A few years ago checking out World Cup or SuperPrestige Series CX results, Hoogerheide probably, I noticed something funny. A bunch of racers finished without a time. Or (-1). The best racers in the world were getting their asses lapped. Or pulled. Or maybe they weren't being scored. WTF? If that can happen at Hoogerheide, how can we escape it locally?
I've talked a little here about what we've tried to do with the Super 8 to address scoring and pulling problems. In discussions with promoters around the country, as well as with some of the top local officials (and in their discussions with top national officials) we identified some best practices that can help make the scoring go smoother, result in few lapped riders, and fewer pulled and non-scored riders.
So one thing you will notice is a lot of the Super 8 courses ride long. Pros / Cat 1's can expect to ride 8 minute laps on a lot of them. Cat 4s - not the sandbagging few guys at the front riding 9's but the mid-pack - can expect to ride 9:30's. Now this is not guaranteed - on a dry day you may ride faster; on a wet day slower; and some courses, despite being 3.5km for whatever reason will give you a 6:30 lap, while some 2.5km courses will yield a 9 minute pro lap. But the general rule is longer course, fewer scoring / pulling issues. It's easier for the officials to see who is coming by when they are all spread out, and on a long course, there is less pulling because there is less lapping. It's practically utopian, right?
Well, not exactly.
The long courses seem to come with other problems that we're seeing right now.
We heard about some race length issues at Nittany Cross. That fine race had a few races that went long, causing some scheduling problems for the officials. That's not a Super 8 race but it is in the MABRA region and word gets around. One or two of the races at Charm City - another MAC race - ran a bit long. So then at Tacchino, we had a masters race that got cut short. How did that happen? I don't know, exactly. But here's what I suspect happened.
If you are an official, a key job is to keep the day running on time. It's your job to calculate how long to let a race go, figure out an average lap time, then calibrate the race length accordingly using the lap board, usually starting with 3 or 2 laps remaining.
Cross presents a problem because unlike a crit, where the riders come around every minute or two, you don't see the lead riders for 7 or 8 minutes. Meanwhile, more mundane talents are circulating the course on a 10 minute pace, with a few lollygaggers taking longer than that to get around. Figuring how to make it a 45 minute race is hard due to the lap time variability and the fact that you have few samples on which to base your judgment.
Not only that, but course conditions can change rapidly, the whole race can blow up, or maybe the tete de corse figures out how to ride it and suddenly the lap times drop or rise by a minute or two mid-race.
So it's two laps into the race, you have a 45 minute race, and it's taken 18 minutes. You are administering a 45 minute race. You figure it's muddy, the racers will lose a minute or so per lap as the race goes on. How many laps should the racers do?
How about 4x 9 = 36. That's way too short. But the back markers will be coming in at something near 4x11, or 44 minutes - except for a few who are way back, get lapped and get their race cut short at 3 laps or so. That's right on time for overall length. But it sucks for the guys in front.
5x9 = 45. But the rear guard will be coming in at 55+ minutes. That is way too long. In addition to brutalizing the racers, that only gives the officials 5 minutes to finalize scores and get ready for the next race. This is likely to result in scoring errors as the officials hustle to get the next race rolling, and scribble madly to produce a score sheet reflecting the finish of 100 or 120 racers. Or worse, 60 racers in 4 categories, which is an enormous mess to sort out.
So a responsible official, with an eye toward keeping the day on schedule - because it's just wrong to inconvenience 350 other people to keep 100 people happy, may opt for 4 laps, and cut the race short. A bunch of people get pulled after a very short race, most of the field gets 40 minutes, but then a bunch of people in the front third of the race bitch on facebook about how the promoters are screwing them out of money by selling more slots in the same time period and raking in the big money. That isn't how it's happening, but that's what they think. Meanwhile, the promoter gets bombed with emails about how there wasn't supposed to be pulling this year, or how the officials (or maybe the harried team data entry guy) screwed up the scoring in the earlier race that they left to go long...
When you get right down to it, there's a certain constant of misery that maybe we can't quite get rid of in amateur racing. This is the Hoogerheide Constant - no matter what course of action you pick, there will be a comparable number of hacked off racers. Longer laps just force a different set of unpopular decisions.
I don't know how other series are working on it; the one I'm affiliated with is having some discussions about how to cope with it. But it's clear that in opting for long courses (and other scoring improvements like left side(and sometimes shoulder) numbers, officials stands and the like, we've merely shifted the way the misery occurs. Guys are still getting pulled weirdly, mis-scoring still occurs although in a different way, a few of the races have been too short, and the world remains imperfect. Complicated scoring systems are unworkable, chips only work until they don't - and then you're reliant on a failed piece of technology and your whole results spreadsheet is worthless. And even at the best event in the country, some folks didn't get scored right this last weekend,that's with one of the best scoring teams in the country.
I think I've identified what we're up against.
I submit to you that there is a number - the Hoogerheide Constant - which is the lowest non-zero number of racers in an event who will feel screwed by the race length, pulling activity or scoring. My theory is that you can improve race management a lot, but you will never run a race that has fewer unhappy riders than the Hoogerheide Constant would suggest.
I suspect that other race series in the area are working on dealing with this; grass roots efforts like the Sportiff Series should be able to address it really well because keeping the scale of the race manageable simplifies scoring and the officials' race management duties. Big race series like MAC and increasingly the MABRA Super 8 will have a larger array of problems just by virtue of numbers of racers; there is more ability variance (and lap time variance) in a 125 rider field than in a 70 rider field; and recording all those numbers each lap is roughly twice the work in the larger field. But no matter how small or large the race, I suspect that nothing can eliminate the race management issues faced by promoters and officials. If it happens to pros, it will happen here.
The Hoogerheide Constant: you can't beat it, you can only hope to contain it. And that's what we're working on. Keep griping - respectfully please, not dickish accusations of profiteering - but keep griping because it lets us know where the problems are that we need to keep trying to fix.