Clubs are left to figure this out on their own when I see this as something Cycling Australia should be doing on a nationwide scale.
Administration of these numbers is another challenge. This growth begins to require the need to implement more processes which can create red tape for grassroots racing. More club volunteers are needed at registration desks and clubs need to handle many more questions and complaints. If you’ve ever volunteered to help out with marshalling or setting up a club criterium (which I highly recommend you do), you’ll understand what a mammoth task this is every week.
It used to be that people joined a cycling club to learn how to race. These days many riders try to learn how to race on Beach Road and decide to jump straight into the deep end of club racing. They still don’t know what they don’t know. The “Patron of the Peloton” is now a rarity and essential etiquette, skill and safety measures are not being passed on to less experienced riders.
I’ve seen more crashes this season than I have before. More riders trying to mix it up in the sprint when they have no place in doing so and cutting underneath the bunch in corners. This inexperience and overestimating one’s limits is the biggest cause of this in my opinion. The other week I kept finding myself behind a guy who kept overlapping wheels with rider(s) ahead and kept yelling at them as if it was their fault. This should never, ever happen in A-Grade, but seems to be a common occurrence.
It’s been a fantastic season of crit racing and I love that it’s getting larger and more competitive every year. To win one a club criterium these days is a massive achievement. For me though, I can’t wait for road racing to begin. I love the varying terrain, the tactics, and the elements which makes the cream rise to the top. Crit racing takes a certain skillset, but road racing is real racing.
Have a wonderful long weekend and good luck to everyone doing the 3 Peaks!