Cross Nationals Qualification Criteria: Is It Fair, and Do We Need It?

Yesterday's post touched very briefly on a subject that many New Englanders have the luxury of ignoring:  USA Cycling's 2015 change to cyclocross nationals qualification criteria.

As of 2015, to race the elite race at nationals you needed either (1) at least one UCI point or (2) to be in the top 90 of the ProCX calendar.  The ProCX calendar is "all the UCI races in the USA" but with points going deeper than 10 (I think 20 or 25).

But either way, if you didn't go to UCI races, you didn't race nationals.  Period.  And going to UCI races is a lot easier in the northeast than anywhere else in the country:

There's so many UCI races within 90 minutes of Boston (10), you can't even see them all on the map!

Meanwhile, if you were ANYWHERE on the west coast, you get exactly two qualification chances:  CXLA or Waves for Water, and those could both be a pretty epic drive for you.  (If you're fast enough to get points at CrossVegas, you're fast enough to have a sponsor who pay for you to take a plane the rest of the UCI races in the country.)

As we saw yesterday, Waves for Water and CXLA were both middle of the road C2s, with the last UCI point coming around 220 crossresults points.  But let's not kid ourselves, travel is hard, and cycling is variable.  If you were a 219-point cross racer from San Francisco, it's a 13 hour drive to Seattle or a 6 hour drive to Los Angeles, and if you have an average race at those events you'll maybe get a UCI point.  

Meanwhile, the 220 point racer in Boston gets 18 UCI races within 6 hours to try to bag his UCI point at as well as 

So, I don't actually care if this state of affairs is right or wrong, but can we all agree that the odds of qualifying for nationals if you're on the bubble of getting in are highly dependent on where you live?


The reason the qualification criteria exists is because without it, the elite race is too big and too chaotic to be a well-run championship event.  As someone who was pulled after four laps from the elite race at 2011 Nationals in Madison, I agree with this.  The back half of that race was a bunch of scrubs who were just racing because we wanted more value for our travel dollar.

So, some kind of bar had to be set, and this UCI-race-focused one was the most reasonable one that the powers in charge came up with.  It's a somewhat decent criteria, because if you're good enough to get top 20 at nationals, you're good enough to get a UCI point on almost any weekend, assuming you have two tries.

The people who get screwed here are developing riders who really want to race elite nationals, but they can't, because they don't get many UCI races to try their luck at (unless they live in the Northeast).  Do we care about developing riders?  Should a 23 year old dude from San Fran who rides at the 210 point level be able to race nationals if he wants to?

(For reference, the last guy on the lead lap at Austin 2015 scored 235 points.  So this hypothetical dude is fast enough he'll never get in Jeremy Powers way)

The current argument, as far as I can tell, is "sucks to be that guy, but it's the only way to make the elite race reasonably small."

But what... if there was another way?

Let's look at the 2014 Men's elite race.  2014 is the last year without qualification criteria, and the last year you could race Masters and Elites.

Here's a little graph showing how many races you entered at 2014 nationals vs what place you finished.

Check it out.  All those dudes in the back half of the race?  They raced twice.  They're just like me at Madison 2011:  in the race because it's there, and they already got a plane ticket and a hotel room.

Of riders who finished outside the top 40, 45 out of 57 (79%) were in their second race of the weekend.  You want to keep those guys out of the elite race?  Just make them pick between masters or elites!

And that rule is already on the books.  If you removed the "elite qualification criteria" completely, and just said "pick masters or elites," I bet 80% of those guys would have raced their age group race.  I know I would have.  (Well actually I wouldn't have traveled at all, but either way, I wouldn't have been in JPows way).

If 80% of those dudes went to age group, the field size would be 61, without any qualification criteria at all, and now your 23 year old dude from San Fran can race.  (This year's national champs had 49 starters, for reference)

Check it out for women, it's the same graph:

The women's nationals race was even bigger, with 108 finishers.  53 out of 68 women who finished outside the top 40 were in their second race of the champ (78%), and if 80% of them opted to skip elites due to the age-group-or-elites cutoff then your women's field would have been 66.  (46 women started in Austin this year).

The bottom line is that traveling halfway across the country (or more) just to get blown out of the water and pulled off the course isn't something a lot of people want to do.  But if they're already at the venue, they'll pay another $75 to race a second time, even if they're not fast enough to have a chance of finishing.  Because they love racing cross.

In summary, the elite race would actually self-regulate quite nicely using just the "age-group or elites" criteria, and I think you'd see field sizes in the 60s.   Most of the field size reduction between 2014 and 2015 would have happened even without a qualification standard framed around a UCI series that is inaccessible many racers.  

Additional hypothesizing for people who really really think Nationals should be a small race:

If for some reason 60-ish starters at Nationals is too many, you could always try making Cat 1 mean something for the first time in cyclocross history, by restricting the race to cat 1 only:  this would have excluded 34 men from 2014 Nationals and a whopping 55 women.

(Obviously some of the cat 2s would upgrade, but this would send the "this is a super fast non joke race" message -- I know that I personally would not have tried to get a Cat 1 cx upgrade in 2011 to race Nats)


Aa said…
As always, good data. But you're ignoring the top 90 PROCX portion of the qualifier.
The top 64 men (of the top 90) had UCI points scored in the 14/15 season.
For reference, I was 67th (Podium! (?)).

So that leaves 26 slots of non-UCI point holders to attend CX Nats in the big show.
Of those 26, only 3 were from New England.
1 was Derrick St. John from Canada
2 from the mid-Atlantic
11 from the West
And the rest from the south.

With the addition of Washington DC, Oklahoma, and more Texas races, the odds are increased for those riders.

Oddly enough, no one finished 91st in the rankings, 2 guys tied for 92nd. One from CA and one from NC.

If you make it "self-selection" what's to stop the cat 3 who just bought a UCI license from racing the Elite race? Nothing.
Having the rankings is very helpful, and having a qualifier adds prestige to the "outside of cycling" world.

How do you get to run Boston/Chicago/NYC, etc marathon? You qualify.
Colin R said…
Adam --

The ProCX calendar comes from attending UCI races, though, so the skew is the same. If you're from San Fran, your ProCX options are very limited. Of your 11 Westerners, how many of them were based out of Cali/OR/WA?

> If you make it "self-selection" what's to stop the cat 3 who just bought a UCI license from racing the Elite race? Nothing.

Well, what's stopping him is hundreds of dollars in travel costs just to get pulled from the race in three laps. The vast majority of racers don't actually want to do that, but as I noted at the bottom -- you could also restrict the race to Cat 1s if you're worried about that kind of thing.

> Having the rankings is very helpful, and having a qualifier adds prestige to the "outside of cycling" world.

It's easier to say this when the rankings and qualifier are biased toward your region of the country. Do you think the guys in California who are as fast as you think it's "very helpful?"

I don't honestly know how I feel about nationals qualification criteria -- on many levels I like it, but I think there's some very fair complaints with the distribution of races that are unlikely to change any time soon. I mainly wrote this because once I started looking into the data, I was surprised by how viable things appear to be even without the qualification criteria.
Alan Atwood said…
Once again, Colin nails it. 3's can't race elite nationals, because of USAC rule 7F1 (elites must be cat 2 or higher). You don't need a UCI license because technically national championships are national federation events, no matter what country you're in.
Anonymous said…
Sorry Aa
Let's not compare our national championships to mass participation events like marathons which don't even require a pulse for participation.
Only the Boston Marathon has qualifying times for entry. Chicago and NYC are entry by lottery.
Dave M said…
How do we get Colin R in charge of USA Cycling? I, for one, think he would do a fantastic job. Viva La Revolution!

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