The Progression Of Racing And The Australian Grading System

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Photo courtesy of Veeral Patel, O’nev Photography

Bike racing has a massive fitness element to it, but once you’re sufficiently fit there is a lot of skill and experience required in order to play the game. Fitness is not a skill in my opinion. To get fit you simply need to go through the motions and you’ll arrive with some form. The racing aspect of cycling is much more intricate than having good fitness. It requires years of experience with many successes and failures to get relatively good at it.

The four stages of competence is a learning model related to the progression involved from incompetence to competence in any skill. I’ll put this model in the context of bike racing (I did not create this model). Every bike racer goes through this progression and to get to the top there’s no way to fast-track it except for putting in the hard yards.

  1. Unconscious Incompetence
    The individual neither understands nor knows how to do something, and does not recognizes the deficit. An example of this might be someone giving racing a crack for the first time. He might be fit but still does not understand how to bike race. The best place to introduce someone to the race environment would be in D-grade.
  2. Conscious Incompetence
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, without yet addressing it. This would be after a few races getting comfortable in D-grade and then racing in C-grade. This is a pack of cyclists who have a good fitness base but still learning the major details of how to bike race and the skills required. Things are still being learned such as how to roll turns properly, how to corner, where to position yourself.
  3. Conscious Competence
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires a great deal of consciousness or concentration. Now we’re getting into the B-grade level of racing. Everyone who is good enough to be out there is committed to racing. Many people’s ambition is to make it into A grade but there is still lots experience required to put what has been learned into practice.
  4. Unconscious Competence
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it becomes “second nature” and can be performed easily (often without concentrating too deeply). He or she may or may not be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned. This should be the skill level of an A-grade cyclist. An A-grade cyclists should know how the game is played, the tactics involved, and not have to second-guess details such as cornering, positioning, attacking, counter-attacking, the direction of the wind, echeloning, holding your line, etc.

All bike racers have to learn these skills throughout a period of time. The learning curve is not linear. Just like most things in life, it’s a never ending process and stage 4 is the largest part. What is my point here? Let me explain…

Some of the local Melbourne cycling clubs are enjoying unprecedented turnouts for their weekly summer racing. Cycling is going absolutely nuts here. We’re beginning to see over 300 starters spread throughout the fields. This is a great problem to have, but it’s also becoming a victim of it’s own success. At some point in the near future it will be necessary to start limiting field sizes or creating more grades. On a circuit that’s 1km long, 100 riders in a single grade is getting too big to be manageable, enjoyable, and safe. It’s time for a structured grading system to be put in place around Australia for every club. I hate to bring this up again as it’s a subject that I’ve already written about, but I think we’re beginning to see this go from a simple observation into an problem that needs to have a solution.

Looking at a few of past the races at the two largest clubs in Melbourne, SKCC and CCCC, A-grade typically gets the largest numbers with B-grade close behind. CCCC has done a good job at handicapping riders and making sure their experience suits their grade. SKCC is just starting to see this as an issue with the tremendous turnouts they’ve been having. What I’m seeing is that some riders will be racing in A grade in SKCC, but will be in B grade at CCCC. In the state level open events they might even be racing C grade. There is no continuity and for the most part riders can pick whatever grade they want.

The main problem I see is that C and B grades aren’t competitive enough. Anyone who shows a spark of talent graduates to A grade within a few weeks of racing. I feel that if more riders were held back to develop in C and B-grades then they would get the appropriate racing experience to be 100% ready for A grade. If this pool existed in B-grade there would not be this stigma attached to being a “B grader”. As I’ve referred to before, the North American system has a very good way of grading riders that I think the clubs need to consider adopting in some way. I remember needing to hit nearly ever single race on the calendar for 2 seasons when I was in Cat 3 just to get enough points so I could upgrade to Cat 2. There was a logjam of talent there and it was a challenge just to get a result. It made me a better bike racer.

Instead what we’re seeing is a massive gap in experience and skill amongst the riders in A grade. I’m guessing the lower grades are probably viewing the top racers as “sandbaggers”. Sometimes that’s the case when an A-grader with a couple years off decides to come back racing again, and other times it’s simply someone who is doing the right thing and going through their apprenticeship.

Capping field sizes is not the optimal solution. What I think should happen is that a consistant grading policy should be established, A grade should be split into “Elite” and “A grade” when field sizes are sufficient, and possibly even a Masters feild.

Some people feel the best way of learning is by jumping into the deep end. I believe that it’s necessary to put yourself up to a challenge, but at the same time you need to be able to actively participate in the game. I feel it is better to be working your way up and racing from the front of your grade rather than barely scraping through. Implementing a grading system will spread out the field depth among the grades, it will ensure a proper progression and development of riders, ensure a degree of consistency between events, and it will make the racing a whole lot better for everyone.

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