Participation

Wanky's post from Thursday about women's racing and equal payouts got me thinking. I should probably stop doing that. We differ on why people do or don't show up for races, and how to increase participation. While I've never been wrong before, I am self-aware enough to realize that the remote possibility does exist. Wanky and I race in very different worlds, so what might be true in mine may not be true in his. I don't really care, as long as I'm right.
 
This year the Arctic Bike Club Road Division awarded the GC podiums cash prizes in the upper classes. While it's common practice in the Lower 48, I can't remember the last time we did that. We usually race just for bragging rights and a maybe trophy crafted from old bike parts.
 
Attendance was down this year. Obviously the promise of money didn't drive racers away, but it didn't attract them either. While I appreciate the board's willingness to try new things, this is certainly something that shouldn't be repeated. Let me elaborate.
 
First, I'll start with the positives. We have a schedule packed with races. The only weekends we usually don't have a race scheduled during mid-April to mid-August are usually occupied by a triathlon or some other major race. Often we have mid-week races as well. The last few years have had a couple smaller stage races thrown in there. Limited opportunities to race is not a problem we have.
 
It isn't excessively expensive to race. We require a $20 Arctic Bike Club membership, which is far cheaper than a USAC license. Our single-day races are $18 if you pre-register, which is about half of what some races cost in the Lower 48 (no payouts, though). Our races are well-run, but bare-bones affairs. The organization has evolved for the local environment.  While the carbon arms race has started to hit the lower classes, it's still possible to be competitive without a second mortgage.
 
That said, there are some issues.
 
Like everywhere else in the world, women are underrepresented at races. The last crit had a total of ONE female racer. The women's racing series (Pocket Full of Posies) is packed every year, but mixed-gender races are always sparse. A participation boost of even a handful of racers would likely make all the difference, because the social dynamic would take over. Women don't want to be in a field of three, especially when one or two of the other racers will drop you. Nobody likes paying to ride alone. Getting those extra riders to fill out fields should be a top priority for the club. Every male racer I've talked to wants to see more women out there, because they make the experience more fun. They balance out all of us aggressive, type-A hackers.
 
Since I am a self-proclaimed expert on all things female, allow me to offer a couple of suggestions for improving participation that will likely have no real effect. The first is to actively recruit during Posies as much as possible. Let's be honest- the top 4 or 5 Posies racers aren't our target audience, because they're usually the ones racing the regular season. What we need are the mid-pack females in the various categories, because they are the ones that bridge provide the glue between the front and the back of the pack. The gaps don't seem quite as big when spread evenly across the field. Attract the pack fill, and the slower racers have something reasonable to shoot for.
 
To get them in the door, offer a free regular-season race entry. Even better, refine target your freebie to a road race of some type (RR, crit, circuit). The reason I say this is that time trials and hill climbs are usually individual efforts, and the social dynamic isn't as strong. Pick a race either during or immediately after Posies that can handle the larger fields and offer it to all pre-paid series participants.
 
Next, don't let ignorance be an excuse. Make the regular season's calendar part of the race bible. Print it out and hand it to them with their bib, rather than telling them to go to the website. Make it part of the conversation while Posies is still going on, instead of an afterthought. The regular season should seem like a natural progression from Posies, rather than a separate entity, populated by aggressive, mouth-breathing men.
 
Last, following ArcticCross' example, put on clinics. Crits and other pack races can be intimidating. A couple seasoned racers can provide a few pointers that will ease a lot of fears and make newer racers more comfortable riding and cornering in a paceline. Anchorage does not have a group ride culture, and the group rides I've participated in didn't have enough riders to simulate the race experience. A little guidance will go a long way.

None of this may have any effect, but the cost is negligible. It costs more not to try. If you can hook one out of five Posies (a big task, I know), soon we'll be talking about why more men don't race. 

Aside from the ongoing female issue, there is the drop in participation in the lower categories for the men. Maybe they just miss me. A couple years ago it was the Open/Expert field that was tiny, but a rough upgrade policy resulted in a larger field and less-predictable racing. The same old faces aren't dominating every race, and that is a very good thing. Unfortunately, the lower fields that feed Open/Expert aren't flourishing.
 
Mirroring my expertise in women, I am also a board-certified expert in all things related to men's racing- and I have the blog to prove it. Here's where I would look to improve the "feeder fields", and perhaps build a sustainable structure for the future.
 
First, the goal is repeat customers. Handing out cash and expensive swag to the podium is not going to inspire the pack fodder. I should know, because my chances at receiving anything of value is nil unless the payout runs up to 10th place and the stage races are comprised entirely of flat, sprint stages. I race because... racing. When I won at the lower levels, the podium swag was less important than the competition itself. Sure, a trophy is fine, but it wasn't my reason for being there.
 
In the lower categories, a win in a stage race results in upgrade under the current system (I'll get to that later). That can be intimidating, especially in the jump from Intermediate to Open. My suggestion is that the award for winning a stage race in any class would be free entry into the same stage race next year. Win the Spring Stage Race Intermediate Men's Division? Free Open Men's Spring Stage Race next year. The 2nd place racer could get next year's ABC dues comped. Third could get a free single day race entry. Instead of giving away money, you're making an investment in the future. If it goes unused, you're not out anything.
 
In the Open Class, it encourages those really, really fast guys to come back year after year. Some of them get bored being so fast that they start to fantasize about peeing in wetsuits and running. Steer them away from the dark side. The more fast guys we have fighting it out for the win every race, the better the development of all of the racers behind them.
 
Again, the board should be commended for trying something new. I just think cash is the wrong allocation of funds in this environment.
 
Next, you have to recruit. Looking at a map of Anchorage, you might notice Joint-Base Elmendorf-Richardson sitting on top like a bad toupee. The Arctic Bike Club (ABC) usually views it simply as a venue for races, but I'd like to point out that over 40,000 people live and/or work on that installation (about 1/10 of the local population). Generally speaking, the military members are more inclined towards fitness than the local populace, and you'd expect there would be a handful that would be sick of the gym or ruining their knees on pavement. However, their tours up are short enough that they may only have two or three summers before they're off to the next assignment. I was riding a road bike for 3 years before I ever heard of the Arctic Bike Club, and that was 6 years after I was first assigned to Elmendorf. Since I had never raced before, it didn't occur to me to ask the question. It never crossed my mind.
 
This year I did two road races organized by the base. While the level of competition wasn't high (which explains my results), there were probably about 20 riders not involved with ABC between the two races who would mix it up well in the Novice or Intermediate classes. Those were just the ones that competed, and they would be relatively low-hanging fruit to reach out to. There are other riders on base, but your window to reach them is limited. It would have to be an ongoing effort as people transition in and out, but to fill out the lower packs it might be a good investment.
 
To reach the general population, I'd enlist the local bike shops. There shouldn't be a road bike sold in this town without some sort of refrigerator magnet or flyer attached to it. Put the idea in their heads that the possibility exists. Let them know you don't have to mainline EPO like Lance to line up, and that there are ability-based classes. Open the door.
 
Finally, once they're in the door, provide them with a concrete progression for development. The current system dealt with a short term deficiency, but isn't much of a roadmap. As it stands now, the upgrade system is seen as a "Sword of Damocles" rather than a reward for getting better. A lot of guys under the USAC upgrade system kill themselves trying to reach the next Cat. Guys up here shuffle their feet and hide when talk turns to them moving on. The upgrade policy is not spelled out clearly, is weighted oddly, is less than comprehensive, and clearly needs to be revised.
 
While I am an undisputed subject matter expert (with a blog), even someone as omnipotent as I can admit other factors affect participation. The explosive growth of cyclocross and fatbike racing in the area may leave people burnt out by the time road season rolls around. The unseasonably pleasant summers the last couple years might have people looking other directions for recreation. My well-worn, sheer bike shorts might make people uncomfortable in the paceline... It could be nearly anything, in any combination. However, not investigating possible areas for improvement will result in the road division mirroring what has happened in Fairbanks road scene over the last couple years. When Fairbanks is on the leading edge of anything, you know you're in trouble.
 
Now is the time to avoid that horrible, horrible fate.

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