The NYC Race Official Shortage
As if the TBD Journal hasn’t sent enough fear and panic into hearts of amateur cyclists, with stories questioning whether the end of categorized racing is near and if our sport will crush under the weight of prize money obligations, there’s another threat to our sport that most racers don’t know about: a shortage of USAC officials.
In early 2017, I took over the job of officials’ coordinator for the New York State Bicycle Racing Association (NYSBRA). Most cyclists I speak to are only vaguely aware of their local governing body and how important it is for local racing. Admittedly, I don’t think I fully understood how essential NYSBRA is until I joined the board in 2016. In addition to approving race permits and rider upgrades, NYSBRA assigns officials to every race in the state from Buffalo to Long Island.
Simple, right? Not when the number of races dwarfs the number of working officials. In the New York City area, there are weekly races on Tuesdays at Floyd Bennett Field, Wednesdays at Kissena, Thursdays at Floyd Bennett Field, and Fridays in Merrick, Long Island. There are also two season-long series in Prospect Park, several “open” races in Central Park (CRCA uses its own official for Club races. Alex, you’re the best!) and a handful of races that aren’t part of a regular series (Orchard Beach, Bear Mountain, White Plains, Six Days of Kissena, etc.).
That’s five or six races a week that need officials in order to happen, and the pool of licensed officials in the NYC area is so small that calling it a “pool” at the start of the 2017 racing season was probably generous. In fact, when the season opened there were only three officials who were willing and able to serve as chief referees in the NYC area. Every race needs a chief referee who is the leader of the officiating crew and supervises the general conduct of the race by interpreting and enforcing the rules of USA Cycling. Three officials for all those races? Yikes.
When the season opened there were only three officials who were willing and able to serve as chief referees in the NYC area.
It wasn’t until after Grant’s Tomb when many series races began that I realized how screwed we were. Thankfully, there was some interest; we had a handful of people travel to an officials clinic in New Jersey to get licensed. I was able to talk two people into renewing long-expired licenses. But even with this new crop of good-cycling-Samaritans, our problems aren’t solved. The learning process is tedious and long, and it will take time before new officials are ready to serve as a chief referee. New officials (“level C”) can expect to apprentice at least three races — unpaid — before they are assigned a paying position as an assistant referee or assistant judge. It can sometimes be at least a couple of years until someone is ready to work as a chief referee.
A race can run with just a chief referee, but this is never, ever ideal. There should at least be a chief referee and a chief judge, who is responsible for scoring the race and acts as the final authority in determining the finishing order of the race. Larger races need assistant referees and judges and pit officials, not to mention motos, many of whom are also licensed USAC officials to help races run more smoothly. In reality, the number of officials required for a race is dependent on the type of event (crit, road, cx, track), the number of fields on the course at any time and the number of registered riders. Yet each of these races are completely dependent on the small number of people willing and able to work.
Why is there a Shortage of USAC Officials IN NYC?
So why the shortage? No one is becoming a USAC official as a career move. The perks just can't justify it. Everyone has a day job, families, and other commitments. I’m willing to guess that some officials also like time to ride bikes themselves. As an anonymous official aptly noted: “There isn’t much that’s attractive about being a USAC official. The pay is bad, the hours suck, and the best we can hope for is to stay out of the way.” All of that is true.
The pay isn't anything that's putting food on the table and the hours are terrible, especially if you’re working those early morning park races or hauling out to an abandoned air strip in Brooklyn during rush hour, or worse yet doing both of those things in one week. It’s also a hard job. Officials are working, they aren’t spectating a bike race. Working means focusing on scoring riders as they pass through the start/finish on every lap, refereeing riders for erratic lane changes or dangerous moves, ensuring lap cards read properly as both fields and dropped riders pass, communicating with motos as they lead and follow fields throughout the course, etc. Officials also put up with a lot of crap; any time there is a relegation or DQ, officials have to tolerate a litany of rider complaints and he-said she-said arguments. Riders also love to argue with officials about their finishing place!
As an anonymous official aptly noted: “There isn’t much that’s attractive about being a USAC official. The pay is bad, the hours suck, and the best we can hope for is to stay out of the way.”
It’s hard to overemphasize how essential a competent and proactive crew of officials is. Reputable officials help races stay safe and run on time, and can make things a heck of a lot easier for race directors. It’s so important, that CRCA always requests and happily pays for travel and accommodation for one of the highest-ranking officials in the state to drive several hours to attend races in the cold or pre-dawn in the park to help ensure its success. Good officials also make the event better for racers by being proactive in anticipating occurrences on the road such as the correct time to pull dropped riders so they have a positive experience without negatively impacting the field or coordinating with motos to ensure that fields on the course at the same time do not interfere with one another in a dangerous manner.
How to Address the Officials Shortage in NYC
Unlike Matt’s suggestion that we cut prize money altogether to help save local race economics, I have yet to come up with one clear solution to the officials shortage, aside from first admitting that we have a problem (always a good step 1, right?). As a first measure, NYSBRA has asked promoters who run season-long series to put forward an individual who is willing to take the officials exam and join the NYC-area officials pool, but that unfortunately has not yet materialized. And, while CRCA is willing to bring in officials from far away to run its races, this isn't always a viable option. Promoters are responsible for paying for those travel costs and transporting officials from upstate is simply not an option for weekday races.
Without officials there are no bike races! If we lose even just one or two of our local chief referees, we risk losing races - meaning every individual and organization in the cycling community has a role to play. USAC should do more to recruit and make the job more appealing, by, for example, helping to cover costs to increase wages (rather than shifting that burden to promoters). For its part, NYSBRA offers financial incentives such as fee reimbursement for newly-licensed officials and grants for promoters who hire newly-licensed officials.
Promoters have the distinct advantage of having close ties to the local cycling communities, so while I first felt it unfair to shift more responsibility to promoters given the disproportionate burden that they carry in creating successful races, they can be hugely impactful towards recruiting potential officials from their networks.
Teams and racers can also play a role. Every team has that one person who shows up for group rides but doesn’t race, or just hangs around on the listserv but never contributes. What about asking that person to become a licensed official? If our sport is going to survive, and if the NYC area is going to retain the amazing number of races that we currently benefit from, we need a large pool of officials. USAC officials should never feel overworked and overburdened, or ever feel obligated to work a race when they don’t have the time. The officials shortage is a problem that should move to the forefront of everyone’s mind if we want to keep local racing viable.
Without officials there are no bike races! If we lose even just one or two of our local chief referees, we risk losing races - meaning every individual and organization in the cycling community has a role to play.
I am forever thankful for the hard-working, flexible, and willing officials that we have in NYC and throughout the state. Despite our small pool in NYC - that I am sure is mirrored in other locales - we have managed to make it through the busiest chunk of the 2017 season through some combination of exploitation and, admittedly, begging (I owe a few of you a beer!).
We are lucky here that the officials we do have are eager, dedicated, and easy to work with. But, the responsibility is on all of us. I’ll keep working as the officials' coordinator (despite wanting to quit on several occasions) and always show maximum courtesy wherever I race to USAC officials as they perform an underpaid and under-appreciated job. I also took the officials exam last week and have since been combing the internet for the most stylish khaki skirt I can find (recommendations welcome). While I’m not envisioning a career shift into race officiating, I may find myself on the other side of the judges’ stand more frequently in the coming years, especially if the shortage persists. The racing must go on!
If you’re interested in becoming a USAC official, visit http://www.usacycling.org/Programs/officials/cliniclist.php or send an email to elizabeth[dot]marcello[at]gmail[dot]com
Spread the word!!