Providence Day 1 Lap Time Analysis, aka "Don't Fear The Upgrade"

Every once in a while, I do something here that isn't a race report.  I've been meaning to get this one out for a while, now, because it's EARLY CROSS SEASON which means that all anyone ever talks about is how other people need to upgrade.

Personally, I don't spend as much time worrying about sandbaggers as my twitter account might suggest.  Such is the advantage of racing in the only category you can't sandbag.

I've been racing cross for six years now and one thing has never changed:  people act like the jump between categories is much larger than it is.  The standard refrain when someone upgrades to Cat 3 is "well, now it's time to get lapped!" and that is... um... not even remotely true.  If you're fast enough to get any kind of merit-based promotion out of Cat 4, then you're already riding at midpack Cat 3 speed.

In fact, this is true for Cat 3->Cat 2 as well.  The only catch is that with Elite Men riding up to 10 laps, you can be a mere 10% slower than Jeremy Powers and still get lapped on a short course.  So fast Cat 3's are both midpack Cat 2's and in danger of getting lapped.  Tricksy!

Quick aside:  this is why "getting lapped" isn't an indicator that you don't belong in the elite men's race.  10% back in ANY other field and you're comfortably on the lead lap.

Anyway, to really see the way the fields compare, we can look at lap times on a day when the conditions don't change much.  Providence Day 1 is a good example from the recent season.

Obviously, riding more laps will slow down your average lap time, but not as much as you might think.  One underrated factor when you move up is that you start racing with faster racers;  so you're riding longer, but you're getting more drafting opportunities than you used to.  For example, Curtis White won Cat 3 solo by a large margin -- if he'd been in the Elite race he'd have been riding in groups all day instead of eating a steady diet of wind.   The chase group behind him (Delinks, Dobie, Herrick) would have been in groups in the elite race as well, but instead of racing for 2nd (and playing cat-n-mouse) they'd have been in the 30s, where guys tend to work together to survive instead of fighting each other for the podium.

So, yes, riding longer is hard.  You will go a little slower.  Not as much as you think.

Graph time!  Here's a bar graph showing the lap times spanned by each field.  Note that if you get lapped, I can't tell what kind of lap times you were turning, so this is showing the range of times ON THE LEAD LAP.

Time for some fun facts!

The 35+ Men's race and Cat 3 race have almost exactly the same range of times, but the Cat 3 field has almost twice as many guys in it.  This is probably why people talk about how civilized the 35+ race is compared to Cat 3... there's just way fewer bodies out there.

The Cat 3 winner, Curtis White*, would have been 28th/57 in elite men if he could've held his pace for 2 more laps.  But he wasn't alone.  The top 25 guys in Cat 3 were all turning fast enough laps to make lead lap in the men's race.  If they could've held their pace for just one more lap, they'd have made it onto the final lap before Justin Lindine finished.

Conversely, if you didn't make the lead lap of the Elite Men's race, this should tell you how you'd fare in the current Cat 3 race.

The Cat 4 winner, Maksym Shepitko, was on pace for 27th/127 in Cat 3 if he could've held his pace for 2 more laps.  Seriously.  If you're winning Cat 4, you're good enough to beat 100 CAT 3's.

The 35+ winner, Bill Elliston was doing lap times good enough for 25th/57 in Elite Men, and would have won the Cat 3 race by 40 seconds.

Onto the women!

The Cat 3/4 women's winner, Ellen Noble**, was doing lap times good enough for 21st/37 in Elite Women.
The top 22 women in 3/4 were turning lap times good enough to be "not-last" in Elite Women (everyone made the lead lap).

The HARDEST upgrade in CX is going from Cat 4 35+ to 35+ -- the winner of Cat 4 35+ would have to ride 2 extra laps at his winning pace just to get 54th/61 in 35+!

So, what does it all mean?

It means that if you're fast enough to get anywhere NEAR the sandbagger discussion, you're fast enough to move up a category and not be last.  This is true for Cat 4, Cat 3, and Cat 3/4 women -- if you made top 20 in those races, you'd be fine moving up, assuming your definition of "fine" is "not embarrassingly overmatched."

Note that this is NOT the same as "you should move up."  You should move up when you want to, or when the heckling from your peers becomes unbearable.   My only point here is that you would almost certainly survive upgrading, despite what you may believe.

Update!  Bonus Cross-Gender Fun Facts!
Ellen Noble would have been 8th in Cat 4 men and 2nd in Cat 4 35+.
Laura Van Gilder would have been 7th in Cat 3 men, 6th in 45+ and 18th in 35+.  She would have just barely made the lead lap in the men's elite race.
The Elite women's race is the exact same distance as 45+ and has virtually the same lap times from top to bottom, but only half as many riders.

Super-double-bonus LVG update!
Laura Van Gilder is 46, so if she raced 45+ no one could complain about her age***

Triple-bonus LVG update!
Laura Van Gilder is really good at racing bikes.

*Unfortunately, Curtis is a Junior and can't upgrade because the UCI sucks.
**Unfortunately, Ellen is a Junior and can't upgrade because the UCI sucks.
***Some of the fastest 45+ guys race 35+, so she's not even close to being the fastest 45+ rider out there.  Sadly.


solobreak said…
The "race your category" discussion is misguided. It implies that bike racing is a purely physical contest. The whole point of masters racing is for experienced riders with skills and tactical savvy, who are also past their physical prime due to age, to still have an opportunity to compete with one another. They are open to Cat 1 riders because the point is to compete to be the very best rider who has advanced past a certain age.

Of course not everyone who is old and experienced is a Cat 1. But telling us "you're old and slow, so go race with the 20 year old Cat 4s who just picked up a one day license" fails to recognize that these competitions are about more than lap times. In CX, I'll admit these factors are far less important than they are on the road, where group skills and tactics play a larger role, but for many of us, competing against riders who are peers in every aspect of the sport is a big part of the attraction.

You can argue that that many riders haven't fallen far enough physically at age 35. That number is a holdover from a long time ago. But it's not that far off either.

The problem of riders who are both old AND relatively inexperienced is a different one. When possible, it's probably preferable to segregate them. The "special snowflake" designation might make some wise asses laugh at their own jokes on twitter, but if there are 100 of them, then it's just sensible segregation.

As far as crying "sandbagger" at the winner of the Cat 3 race, that's your right. But I think it's pretty stupid. In NECX, the only place to go (if you're under 35) is the Elite race, which is Pro-1,2. The Cat 3 winner may be good enough to be a 2, but he or she may know damn well that they are never going to be a pro. Bottom line, the elite race as it is currently structured is not all that attractive to a rider with a job and interests outside of professional cycling. It may be OK for some of you, but to criticize those for whom it is not is narrow minded. Personally I'm not going to hold it against someone who wants to compete against other hobbyist racers rather than merely survive against paid professionals.
Colin R said…
Solo: are you arguing with a point I made, or just writing a blog post in the comments? I genuinely can't tell.
kevin said…
god i love math. You just called 65% of necx a sandbagger, but you did it in such an airtight way that you may have avoided the mandatory aggressively defensive responses.

OK, so mathboy has shown why we need to see a bunch of upgrades. Now can psychologyboy write a analysis of why we aren't going to see a bunch of upgrades? I think we need to introduce ego as a variable.
Colin R said…
I don't think anybody NEEDS to upgrade (except Chandler, and that's just because I want to know if I can beat him). I just think people should stop acting like the jump to the next category up is so terrifying.
kevin said…
As I've said before, if slower races are selling out, and faster races aren't, then we NEED to see some upgrades.

A cat3's need to be on the podium at a race isn't worth telling a another cat3 he can't participate in that race.

Move it along boys.
solobreak said…
"I just think people should stop acting like the jump to the next category up is so terrifying."

If you already know what people think, what motivates them, and what scares them, I'm not sure why you even need comments. If you can't figure mine out, just delete it.
Colin R said…
Solo: your comment is mainly about Masters racers, a group largely ignored in this post, except for the observation that Bill Elliston went fast enough to win the Cat 3 race and would be a midpack elite. Once again, he *could* move up, although he has every right not to and I didn't suggest anywhere that I think he should. Nevertheless, if Bill ever says "oh man I would get last in the elite race" then he's full of shit.

As for your final paragraph about whether or not amateurs are morally obligated to move up and race pros if they can "survive" -- I have passed no judgement, only pointed out that they would survive. If a fast cat 3 says "I don't want to JUST SURVIVE" in the elite field that's fine. If he says "I WOULDN'T SURVIVE" then he's full of shit.

All am I providing here is information.
kevin said…
When did the elite field become "pro"? Out of the 60 dudes in a typical necx uci race, maybe 3 or 4 are paid to race bikes (Gloucester being the exception). Honey badgers on the front row at Nationals have day jobs. The field is not nearly as intimidating as people want to believe it is.
I like the presentation, especially the graph. There lots of good objective material in there that is fun to talk about, and clearly laid out. The interpretation in the fun part.

There should be mention of the Cat 2 racer that's too proud to downgrade. Maybe he was even a great Cat 2 at one time but now he hasn't been training as much or was sick. He might be on the lower end of an Elite race but could possibly win a Cat 3 race...but probably not because of the "sandbagger Cat 3". Kudos to those racers that don't quit & those who "race up". Most races in NECX involve a series, so you have to pick a category for most of your season. I enjoy watching the OPEN fields to see how the different categories compare from time to time. There are many Ego Factor racers that just won't humble themselves in a race that doesn't suit them.
Anonymous said…
If Bicycling mag had articles like this, I wouldn't be cancelling. And I don't even race cx. Great stuff.
I've been doing this sport for a long time for my own reasons. What I like about Colin's anlysis is that he ponders what might make the sport better, or a race more exciting, or fair. He takes the time to say, "This is what it looks like, but what would be like if it were a little different?"

There was a time in Road Racing when it was "easy" to upgrade if you were a crit rider and harder if you were a road racer.

I saw racers learn the ropes and then work their way up to the top, only to receive the kiss of death of becoming a Cat 2. The journey might take them 2-10 years and when they finally reached the peak it was all too often make or break time.

They either made it on a great National or Pro team; or they got flogged and stopped racing within a year or two. Racers have their reasons for moving on but I think its a shame that more don't make it a lifelong sport. Sometimes I think its because its too demanding for the average athlete, but that's also the reason that makes fellow competitors some of my best friends. Because I race, I know how hard others ride, whether they are on their way up, or on their way out. The longer and harder you race, the easier it is to recognize & respect talent & effort in others.

I respect a racer that does not fear to challenge themselves from time to time.
Anonymous said…
Resultsboy. The dumbest thing you said was if you can beat chanbagger. You see the video of him at NBx last year crashing into a tree?
Brooke Hoyer said…
I have but two comments.

1) Can't sandbag in single speed either.

2) How would the most famous transgender cross racer fared in the elite race? I'm guessing top ten.
Parke Rhoads said…
Bonus bonus fun fact:
After winning her race, Laura Van Gilder grabbed the microphone to thank the promoters and Thom Parsons for designing the course, did the podium thing, changed clothes, and then stayed after the mens race to help set the course up for the next day.

For those of you unfamiliar with this pro race technique, it's called "gratitude".
See also: "humility", "chipping in", and "having fun"
Kim Blodgett said…
For the women having racers not be scared to upgrade is a plus, imo. An issue I hear about at local womens races is the low attendance in the elite category. So if women start upgrading then it might open possibilities for other womens categories to start appearing, sub-categories i.e. masters races to accommodate the different abilities at UCI events especially. Or in my case the poor persons category –ha. This seems to show that the top women in the 3/4 field can hang in the elites and help thicken the competition.
I’m not into the whole term sandbagger rather for me it’s more about addressing stagnant racing that stunts the growth of the sport as a whole….at least on the womens side of things.
I'd love to see a graph showing age relative to category.
Thanks for the information Colin.*

*Parke note the gratitude and appreciation expressed.
Cathy said…
Kim - I have that graph for the women :)
Anonymous said…
Nate Ward here, publishing anonymously for uninteresting reasons I won't waste time explaining.

Lap times lie, because what decides cyclocross races is accelerations and technical sections.

And Bill Elliston was a pro forever, and last I checked, he was getting about 25th in the elite race for the last year or two, as you suggest. But why would he want to do that again? Winning is fun, and the front of those masters races is a competitive place.

The thing I never get in this discussion is why larger elite fields are presumed to be a good thing. Faster riders in the front group makes for good racing, but more bodies in 20th through 40th doesn't really matter, and is less interesting than a closely fought masters or B race. The top 4 guys in NE or any other region are only racing each other, anyway, so...
mkr said…
Good stats and conclusions. I like the disclaimers about the Juniors as well. Only one you missed was disclaimer for Women Masters and UCI points negating entry into Masters Worlds.
Jordan said…
We need a box whisker plot here, Colin. I want to see the distribution within the ranges

Popular posts from this blog

A letter to everyone's parents about Coronavirus

Sam Anderson Cheats at Mountain Bike Racing

Do-It-Yourself March Cycling Blog Post