Dear USA Cycling,
I read with some concern and distress in Velonews today that my beloved mountain bike racing categories — Beginner, Sport, Expert, Semi-Pro, and Pro (I had to check on the naming of the last two since they’re not exactly in my list of personally-relevant labels at this time) — are being replaced with new category names: Cat 3, 2, 1, and Pro.
I would like to strongly urge you to reconsider this decision. I have many compelling reasons why.
I Really like the name “Sport.” I have been a “Sport” category racer ever since my third mountain bike race. And it’s all I can ever aspire to. And I like being a Sport. It sounds…sporty. Like, you know, I’m no longer a beginner, but I’m also not particularly expert. I’m here to race for the sport of it.
I’m scared of what being called Cat 2 implies. While being called “Sport” is a reasonably accurate description of my attitude toward racing — although perhaps if the category were called “Ambivalent” it would be more precise — Category 2 sends all the wrong messages. This numbering system implies some sort of path or progression. Like, “Hey, I used to be a 3, now I’m a 2, and someday I’ll be a 1.” Except I’ll never be a Cat 1. I’ve been racing in this category for more than ten years, and have never yet won a race. This is where I belong. Putting me in the middle of your numeric spectrum just reminds me that I’m not going anywhere.
I can no longer obfuscate my mediocrity with jargon. When friends and family ask me what category I race in, I answer — without explanation — “Sport.” Since most people I know don’t know anything about how mountain biking is categorized, some (and hopefully most) assume that “Sport” is pretty high up there. I like to imagine, for example, that they assume the ranking goes like: Novice, Beginner, Highly Accomplished, Well-Regarded-By-Peers, Semi-Pro, 3rd-Degree Black Belt, Sport, Pro. But when I say “Cat 2,” they won’t even have to ask me whether it’s better to be Cat 3 or Cat 1 (I’m not clear on that myself, to tell the truth; logic tells me I’d start at Cat 1 and work my way up…is that right?), because Cat 2 is right there in the middle of the pack. Average. Undistinguished. Ordinary. Bland. Mediocre. And I haven’t even cracked the thesaurus yet.
New opportunities to sandbag. I’m listing this one last, because since it doesn’t affect me, I honestly don’t care about it. But the fact is, the biggest thing this change does is force people not quite good enough to cut it in the Pro ranks to decide, “Do I want to spend the rest of my life racing way off the back of the field by going for Pro, or would I rather race in the front of the field by going in Cat 1?” Gee, I wonder what most of them will decide. My friends Brad and Kenny are about to never win another race again. Sorry, guys.
All of these reasons, however, pale compared to my primary motive for objecting to your new racing category names:
Seriously: 3-2-1-Pro? That’s the best you could come up with? Even if you don’t take into account that you abandon your naming methodology right at the conclusion of the schema, it’s not like the names are memorable. Or logical. Or interesting.
Luckily for you, I am here to help. Taking it as given that you definitely want to abandon your perfectly sensible existing categories and want to replace them with something different, I think I can at least help you come up with a set of categories that are both more evocative and internally consistent.
I hereby present you with several options. Please feel free to pick your favorite.
If you’re looking to reduce the number of racing categories and you want to use a continuum, you could hardly do better than the metamorphic stages of a butterfly. Specifically:
Eggs: This category is a nice metaphor for the very beginning stage of a racer’s career. You’re new to the world. You have so much potential. Soon you’ll hatch and flourish. This is so beautiful, I believe I am going to cry.
Caterpillars: I’m confident that racers formerly known as “Sport” won’t object to being called “Caterpillars.” Why would we? The similarities between Sport racers and caterpillars are striking. We inch along slowly, and we eat everything in sight.
Cocoons: This is of course the inert stage a caterpillar goes through before becoming a butterfly, though, when as a child I ever put a cocoon in a jar to watch it transform, it never worked. The cocoon would always just sit there, forever, staying a cocoon.
Butterflies: If the rest of us have to have category names, so do the pros. Besides, the description’s apt. They’re light. They fly. They are colorfully adorned. And above all, they seem to be remarkably fragile.
How You’re Planning to Race Today
I’ve often been of the opinion that racing categories shouldn’t be so rigid. The truth is, I often don’t know what category I belong in until I get to the race and see how other people are planning to categorize themselves. Further, my objective for the race determines how fast I’m going to be (with the obvious severe upper limitation of capability, or lack thereof).
How about if racing categories reflected the reality of racer intentions?
Racing to See If I Like Racing: Exclusively for people who have either never raced at all or who haven’t raced in at least five years. The course should be adjusted to be a nice moderate downhill for these people, and semi-pros with a chip on their shoulder should not be allowed on the course until the last person from this category is finished.
Just Cruising: For racers who came along mostly as support for an insecure friend who didn’t want to come to a race alone. They’re here to ride the course just for fun. To ride in this category, you must start with a full Camelbak, even if the race is 40 minutes long. You must also bring a camera and be able to demonstrate at the finish line that you stopped a couple of times to take pictures.
Training Race: For those who aren’t here to win it and don’t care how they place, but rather are here because it’s a good way to trick yourself into doing an interval-level workout.
Reaffirming my Sense of Self-Importance: If you’re here to prove to yourself that you are faster than the locals, you should race against other people who are also there to show they are faster than other locals, so the rest of us can enjoy ourselves. Although, now that I think about it, this category isn’t going to have its stated effect for most of the racers. That’s a real shame.
This Race is Really, Really, Really Important to Me: Everyone picks a race that matters more than any other race to them for the year. If this is your race, you should be given a special place in the start line, and a special-colored bib (yellow, probably), and when people see your special-colored bib, they let you by. The only catch is, nobody gets to race in this category more than once per year.
Racing Is My Life: People who race all the time should race against other people who race all the time, regardless of their speed. This way, they’ll get to know each other, and in time they’ll perhaps realize that they’ve got a sickness and need help, and then they’ll already know everyone in their support group. How convenient!
Sandbaggers / Not Sandbaggers
This very minimalist categorizing system only has two divisions. People who normally sandbag should race each other, while people who don’t sandbag race each other.
Interestingly, I suspect that while everybody knows a sandbagger or two or nine, the “Sandbagger” category will be lightly attended.
USA Cycling, I am confident that one — or more — of these options will be to your liking, although I am happy to present additional categorizing schemas should you so desire (by bird type, by frog metamorphic stages, alphabetically by last name are just a few ideas that spring to mind right now).
I look forward to your timely response, which will — I am confident — be an acknowledgement of the superiority of my ideas.
The Fat Cyclist