Monday, July 27, 2009

Time to Rant: on Sandbagging and why I race

This post began as a reply to a thread on Colin Reuter's blog but I realized it was much too long for a comment and hey, I have my own blog, right? This is what happens when I don't race for two weeks...I rant. For the uninitiated, we are discussing cyclocross racing, and the categories into which cyclocross racers are sorted based on ability and results. Umm, yes. This is uber-nerd stuff, You've been warned. And yes, I do occasionally have arguments with my girlfriend over the pronunciation of spells in the Harry Potter books. Though just yesterday she astutely pointed out that in the beginning of "The Half Blood Prince" Luna shouldn't have been able to see through Harry's invisibility cloak because it's a Deathly Hallow, and as we all learned in "The Deathly Hallows" you can't use a spell on a Deathly Hallow. Yes, we had this conversation. I digress, but only just.

So without further ado, here is my mini-dissertation on sandbagging, why it more or less doesn't exist, and why--in the cases where it does exist--it doesn't matter.

Is there an obligation to race "up" a category? Is it dishonorable to do races you can win easily? Is it silly to do races where you are almost guaranteed to get lapped? Does anyone care? Would anyone pay any attention to their license category if we didn't live in the age of Internet stalking? And yes, by the way, this all has not a hell of a lot to do with Colin's original post. But it got me thinking, and then I drank a bunch of Jet Fuel coffee after several caffeine free days, and damned if the rant didn't just start to flow. I needed something to blog about anyway...

To me, "sandbagger" is an over-used term, and we're all too concerned with category, mostly because of the Internets, and guys Colin and me who manage our OCD and time between races by mining the racing lifestyle for introspective, ego-boosting minutia. The sandbagging that feels unfair to me is when I used to play chess against Russian immigrant teenagers who were internationally ranked experts but would move to the US and buy a novice license to enter into $20,000 prize purse tournaments and steal the entry fees of hapless patzers like me. In that case, there is a deliberate concealment of ability in pursuit of profit. On the other hand, everyone knows who the guy is who won the B race 3 weeks in a row, there's no concealment. And given that there is an overall season prize, and a B national championship, I think the dominant B's have every right to race in a category they can win right up through nationals. With the new category structure, I think cat 3's have the same right. After all, what's the use of accumulating points toward an overall series win if you're going to be "honor bound" to upgrade after a win or three?

For all of us except perhaps riders like Katie Compton, Alberto Contador, or Sven Nys, any time we win or place in a bike race, it is directly related to the fact that there weren't many riders in the race who were better than us. You could fill an oil tanker with riders who can beat me in a 'cross race. Lucky for me, most of them don't live in New England, so I get to feel like a top 10 or top 15 placing in a Verge series race means something. Really what it means is that, in those races there is an echelon of guys who train a lot and are very talented, and then there is a rearguard of guys who train some, and maybe aren't as talented as the front group. In between those two echelons, there is me and the group of guys I race with every weekend: we're sorta kinda talented and we train quite a bit. In that group, I do ok. Yes, I jest and oversimplify, but not by a whole lot.

In all seriousness, the main reason I race bikes--other than the fact that it is fun and there is part of me that is perpetually 7 years old, and completely swept away by the simple joy of self-propelled speed and wind whooshing by my ears--is that I have the opportunity every weekend to find out where my limits are and what I am made of. 21st century life is short on opportunities to discover our simple, primal worth, and I think there is tremendous value in involving yourself in games that stimulate the fight-or-flight response under controlled conditions and give us the opportunity to release endorphins and focus the mind intensely, if only for a little while. I get preoccupied by race category, and what people think of me, how my results look online, when my reimbursements will show up from my sponsors, etc etc. But none of that has anything to do with why I really do it, month after month, year after year. When I rant like this, I am mostly reminding myself to focus on the joy and the effort of racing, and what a privilege it is to be able to pursue it to the extent that I do. Seriously.



  1. Great post today, Than. I feel the same sense of privilege. And wallowing in the minutiae of the sport is certainly a better outlet for OCD than a host of other things I could be (and had been) doing.

    Although I'm still on the fence as to whether to focus on the elite race locally and do the Cat 3 in the Verge series, or stay in the B race and try to actually win something some day. The answer may seem self-evident, but the introduction of a cash prize for the top-placed Cat 3 in the elite race for the NYCross series complicates the decision slightly. A race within the race. Maybe we should also have a mini-podium behind the podium. As one of the guys who must navigate around lapped riders en route to the podium, what do you think (honestly) of this nonsense?

    --Danny Rearguard

  2. Personally, I think "sandbagging" is strictly an artificial construct that exists as an outgrowth of some racer's frustrations, perceived inadequacies, and envy.

    As you say, a racer knows what category they should race in, and a racer has every right to want to do well within their category. I'm looking forward to continuing my cat 3 'cross career this fall, as I most certainly am not fast enough on the dirt for anything else -- haters be damned!

  3. Thanks for the comments guys. Sorry to be so slow to respond, bad form on my part.

    Danny-Way to put me on the spot, man! Honestly, everyone needs to decide for themselves where they belong and it's a personal choice. That said, I think that the cat 3 prize should be winning the cat 3 race. I don't see the logic for a cat 3 prize in an elite race when there is already a cat 3 race. I know Eric and Pete argue that motivating cat 3's to do the A NYcross races makes a bigger field and a better show, but I disagree. The fields are getting big enough now that there is plenty of registration. In terms of lapped rider traffic it really isn't an issue because the NYcross fields tend to be 25 riders or less anyway, so no big deal. As long as guys are heads up and scoot over when the leaders lap them it's fine. But if the top cat 3 finishes 12th and is something like 7 minutes down...I don't know. That guy would ride faster and more competitively racing in close quarters with other guys at his ability in the cat 3 race.

    Basically what I am getting at is that it doesn't make you faster to line up with guys you can't ride with, right? So if you enter local A races and wind up riding alone, or getting lapped consistently I would argue that you are probably not getting pushed as hard as you would be if you did the B race and had to deal with other guys attacking, breathing down your neck, etc. Racing competitively and within seconds of other riders of your ability teaches you how to make good decision, how to conserve, how to really dig deep and give it everything you have. On the other hand, riding one lap deep in the red, then blowing up and riding tempo waiting to get lapped doesn't give you a chance to really race. It seems like this latter scenario is the one that a lot of guys experience when racing up a category before they're ready.

    So it really doesn't matter to anyone else, I don't think. The local fields are still small enough that I don't think anyone is really "in the way."

    For myself, and for anyone who would ask me directly what I think, like Danny, my simple answer would be that if you are racing with a group in the A race, then it probably makes sense to stay there. On the other hand if you're riding alone most of the time, or hanging on for dear life with one other rider, getting lapped consistently, etc, then it might make sense to spend some more time racing in the B field where you can be more competitive and learn how to get results and even win.

    And all of this 'cross business os coming right up, isn't it? Exciting!