Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Introduction to the Future

Opening up the 2009 ECCC road season, the Rutgers/Princeton weekend was a huge success all around. Massive turnout, good courses, solid organization, weather more fantastic than anyone has a right to ask for this time of year.

There were two brief, exemplar moments though where it really shined: The first was when we started the Men's Intro field, and 45 riders and 25+ coaches stepped out onto course. We knew the numbers were high from the time trial and congregating everyone a few minutes early, but that put it all into perspective. Mayhem and bedlam unprecedented reigned for just a few seconds as we tried to straighten out the huge mass of riders and coaches. It was beautiful, and I was actually speechless for a few moments as I simultaneously enjoyed the sight and desperately tried to figure out how to organize the whole affair.

The second moment was twenty five minutes later when we called up the Women's Intro field, and the exact same thing happened---40 riders, 25+ coaches, anarchy and disorder. Amazing. To put that in some perspective, that's more ladies in the Intro race than many races---collegiate or otherwise---have in total. Mere icing on an already delicious cake then to start Women's B and have another 50 (!!!) racers show up.

I think the Intro category has become such an integral part of the scene so quickly that it's worth noting the struggle it took to get off the ground. This is only our third season of Intro Category racing, with a single trial event the year before in the 2006 Beanpot. At the conference meeting in the fall of '06, the motion to mandate Intro categories was a knock down, drag down fight matched only by the push to equalize men's and women's points a few year's before---another disruptive, contentious change quickly shown to be the right direction. The debate wandered around and around in circles for an excessively long time, with firmly entrenched camps on both sides. Clocks were pushing 6 or 7 PM by the time that meeting ended.

Major arguments against the category were and are simple:
  • Racing is supposed to be hard!
  • We don't have time for this in the schedule.
  • Teams already do this on their group rides
The first is so insipid, so shortsighted that I won't even go into it.

The second is easy: We are the ECCC. If it's worth doing, we make it happen.

The third is more interesting. The three counter arguments turned out to be perfectly true:
  • Many riders are still looking for an easy ramp-up into racing, no matter how good the support and guidance from their team.
  • The bulk of the teams out there are pretty small, and many are in areas without well developed cycling scenes. New riders on moderately sized and big teams or in development oriented, cycling-happy areas (hooray for Philadelphia!) may get that kind of support. But most teams aren't big and aren't in those areas. A quick look through the member database makes clear that the majority of ECCC teams have just a few riders. New racers on those teams are often on their own, and many new teams are made up entirely of new racers with no one to show them the ropes.
  • Judging from what we see out on the road, most teams aren't actually doing this kind of development, or not hitting all their riders. New racers are frequently intimidated at coming out with older racers, even with those willing to give them guidance and lead clinic-oriented rides, or just aren't ingrained enough in the team to avail themselves of the opportunity. Even teams that do an excellent job with their new members still have riders showing up in the Intro races that are definitely getting something out of the experience.

When the motion to add the category finally came to a vote, it was close. Mark A, myself, and many others had been fighting for the category by tooth and nail over email and in person for days and hours, and in the end vision prevailed by only a few votes. Few better things have ever happened in cycling.

That first season was pretty rough around the edges. A few events stepped it up with full coaching squads, most notably Rutgers, Philly, and the Beanpot, but at an awful lot of races just Mark A and I wound up coaching, with whomever we could harass into coming along, mostly Drexel boys who failed to come up with good excuses. Racer attendance was generally pretty light as well. We were stoked if we got twelve guys and a handful of women. One sad day in awful, freezing, pouring rain, only one Men's Intro rider lined up for the category.

Having so many people participate is then huge vindication of all the effort that went into getting the category off the ground. I am so happy to see so many riders and so many teams---including clubs originally dead set against the idea---make such good use of the category. Even more rewarding is seeing so many people join in to help guide the races. Having so many team coaches break out their bikes, get kitted up, and dispense some hard won wisdom is a great thing. It is also deeply, deeply satisfying to have so many veteran racers ask if they can help out because they think it's a great idea and a fun way for them to contribute back to the conference, emphasis on the latter. Beautiful.

I believe the success of the Intro category has also been a huge development for women's racing. Women's Intro and Women's B fields were both huge this weekend, many of the B racers having been Intro racers last year. There was even a sudden flurry of discussion among the conference about adding a Women's C category. We're not quite there yet, but at long last it's finally on the horizon.

For a wide variety of reasons, many women have a particularly hard time entering the sport. It's even more difficult for them to find experienced racers to ride with and learn from, and with so few categories there are huge imbalances in skill and fitness within each category that make entry even more daunting. No one gets excited about bicycle racing and learns about it quickly when they spend their race riding alone because there isn't really a beginner's category.

The Intro category goes a long way toward addressing that. Ensuring everyone gets some experience riding in a group and learns some skills both improves their enjoyment and gets them up to speed faster---literally, figuratively. This is the same reason why Caitlin and I have taken to hanging in the back of the Women's B field and providing some guidance back there. The faster our newer women racers can pick up skills and the more they enjoy it, the faster field sizes will grow, categories balance out, and women's racing move toward its potential.

Thank you very, very much to everyone that helped work toward that goal this past weekend. We'll see you out there again, every weekend, rain or shine.


  1. Intro category is great. I spent an entire season in Intro two years ago due to my out-of-shape-ness, a nagging knee injury and of course... having zero experience. I came out of the season with so much confidence and have been racing and improving ever since. We're even trying to institute similar practices at the local training series here in Pittsburgh. Good job to everybody involved... ECCC racing is where it's at.

  2. Intro is great and the support system on the ECCC itself is amazing; there is positive energy everywhere. I had an Intro racer crash out on Saturday, only to be even more excited to race again on Sunday. The ECCC is about development, and Intro was one of the greatest ideas to expand that development to more and more riders.

    Touché Joe, you and the ECCC are on the money with this one.

  3. Stuff like this is why collegiate racing is the best thing that has happened to bike racing. Both my little sister and GF rolled around in an intro race at UVM two and three years ago. It got both of them real pumped on the whole scene. If it helps spark the passion for anyone it is worthwhile. If it saves a few patches of Road Rash or a trip in the ambulence then it is totally worth it.

    A huge thank you to those who have put in the effort to make it happen.

    Can't wait for MTB Skill Clinics.

  4. Well said! My first race ever was the Rutgers intro two years ago. Without it I probably would have gotten quickly demoralised and quit. I still remember the words of advice I got from my coaches there (the Army and Williams coaches) - absolute reassurance that I could make it as a bike racer. It gets the butterflies out of the stomach if nothing else. I was glad to see more time during the race-day schedule dedicated to intro this year. It's not a passing little formality anymore - the intro event was a central part of the race weekend, it felt like this time. I essentially demand all our first-time racers to do their first weekend in intro. I'll be out volunteering to coach intro soon, once I can finish with the pack in my own races and don't have that weighing on my mind. Thanks again for writing this.

  5. Notably, Intro Coaches are apparently also possessed of hot bodies and dazzling skills. I was pretty sure that was the case, but now know it for sure:

  6. I started racing in the 2007 season when the Intro categories were introduced. As one of two new and only female riders on the team that year, I found the category extremely helpful. However, it is also something that no one wants to really stay in since it gets a little repetitive. Two years later I finally feel that I understand the sport a lot better. Unfortunately at this point my schoolwork has taken away time from my training. So as that lonely rider in the back of the Women's B category, I just want to thank Caitlin for being there to urge me on a bit.