Monday, March 23, 2009


Surprisingly, the majority of officials have never been competitive cyclists. Many don't even ride recreationally. Most got their start because friends or family were or are racers, and they got hooked on the pageantry of cycling, race day logistics puzzles, days in the sun amidst the most beautiful sport.

A key tenant I've been pushing over the last few years is that more racers need to become officials. There are many reasons for this, but one notion is that experienced racers are better equipped to evaluate safety factors. That's not to say by any means that racing experience is necessary to do so or be a good official, but it seems reasonable, modulus some overly gung-ho racers. Without that race experience it's often hard to gauge what racers need and what will work---how far out do they need to know a corner is controlled, how desperately will they avoid that gravel, can they see those lap cards, etc.

But, there are things I've learned that racing experience simply does not provide, and in fact may gloss over. In particular, racers don't generally think about external events and actors. Racers focus on the things they will encounter during their race: Potholes, bumps, sharp corners. They very rarely think about all the things they hopefully never encounter during a race---pedestrians and vehicles being the most troubling---precisely because so many people are working to ensure they don't encounter them.

Any racer can take a quick lap and settle on a corner to worry about that they can't pedal through or take at full speed. Only sharp observers think about mitigating external events, e.g. that doing lap after lap downhill through a blind double s-curve in a heavily trafficked area without total course control would be inviting that sort of external event to happen. Tough corners are problematic; someone may crash, someone may get hurt. That's the nature of the sport. External events are frequently fatal---for the racers if it's a vehicle, for the pedestrians if it's not. That's something to be avoided at all costs.

Unfortunately, those risks are significantly harder to recognize and judge. They're much less obvious than basic course "features" and the probabilities frequently pretty low. As a promoter, official, director, these are always the hardest decisions. No race can cover every possible contingency and no event can put out more than a finite number of marshals, each with only a very finite ability to control the world around them. Every time a road course crosses an unwatched driveway or tiny side street, every time a crit is held somewhere not in the middle of nowhere, we're all taking risks with gravely serious possibilities. Balancing course tradeoffs, evaluating probabilities versus outcomes, all of that is gut wrenching and definitely the deepest, darkest part of race promotion and officiating.


  1. Hey Joe, I was going to write a lengthier post about this topic, but maybe it works better to start the discussion here. I'd like to know what others think about this too.

    When it comes down to it, the officials had 50 people from the crowd and racers galore who would have volunteered at a pin drop to marshal the crosswalks. Experienced riders may have understood the risk of that turn, but a handful of newer riders now have a hospital bill and a serious doubts about racing.

    It's not productive to complain about what should have been done on Sunday. Instead we should be addressing the "that's bike racing" attitude that is the go-to excuse to defend these courses. Somewhere between the race moto crashing (to boot, he's been driving races since we were juniors...not like he's inexperienced) and the reigning ECCC cross champion opting to sit out the race, the correct cost-benefit tradeoff should have been clear.

    There was a crash in that corner in every race except the D1 men. It was painfully obvious to spectators, racers, and even casual UDel bystanders that the course should be reversed. To say it wasn't possible because of a lack of marshals is a cheap excuse, and could be remedied by asking a few of the ECCC's 500+ people to help out. I know our team would rather have been assigned a spot to marshal than DNS our race. For an early season collegiate race, there just shouldn't be a choice between collarbones and getting points.

  2. Hi Will,

    About this specific weekend, one of the things I'm saying here is precisely that it wasn't obvious that the course should be reversed. That one corner might have been a little better going the opposite direction. But I've seen or heard as many people talk about what fun they had with the course as I've seen people discuss concerns about that corner, and, as harsh as it sounds, crash statistics were no worse than par for a criterium.

    More importantly, the overriding issue was what the effect would be of going downhill in the sequence that would then be leading into it. This isn't about a lack of marshals; I actually think the UDel crew did a decent job of marshaling over the weekend. But there's only so much you can do, particularly at a busy, exciting location like a campus crit. Running the course the other direction, the race would then go downhill through several blind corners between three or four heavily trafficked dorms and student centers, as well as a few parking lots. Blind corners mean two things:

    - Lead vehicles and motos can't react to sudden obstructions.

    - Pedestrians and vehicles are more likely to become obstructions by entering the course at random points, both near and away from marshals, because the corners are blind and they can't see the approaching race, even if they are looking (and they're not...).

    The moto incident actually supports that logic---despite having solid sight lines, a large racing crowd, and good number of marshals on hand in that corner, two pedestrians still managed to step out on course directly in front of the race and cause that crash. There was another similar near-incident early on in the Men's A race on the uphill that could have been much, much worse if that had been downhill.

    All races routinely have similar issues, no matter how good and plentiful the marshaling, so these concerns need to be taken into account, especially because the consequences are potentially so severe. In this case it was a tough call, that's why there was so much discussion about it. Riders getting hurt in a corner is extremely bad, and few people in the conference have a deeper appreciation for that than I (I'm at nine race-driven fractures and counting). Contact between lead vehicles or riders and pedestrians or traffic is a whole other class of bad.

    As a side note, it's not very realistic to draft racers as marshals. It works as a very temporary fix, but experience says there's just too little accountability to ensure they stay there, and too much going on otherwise to coordinate that sort of effort on the spot.

    More important though are the larger issues at play. Course design and review is a huge issue for us, for all types of events and in all disciplines. Conference-wide, one of my biggest concerns is actually the safety of Downhill courses, which have had some questionable moments the past few seasons. Accessibility is another huge issue. Again, to highlight that this is a general issue, we've had several issues the past few MTB seasons with riders in different regions having very different definitions of what "rideable" means---Pennsylvania's ok with rocks, Vermont ok with mud, the middle states ok with roots, and none of them ok with the other...

    Back to the road season, as an example, how should the conference approach the Tufts crit? It's not on the schedule for other reasons, but there are real concerns there. Half the conference loves it because it's super technical---even I do, and I'm by no means a crit or technical rider---but the other half has donated skin samples because it's super technical. In addition, because it's so hard, so technical, and so short, a huge fraction of every field gets pulled very quickly, which is potentially a huge turnoff to new riders.

    Where do we make our tradeoffs between challenging courses, safety, and accessibility? How do we make those tradeoffs? In some cases we can do things like have alternate courses for lower categories---several DH races have done that now, and a number of road races---but that's not always feasible, and it's not clear what the goal should be. Do we sacrifice good technical courses for more accessible courses? I don't know. Again, the Tufts crit has serious safety and accessibility issues, but it's a classic that I and many others would be sad to see never return.

    Even once those issues are resolved, how do you implement them? A chronic problem in all seasons right now is that many promoters are simply failing to put out draft flyers and courses for review early enough to actually do something about any potential problems. Sadly, the conference has little leverage at the moment to do something about that. The best idea so far is requiring promoters to put down a deposit to get on the calendar, but we haven't yet received the infrastructure we need from USAC to implement that in an ideal fashion (via the conference's accounts there). It may come down to establishing another scheme, but are there other ideas out there for more effectively driving the process? How do we have courses reviewed with a consistent eye on the conference's standards and expectations?

    From our end, this is what we've got so far in this area:

    - A goal behind this blog is providing one way for me to putt the word out about a little bit of what's going on behind the scenes and to have this kind of discussion. Transparency is not commonly adopted in the competitive cycling community, and I've already had many arguments about with various people and groups about this on other matters, but I think it's important that riders see some of the logic behind what's going on.

    - This November we probably will enforce deposits and a strict timeline from the upcoming road promoters. If USAC can't work out the accounting infrastructure, we'll simply have to figure out another approach (fictitiuous name & accounts for the conference). Similar will happen for the MTB season at the February meeting.

    - Several promoters are already on board with developing revamped editions of the promoter's guides, an effort we hope to get underway as this season continues. Any riders or promoters interested in contributing to that effort should email me.

    - At the November meeting we'll spend some time more concretely going over expectations and policy for our events, focusing on road.

    - The February meeting will move up slightly and take on even more of an aspect of reviewing promoters' final preparations and readyness.

    - We'll have to add an additional element of course review, well in advance of the event. The leading idea right now is tapping other nearby teams to more formally visit and review courses early enough in the process for promoters to adjust, in addition to course inspections by senior officials. It would be ideal to have the conference directors or season coordinators also do this, but it's just not feasible given how much time everything else plus the existing travel already consumes.

    Other ideas or discussion on any of these points are, as always, very welcome.


  3. For what it's worth (I'm no means super-experienced like Joe and Will, but am also concerned about this issue - sorry if I ramble put am on painkillers now):

    It seems as if the courses with safety issues this year have been put on by first-time promoters who have small teams. This is awesome, and I appreciate the efforts of Stevens and UDeleware for adding fresh excitement to the ECCC. I think, though, perhaps the issues could be mitigated a bit if these races had the help of one or more other teams as race promoters. The best, classic ECCC events are either big coalitions (Philly, the old Beanpot), or large, established teams with histories of race promotion (Columbia, West Point, Rutgers come to mind). I would also argue that the old Grafton RR was just as dangerous in theory as the Tufts crit, but the fact that all the Boston schools were in on promoting allowed for such a large number of marshalls, haybales and signs, etc, made it a safe and well-controlled course. Imagine if, say, UDelaware and another school worked together to put on the same weekend...perhaps there would not have been marshalling shortages. The Deleware RR and TT were wicked awesome courses, after all!

    I guess my point is perhaps there needs to be more institutional skepticism on the approval side of things when small teams and first-time race promoters propose races. Brown wants to promote a race in the road season next year, but we will only do so with the help of at least one other experienced team as promoter. We're already talking informally to other schools and RI USCF teams about it, not really along the lines of a 'split' weekend but rather a real joint effort across the weekend. We don't need to prove anything by doing it all alone - good, fun, safe races matter in the end. Columbia's A's didn't even come to Stevens...that wasn't a joint effort, and I think symbolic of something that went wrong.

    As for the Deleware crit corner, I personally did not find it unsafe nor had any problems with it - and I'm a self-proclaimed HORRIBLE bike handler. It was obvious to experienced racers how to ride it safely, but it was like pulling teeth to convince our team's Cs Ds and Intros that the corner was possible. But we just told them how (brake before the crosswalk, release, corner), and then they were fine.

    Maybe comparing DE crit crosswalk corner, Stevens downhill corner (and the uphill potholes), and Tufts corner two illustrate my point: DE crosswalk corner was never mentioned in the flyer or elsewhere, and hit the lower category riders as a surprise just an hour or so before their race - collectively freaking people out. Youtube and google earth just don't illustrate a technical corner. Stevens was less of a surprise, but counterproductively - it just basically said it was scary and to preride, but not really what exactly to prepare for. Tufts corner two was famous, well-advertised, and basically all ECCCers grow up knowing what line to take in the corner months before even seeing the corner on race day. Again, this is an issue centering around first-time races. More transparency about the courses, and productive guidance on how to handle crucial technical parts (like, say, 'slow down to 15mph before this bridge' or 'brake before the crosswalk, release, and corner') - all in some way - would alleviate the shock of race-day surprises. Many accidents (independent of outside factors like a car or pedestrian) are the result of mental factors, like lack of confidence or uncertainty.

    At the heart of things there needs to be a can-do attitude rather than a frightening, cavalier attitude about the potentially dangerous aspects of racing. I guess I can't offer a specific idea about how, and obviously I know you and all the other ECCC coaches, team leaders, etc realise and practice this. I felt a need to say it, though, because I feel this can-do attitude from our coach (a former ECCCer himsef) and old Graham Garber back in the day helped me immensely.

  4. Hi Graham,

    I just wanted to add for right now a small note that despite not being a joint weekend, Rob Rowan and the Columbia team actually did a fair amount behind the scenes to help make the Stevens event happen successfully. All good points above, and hopefully others will chip in their thoughts as well.