The USAC Upgrade System is Broken
By most reasonable measures I think the 2019 Grant’s Tomb Criterium was a success. Despite the challenges that we have been writing about in the State of the Sport, the race saw record turnout, provided equal prize money for Elite Men and Women and featured four women’s fields and two juniors fields. It was a good day! And if you live in or around New York City hopefully you can join us for the next edition sometime in 2020.
In the warm afterglow of a successful event, however, I was quickly reminded of cycling’s ability to shoot itself in the foot when some degree of controversy emerged over our attempts to implement separate scoring between categories for Grant’s Tomb. This particular controversy centered more on confusion between two different Local Associations - both of whom were seemingly aiming to support separate scoring in some form - and the specific route to accomplish that goal. But it was a reminder of just how complicated the entire USAC category and upgrade system remains and how the system as it currently exists can not only confuse new cyclists (see also this tweet from Brad Sohner) but also punish riders for racing in regions and categories that lack the depth of fields necessary to create a realistic path for upgrading.
Separate scoring and simplifying upgrade procedures can be the ‘third-rail’ of cycling - I have had any number of impassioned discussions on the topic with riders that I trust and respect who vehemently disagree with my perspective. Traditionalists have and will make an argument about how they trudged uphill both ways (in the snow!) to their current licensed category, that new riders joining the sport today should do the same. Others will focus on perceived safety risks from separate scoring. But, going back to our various State of the Sport pieces, USAC has been losing both racers and races in recent years. Quite simply: the sport is shrinking and whether you want to point to a pro scene is disrepair or more locally the possible extinction of the Tokeneke Road Race, a number of important trends are going in the wrong direction. Even CRCA, which to date has been relatively immune to some of these challenges, is facing a mid-single digit membership decline this year that may leave the club’s marshaling resources stretched thin. And as the sport as a whole shrinks, the challenges associated with the upgrade system are getting worse, not better, due to fewer events and smaller fields (to say nothing of event economics getting worse as well).
And in fairness, there are a multitude of reasons for the challenges the sport is facing that have nothing to do with the complexity of upgrades: competitive cycling still faces a major gender crisis (I would submit that being greater than 80% male is quite obviously a bad recipe for long-term success) and inclusivity challenges. And rightly or wrongly, riding on the road seems less and less safe with each time we hear about a cyclist fatality from a distracted driver - for some, Zwift is a viable and safer alternative. And as we have written about, to some extent, mass start gravel and gran fondo events may have also created a better mousetrap, one destined to capture market share within event based cycling (which I get, I really enjoy Rasputitsa!). But if you step back and take a look at the USAC Road upgrade policies - which span three pages! - I don’t understand how you could possibly argue that the sport is well positioned for these and other challenges while still relying on convoluted rules that can be confusing and potentially demoralizing to new riders.
Let’s start with an assumption: that at its core, the USAC category system has benefits. Developing riders are able to race against similar developing riders. More advanced riders race against most advanced riders. And as you move through the sport you arguably have the ability to constantly measure yourself against your ‘peers’ (though this is not necessarily the case if you live in an area with a limited racer pool that sees lots of combined fields, i.e. Category 1/2/3 or Women Open). And categorization helps establish a structure for events in venues like Central Park where we could never have a mass start event featuring 300 or 400 cyclists toeing the start line all at once.
But even with those benefits, why is the category upgrade system structured in a way that requires approximately 1,000 words to explain? Is it harder to win a road race than a criterium? Sure, maybe. But does the sport really need two different upgrade tables for each discipline, to say nothing of a third for stage races that only applies to Category 3-2 and Category 2-1 upgrades and yet another to detail minimum event distances? At what point is the complexity of upgrades generating more confusion than it’s worth? If you consolidate all of those tables into one, and upgrading becomes ever so slightly easier — is that not a reasonable trade-off in pursuit of making the sport more approachable? And more to the topic at hand, if the core function of the category system is to slot riders into racing against their peers, why is separate scoring such a controversial concept given it accomplishes just that - judging riders based on their performance relative to their peers?
For riders, particularly women, who are stuck with limited field options how do we expect them to have a reasonable path through the sport if there are Category 4 riders in pursuit of results and upgrade points racing in combined Women’s Open (Category 1/2/3/4/5) fields that require towing the line with Cat 1’s? I help host races so I understand first-hand the economic and schedule constraints that drive promoters to use Women’s Open fields - for full transparency the cycling club I am involved in, CRCA, uses that structure in certain instances (albeit very often with a separate Women’s 4/5 field available). But beyond what I think is an inherently lackluster race experience for lower category riders in those combined fields, what happens if a Category 4 rider is constantly placing ahead of their peers - fellow Category 4 riders - in a combined field but they’re trapped below upgrade points precisely because it’s a combined field with Category 1/2/3 riders? Should it be structurally harder for that Category 4 rider stuck in a region with this dynamic to earn upgrade points? Because that is what the system today accomplishes. For what? Because that’s how the system operated a decade ago? Because we’re protecting some purity of competitiveness within a field? I don’t see it.
And the solution is oh so simple. Simplify the upgrade rules. Lose the plethora of tables and cut down on the complexity. Is it too much to ask to fit upgrade rules on a single page? And stop punishing riders who live in regions that lack sufficient depth of rider pools to allow for category specific fields, especially for women (a demographic that the sport desperately needs to attract!). If one of the core purposes of the category system is to allow riders to race with and against their peers, then judge upgrades on that same basis - provide a clear and understandable system for separate scoring where it makes sense (unfortunately some regions don’t even have the depth of rider fields to meet minimum upgrade requirements). I’d prefer if USAC implemented that system at a national level, but if that is a bridge too far given the number of traditionalists in the sport at least give Local Associations and local upgrade coordinators the latitude to do so on a regional basis. I’m happy to have that conversation with the folks at NYSBRA who have been to our races and better understand the dynamics on a local level (several of whom have already been advocates for change).
I know the sport used to be different and change is scary. But it’s time for us all to start looking at structures of bike racing in a new light - one that takes into account the fact that the sport is under extreme pressure with racers churning out of the sport in rapid fashion and races falling by the wayside every single year. In that sense, change isn’t just good, its desperately needed. The good news is that there are some really smart and qualified people sitting in Colorado Springs, including a new CEO. I just hope they feel empowered to take a hard look at opportunities to streamline and improve the sport, including via rule changes focused on simplification. Will changing the upgrade rules magically improve rider retention and fix the sport’s gender disparity? Definitely not. Those challenges need to be addressed but they’re not going away tomorrow. But upgrades are one area where a quick rule re-write can certainly go a long way in making the sport easier to understand and participate in.
Full disclosure: if you had asked me about separate scoring two or three years ago I would have had a very different perspective. Only though the plethora of analysis and essays that we have written in recent years as well of a lot of insightful conversations, particularly with the women of the NYC race scene, did I come to my current view that the system needs to be updated.