Respect and Opportunities

By on August 5, 2014

Rapidly approaching the debut of our Fort Washington series, I am super excited and only moderately frazzled. All the critical tasks have been mostly wrapped up for some time, and we’ve got an all-star lineup of volunteers, coaches, and officials ready to go. So, I want to talk briefly about two of the more important FAQs we’ve gotten:

  • Why are the beginners’ and women’s fields so short?
  • Why aren’t there more women’s fields?

There are a lot of reasons. Obviously we have many competing goals and constraints. For example, the schedule is already pushing it on what’s feasible between the call of business and sundown, and we felt it important for several reasons to have something of a catch-all field that a broad swath of the community could participate in.

But to a large extent these are intentional design decisions, the design’s just a little unconventional.

Best Half Hour Ever

The schedule has three fields:

  • B Race: 25 minutes, Men’s 4/5 and Women’s 3/4
  • Women’s Race: 25 minutes, Women’s 3/4
  • A Race: 50 minutes, Men’s 2/3/4 and Women’s Open

The B and Women’s races aren’t actually that short, they’re just not what they might seem at first. Twenty-five minutes would indeed be short for a Men’s Cat 4 race. But that B Race is intended to be more of a Men’s Cat 5 race to which Cat 4s are also invited, not a typical Men’s 4/5 race. It’s not supposed to be a place for Men’s 4s to really throw down—there’s no significant prizes, upgrade points, etc.. on the line. Ditto for Women’s 3s in the Women’s Race. Having more Women’s 3 races in the region eligible for upgrades and so on is a worthy goal, but it’s not one we’re specifically targeting here. In that light, these are pretty reasonable: 25–35 minutes is a good target range for a Men’s 5 or Women’s 4 crit. Combine that with the clinic and the very feasible option of riding to and from the event, and this is a really solid night for beginner riders.

The question then is why allow that higher category at all? One reason is simply that there are people in those categories who would be more comfortable the next level down. Maybe they upgraded too early, maybe they’re coming back to racing after a hiatus, whatever. We see this all the time in the Eastern Conference: Men’s Ds (Cat 5s) do a whole bunch of races one season, apply for their upgrade because they’re excited and that’s the thing to do, and then not train, race, or otherwise improve at all until next year when they petition for a downgrade. We want those people to be able to enter these fields.

True beginners get ready for their very first race---start of the Intro Clinic at the 2014 Stevens ECCC Season opener, lead by Tim Manzella (TSV), Brett Kielick (KBS), Kyle Gheres (PSU), and Ken Walsh (Caffeinated).  Photo by Joe Kopena.

True beginners get ready for their very first race—start of the Intro Clinic at the 2014 Stevens ECCC Season opener, lead by Tim Manzella (TSV), Brett Kielick (KBS), Kyle Gheres (PSU), and Ken Walsh (Caffeinated). Photo by Joe Kopena.

More substantially, those beginners will also benefit from riding in a larger field and with more competent riders, gaining valuable high speed pack experience in a relatively safe environment. Will very strong riders in the higher category just ride away from the field, or blow the pack apart? Maybe. But again, it’s a training race. They won’t win anything significant by doing so. More compellingly, they’ll miss out on the real training opportunity of focusing on doing their best in the higher field—the A race for Men’s 4s and the B or A races for Women’s 3s, potentially using the lower race as a warmup or skipping it entirely.

In addition, being “just” a training race on a comparatively low risk course lets us conduct it with a bent toward education and practice rather than straight out competition. Riders will generally only be pulled for real safety concerns. Those that do get dropped we hope to leave in and even coach on reentering the field, giving them another shot at hanging with the group, much like the local mock crits work. In the B Race the start will also be neutral for three laps, ensuring everyone gets at least some pack riding exposure.

So, those lengths make sense for true beginners’ races, but there are good reasons for also allowing the higher categories. Potentially that won’t work out well for the beginners. But many that can’t hang at all would probably also struggle in a pure M5 or W4 race. Either way, for $5 they’ll get at least a handful of laps with a group on a fun course, a really good clinic lead by pro coaches, and hopefully do better next week. The first time I went to the winter points race in Fairmount Park I got dropped four or five times and it took all of February before I could hang the whole evening. But going out, failing, and sticking to it gave an immeasurable boost to my development.

Battle of the Sexes

The logic behind having only one women’s-specific field is even more experimental, executing a long term vision. We believe two of the highest payoff ways to develop women’s competitive cycling from the grassroots up are:

  • Develop more women race promoters;
  • Have men and women ride and race together more often.

To the first point, absolutely the best way to ensure more races have adequate women’s schedules, prize payouts, etc., is to have more women putting on races. Within the Eastern Conference a substantial number of promoters and team leaders are women, and we’d like to encourage that in the broader community. We’ve unfortunately only advertised this in very limited groups so far, but one of our goals for this series is to use it to train new race promoters, particularly women. If anyone is interested in that, you should get in touch.

To the second point, we are in no way saying that there shouldn’t be women’s-specific events. There are a lot of reasons why women’s rides like the just-concluded, very successful, Philadelphia Women’s 100 Ride Series are important. Similarly, on race day there should absolutely be women’s fields. We are very excited about the upcoming QCW Arsenal Crit in no small part because it has not just a full docket of women’s races, but a full docket all at full & equal length.

The Women's 1/2/3 at the 2012 Arsenal Crit.  Photo by Bob Wellmon.

The Women’s 1/2/3 at the 2012 Arsenal Crit. Photo by Bob Wellmon.

That said, there’s also value in encouraging men and women to ride and race together more. Right now, women’s race training ride opportunities are fairly limited. Women need to be pretty strong and pretty gutsy to jump into and really enjoy all the great race-oriented group rides we have in the area, like the Drives, Greentree, Great Valley, and so on. Those rides are pretty tough for most men, and extremely daunting for most women. There are of course a number of awesome women regularly participating and kicking ass at them, but only a very small portion of the women racers in the area. Our hope is that this series breaks down some of the barriers. By having structured categories, officials, and holding the event on closed, safe roads, we hope to create a race training opportunity that women feel more comfortable jumping into and mixing it up with the men.

Part of the value to that is the same as everything said above about true beginners and the next category up. A bigger, slightly faster group offers invaluable pack experience, a critical and necessary component of developing more and better racers. By and large that experience is something women really struggle to gain, precisely because they have fewer accessible race training ride opportunities and so many actual races are either very small or combine multiple categories, causing the fields to detonate.

So, in our schedule we do have that Women’s Race for beginners and newer riders to have a safe, comfortable, accessible point of entry. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the strong, veteran women out there will have no problem with and will get something out of the A Race. In between those poles our mix of fields and the super easy, no-cost ability to double or even triple up offers a lot of options. For example, a Women’s 4 starting to feel pretty confident after a full summer of racing could give the B Race a try and then roll right into the Women’s Race. A strong Women’s 3 looking to really train could do the B Race, softpedal or skip the Women’s Race, and then slug it out in the A Race. There’s a lot of flexibility.

The Women's 1/2/3 at the 2014 Navy Yard Criterium.  Photo by Doug DiBella.

The Women’s 1/2/3 at the 2014 Navy Yard Criterium. Photo by Doug DiBella.


Beyond that training opportunity, there’s great value in encouraging and enabling women to ride and race with the men, when it’s appropriate to do so such as a training event like this, in order to more broadly kindle respect. We believe that the more men race and ride with women, the more respect and support they’ll have for women’s competitive cycling.

Again observing from the Eastern Conference, one of the big differences between collegiate and general racing is that the extensive traveling involved forces an awful lot of team bonding. Non-collegiate racers tend to travel in single cars, show up just in time for their race, and head home. A guy can go and do a lot of races without ever really being exposed to women’s racing, even in the relatively rare case where he actually has women teammates. In contrast, collegiate racers spend all weekend at races, so the men see the women out there racing just as hard whether or not they have women teammates. If they do, they then all pile into vans together for ridiculously long drives home, swapping stories about all the same epic climbs, gnarly corners, and crazy sprints. That visibility and familiarity with women’s races and racers is a huge part of why it’s not the least bit controversial in the conference that women win equal prizes (points, jerseys, trophies, sometimes merchandise) and get their share of racing time, much more than financial numbers alone would dictate.

More personally, one of the strongest takeaways from my last year of “serious” collegiate racing was Sarah Uhl, national track champion, kicking my ass in the Men’s A road races. These days, getting caught and passed by my wife and several of our female friends is a real concern for me in mountain bike races. Similarly, I haven’t made it out lately, but the past couple years at Greentree my #1 nemesis every week has been Victoria Hanks. There’s no question experiences like those have shaped my views on women’s racing. That kind of shared participation and direct experience with women as fellow racers, just like any other, necessarily fosters respect.

This is a big part of why we only have the one women’s-specific field: We think there’s a lot of value to be had in mixing everybody together. The effects might be fairly long term, and it might not work out at all, but it’s worth trying. The more men we have with experience racing with women, the more community members we’ll have with no questions about the validity of women’s racing and nothing but high regard for all the women racing.

The Battle for Fort Washington

Wednesday Wednesday Wednesday

All together those are some of our primary thoughts behind why the Fort Washington series has been designed the way it has. A lot of it is experimental and we can already see some ways it might be improved, but we think it has a good chance of turning out really well. It’s also hopefully just the pilot run for an event we can all work together to make happen again next year, growing and improving into a new tradition of the local racing scene.

See you Wednesday!

Top photo by Bob Wellmon: Kelley Bethoney (Evolution) in the 2014 Iron Hill Crit Women’s P/1/2/3.

  • salsarider62

    Thank you for organizing this much needed and appreciated series.