In 2010 I had a problem. For one, I was racing cyclocross.
Two, my wife was still in grad school, we did not yet have a Stella, and as a consequence I had way too much time on my hands. I did a lot of racing and thinking and existential analysis and the sum of all that was to follow the letter of the USAC rules and upgrade out of Cat 4.
I'm somewhat proud to say that many followed suit. It seemed in no way equitable to have racers who were doing this for the very first time scored with racers who were doing this for the 30th time. Not in a sport with a category-based (vice age-based) scoring system.
Here we are five seasons later and the landscape has been altered in a way I expected, but did not. Most importantly, we now have the Category 5 the sport always needed. First timers are greeted to the sport with a kinder, gentler machine gun hand. We have burgeoning interest. It's a positive. We did it.
For a short time, it appeared we would see Cat 3 mellow out a little, given a new rule to auto-upgrade out of Cat 4. What really happened though was that auto-upgrade mandate was applied to Cat 5, and Cat 4-3 went back to discretionary upgrade. That meant that the flow of ordinary dudes into Cat 3 was over, really before it began. With a 5-4 structure now in place, there was really no impetus to move northward if you weren't scoring any points. Especially with the advent of Cat 2 roadies landing in Cat 3 cyclocross by default. Not only were you already in a good place in Cat 4, moving to 3 just meant you were going to take an ultra beatdown. Before it was a moral necessity, now, completely unnecessary.
When you toe the line in Cat 3 enough times to ask yourself "why am I racing a field that is so fucking fast", it's a time to ask yourself why you're actually still in it. Especially since a downgrade to 4 is a trivial matter than could improve quality of life substantially.
Could it though?
You could argue that fields in the combined 4/5 are swollen ticks that pop inside the first minute of any given race, and you want no part. Truth told though, Cat 3 fields aren't all that much smaller. It's almost a lateral move in that regard, notably at places like Providence, and Gloucester, and Northampton.
Then I guess you consider, what is the skill differential between the back of the Cat 3 field and the middle of a 4 field. Arguably back of Cat 3 is a better place to be. You never ever get a day off, but it's pretty consistent. The middle of Cat 4 will be a mixed bag of guys who can race and guys who are technically all over the place. Maybe you have the patience for that, maybe you don't.
Cat 4 and you're back to showing up at the ass crack of dawn for everything. No one is awake, and it's cold, and no one is out there standing behind the tape making fun of you yet. It's palatable if you're brand new to the sport and riding that virginal euphoria. Maybe not as much if you've been in this thing a while.
Also in Cat 4 your options are nothing what they are when you're a 3, when it's not unusual to have three or four different time slot options to race in. It's exceedingly real-life friendly. To that end, going back may be a pretty tough proposition, unless you hate your wife and kids. You race cross so you already hate yourself, I guess what's the difference.
Alright. We've thought this through a little. Where we've landed so far is that while Cat 3 is preposterously fast, going back to Cat 4 may not really solve that much.
Can anything be done to salvage the Cat 3 experience?
I guess you could points dope and bring yourself up in the field; give yourself a little change of perspective. Points doping has been well covered here in the past, but after the investment, what does it really accomplish.
Say I'm a 500 point Cat 3 and I want to improve that stature by 100 points, which gets me marginally further away from the back row. I would simply enter 1/2/3 fields, toiling off the back hopelessly annihilated until I built enough equity to drag me up when I raced Cat 3. That's maybe a few weekends of work, just mindlessly pounding away in $40 races against no one.
Okay but then so what. So you're finally out of the race's toilet in a triple digit field. That's a positive. The problem is, it may or may not pay off over time. It depends on whether or not you can maintain that points standing as a newly minted "soft 400" against guys who are a "hard 400" - they were already there. You might look at your performance and say things like "well, generally I finish where I start in Cat 3" but that doesn't necessarily translate if you migrate 100 points northward.
Let me illustrate.
2010 +41When I started racing Cat 3 in 2010, I entered 8 Cat 3 fields and never finished lower than predicted. On aggregate, I was a +41 in terms of where I finished relative to where I was predicted to finish. This is a barometer that reads, to me, that I am in the right place. No matter how it might feel, mired in the back, I am consistently exceeding expectations. If you don't chalk it up to margin of error, you might almost call that...improving.
2011 -28In 2011, only entered two Cat 3 fields because I was almost exclusively racing Masters 1/2/3 in an attempt to lean out my points and improve my Cat 3 standing. You know what happened? Across those two Cat 3 fields I was a net -28. In my haste to move up, I cut my own throat. For the few rows I was able to advance, I gave it all back.
2012 -8The following year I was in three more Cat 3s for -8 as my points stabilized.
2013/2014 +14Last year, things came back to where they're supposed to be. Across three races I was a +12 and the one Cat 3 field I've been in this year, I held my own at +2.
The moral is that points doping is basically...doping. It's dumb. Your points are your points and you can't get away from them. If they're stable or gradually improving, you're probably where you're
supposed to be. It is the order of the universe.
That's why I have invented a new paradigm in cyclocross bicycle contest scoring.
Let's face it, unless you are any good, crossresults points really don't mean anything to you. Sure, you might be a terminal category bottom feeder. But that doesn't mean it can't be any fun.
I present to you a simple, category neutral, programmatically possible scoring system: STAR CUP.
+10 FINISHING ON THE LEAD LAP
You fight like a dog just to show up in the results with an actual finish time. Maybe you face a choice in the waning minutes of the race to either gut it out, or sit up and get lapped and end the suffering. A big 'ol heap of dividends gives you something to think about.
+10 FOR EVERY RACER YOU BEAT IN A SPRINT
You will take home a bonus for every person you finish immediately ahead of, defined as 10 seconds or less. Maybe you took them to the line like a hero. Maybe you simply did one thing right in the entire race that kept you one step ahead. And note - you might not get this bonus if you're lapped. You'll only be calculated for a sprint if you end up with a finishing time in the results, so extra incentive to get on that lead lap.
+10 POINTS FOR EVERY RACER YOU BEAT THAT HAS BETTER POINTS
Pile on the cheddar. You had a great day and a better someone else did not. Whether they were simply off their game, had a mechanical, DNF'd...the fact remains that you came out ahead on the results sheet and that's the only thing that matters.
+5 LANTERNE ROUGE
A bonus for being the very last finisher. The HARDMAN award. The day was a toil and against your better judgement you followed though and didn't quit or succumb to your mechanicals.
+10 PARTICIPATING IN A SINGLESPEED RACE
+5 FINISHING EXACTLY WHERE YOU WERE PREDICTED
What can you say. You're a man who delivers on expectations. You're no better than anyone thinks you are. But you sure as hell aren't any worse.
+5 FOR EVERY PLACE HIGHER THAN PREDICTED TO FINISH
In the eyes of the algorithm, you had a great day. You could be paid handsomely for simply not sucking as much as you were supposed to.
+10 THE WINNER CARRIED IN 200 MORE POINTS THAN YOU DID
The brutality bonus. You entered a hard field and it's not for nothing. You never had a chance, except at a windfall of bonus points.
DNF AND YOU SCORE NOTHING
Everyone doesn't get a medal in Star Cup. If you can't get to the finish line, you can't get any points.
Star Cup is a relative scoring system that happens all over the field. It doesn't matter if you're fighting for a top ten or a fighting in the bottom ten. You say it's apples and oranges. Star Cup says fuck it, it's all fruit.
Star Cup is awarded for every field for every day. And for the sake of having one, there's a season long leaderboard of Cup winners. And that leaderboard does not discriminate - men, women, juniors, savagely old masters well into their brilliantly executed retirements - we're all in it together.
Hi Colin. Let's do it.