The Upgrade Fallacy
The mechanism by which USAC upgrades function, or more the way the riders interpret this functionality, is one of the worst things in amateur cycling in the US. How many times have you heard the question “How many upgrade points do you have”? How often have you heard someone opine that “I only need a few more points to upgrade”? It think that it might be possible to say that USAC upgrades are designed for a purpose yet wholly misinterpreted by amateur racers. What’s worse, this misinterpretation of cycling upgrades makes amateur cycling in the USA worse.
First, I suppose it is beneficial to outline what upgrades are actually designed to achieve. The upgrade system is designed to broaden the expanse of amateur cycling- to allow the most participants to have the opportunity to race. Note the word ‘race’- anyone can pin up, but the ranking system allows many more of them to actually try and compete for a result. In most racing events the most advanced field (the Professional/Category 1, often combined with the Category 2) has the strongest, most experienced riders. In a field of say, 50, let’s argue that maybe 10 of them have a realistic chance of winning. So, ten guys can win that race. If there were no category classifications, then all riders of all abilities would be in the same event. However, despite that, the same 10 guys capable of winning the event when the race was stratified as “Pro/1/2” are still the only 10 guys who can win, irrespective of how many other weaker riders are entered. Now, let’s look at the alternative- the categorised system. Now, underneath the P/1/2 field there is a Category 3 event, Category 4 event and a Category 5 (let’s ignore Master’s racing- a topic for another article…).
In the Category 3 event, assuming 50 riders in the peloton, there might be, again, 10 racers who are capable of a result. These racers would probably be incapable of winning in the P/1/2 field, but are at the level required for a shot at the win when amongst the other Cat. 3 riders. The same logic applies to the Category 4 and 5 events. Hence, with 4 distinct fields, separated by ability, we can say that forty riders can have a shot at the win. If there was no category system, and assuming (unrealistically) that the event promoter was indeed entitled to hold a 200 rider-sized event including all riders, only 10 guys might win. This illustrates the purpose of categorisation in amateur cycling- to allow the largest possible number of riders to have the chance to win. This in turn feeds into the greater goal of amateur racing: getting more people on bikes, be it to race, commute, pass the time, head down to the shops or whatever. If people are encouraged to attend races as they have a shot at winning, albeit in a weaker field, and that in turn leads them to exercise and ride more as they train and prepare- mission’s accomplished- more bike riding and USAC has succeeded.
Despite the noble objective of the USAC upgrade system, it has been conceptually defaced by the very people that it was designed to help and encourage- amateur racers. Winning bike races is so, so hard. Many people have never ever won one. Many people have never even seen a podium. Yet, despite this, as soon as riders get within a sniff of a potential win they then sabotage themselves and start hunting for their upgrade. This behaviour manifests in two forms, both equally detrimental to the rider’s efforts at winning, which, after all, is kind of the point of bike races. First, as the upgrade threshold nears, people often ride more conservatively. If a rider only needs 4 more points to reach their upgrade threshold suddenly coming 5th doesn’t sound so bad. It would get you what you need to “move up”. Ask yourself this- if you were just a few points shy of your “promotion” to the next category, would you be satisfied with finishing 6th in a race if that carried enough points? Now, how about this: if you were a mile away from upgrading and had no points at all, wouldn’t 6th seem a little inadequate? Wouldn’t you rather have that chance at the win? Would it make you race differently? Would it change your perspective? Second, and more obviously, as one approaches being able to win by racking up top-10 results, then by achieving results in the top-5, then, more and more podium finishes….people choose to upgrade. It’s is relatively trivial to acquire upgrade points, it is very difficult to win. Upgrade points do not equal being a winner, however, upgrade points promote you whereas winning is meaningless, except in the fact that it garners you upgrade points. Thus- riders upgrade to a much tougher field, again scuppering their opportunities for the win. It’s non-sensical.
The upgrade system has morphed into an ego boosting exercise. Racing cyclists define their worth by their category and as such strive beyond reason to attain the highest (well actually, lowest in terms of number) “accolade” possible. They’ll attend races with weaker fields, or religiously attend training series in order to nickel and dime points in races designed to be “C-level” events. It makes little or no sense and is for sure not the purpose of the system. I would hazard that of all the upgrades I have been witness to, my opinion would be that probably over 80% of them are premature as a result of the egocentric forces which nowadays define this process. How many times have you seen a rider upgrade to never be competitive again? The lack of a suitable “down-grade” mechanism further adds to this misappropriation.
There are multiple ways that this system could be re-calibrated to be more effective at getting riders with a closer range of abilities into the same race, the content of which could fill another article entirely. However, I feel that this is more of a racer issue than a USAC issue. I mean, fair enough, if you want to creep your way up to the most advanced field to get destroyed over 160+ km and over 10,000 feet of climbing, be my guest. But in the end, it is better to have more competitive fields. It is better to have more riders line up in any one category vying for the win. It is better as it means that everyone in that field can improve at a faster rate: better competition will make yo a better racer, but within reason. Who knows, if there was a little less ego in amateur bike racing and more healthy competition, maybe some of the other scourges in our sport would be less prevalent, too.
This is not to say that no-one should upgrade. We have all seen the phenomenons who roll through from category 5 to 1 in a single season. Additionally, the peloton knows when someone is ready to upgrade. There is a consensus among the group that he/she is ready. He/she is good enough and ready for the next challenge. However, if we are being honest, we can count these instances on our fingers. They are not all that common. More common are the times one notices that a competitor who has achieved distinctly average results for as long as you have known them is now in a different group. Their “upgrade” at a somewhat disconnect with their displayed ability. Furthermore, this is not to say that the day should be avoided when one makes the jump up and faces the inevitable beating that ensues. That too, is part of the sport, but it should not be rushed.
All racers have the ability to choose when they do or do not upgrade and in reality, very rarely are people forced up to a more competitive field so that is not a realistic concern. There’s nothing wrong with taking time to think about that jump. Nothing wrong with taking stock and giving it a little thought. There are always going to be a million opportunities to lose a bike race- don’t worry, that privilege will never be in short supply, even for the very best. Conversely, the chances at winning are so, so rare.