This time of year many endurance athletes are taking a break, reflecting on their past racing season, and starting to set goals for next year. One of the most common goals, with road cyclists especially, is “upgrading” to the next racing category.
For those that aren’t familiar with it, bike racing is set up on a category system. USA Cycling sanctioned events offer separate races from Category 5 (beginner) to Category 1 (elite) with further separation above Cat 1 at the “Pro” levels. Advancement between categories is based on a mix of experience and results. The idea behind the system is to: 1) give cyclists a tier structure to advance though to help develop their handling skills, tactical ability and fitness; and 2) provide different levels of competition for racers at different ability and development levels and with different time constraints.
Given the nature of competition and competitors, it’s understandable why a lot of people aspire to the highest category possible and make advancement a major goal. The higher the category, the better the riders and competition, and the culture of bike racing drives us to want to challenge ourselves and compete with and be associated with “the best”.
But what does it really mean to upgrade? Is an athlete really ready? Do they know what they are getting into? Just because one “can”, does it mean one “should”?
The beginner categories can be pretty lopsided as everyone has to start at Cat 5. A physically strong individual might be able to “brute force” their way through lower category races without learning much in the way of tactics and race dynamics. But, unless someone short circuited the system, every rider at the “next” level was a top rider at the “prior” level. This means the talent keeps concentrating as you move from one category to the next. As riders move up, the difference between rider fitness and ability shrinks, speeds increase and team dynamics start to play more of a factor. Tactics that worked before, might not have an impact, and the margin of error for decision making is much smaller. A sharper tactical acumen is needed to be successful when everyone is faster, stronger, smarter and more organized. On top of it, distances of events increase which means more dedicated and focused training time required (plus additional recovery time) to prepare the athlete for the increase speed and distance.
The combined impact of all of this is it takes more time and effort and is more difficult to get results at the higher levels of bike racing. This may seem obvious, but for many it comes as a surprise. This change in difficulty can have a huge mental impact on athletes who are used to seeing success every weekend in lower categories, or worse, ones who have barely scraped together minor results to get enough points to move up to the next category. I have sadly seen athletes underestimate the combined challenges associated with upgrading and actually end up quitting the sport, especially going from Cat 3 to Cat 2.
That said, I am not trying to dissuade upgrading. I believe in the value of competition and aspiring to a higher level is a good way to challenge yourself and one of the key reasons why we are drawn to sport. But don’t let the drive to upgrade become all-consuming without considering the full picture. Athletes can become like the proverbial dog chasing a car, they are so focused on chasing it, they don’t consider what happens if they actually catch it. In addition, racers shouldn’t underestimate the developmental benefits of spending time at each category and “learning the ropes” by competing in a variety of events, including race types that don't suit their strengths and some out of region races where the competition levels may be different. Exposure to different racing types, competition levels and tactical situations will help a rider gain valuable experience and make them a more complete racer.
I encourage those considering an upgrade to talk to more experienced riders who are racing at the next level and take some time to reflect on their individual personal situation and be honest about their ability level before making the decision to move up. Many racers would benefit by not hyper focusing on the upgrade itself and instead focusing more on developing fitness, honing skills, gaining a variety of race experience and **gasp** having fun! The upgrade will come in time if you continue to see improvements in these areas and can maintain balance with all your other life factors. And if it doesn't happen, so be it, as long as you are are having fun, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the sport you love at whatever category fits best for you.
Photo: Dwayne Farr, US Military Cycling, Mt Tabor Portland, OR Courtesy Tim Yarnell