Sunday, February 3, 2013

The New Face of Competition

As I was reading the current issue of Dirt Rag magazine, a revelation came to mind. Competition in cycling has fundamentally shifted in the last five years or so. I've lamented in the past about my favorite road and mountain bike events going by the wayside. These include road events like Turtle Pond, Bow, Jiminy Peak, and off-road events like the Watershed Wahoo. All of these events share one thing in common: they are circuit races where you go head-to-head with your competition in real time. First one over the line wins.

The feature story in Dirt Rag revealed that all-mountain enduro racing has become hugely popular in Europe and is now making inroads on this side of the pond. The enduro format doesn't favor pure fitness or raw downhill skill. It requires a balance between skill and fitness. The events are not timed in a traditional sense either. Riders may climb or traverse to a timed section of the course at a social pace. When the timed section is reached, usually a descent, it is a race against the clock. Each rider's times are tallied over several segments spanning multiple days. Lowest accumulated time wins. Lifts may be used in some of the stages. Much of the time on the bike is not timed and ridden at a friendly pace. The downhills are no holds barred.

On the road cycling front, it seems every spring you hear of a few more Gran Fondos being announced. Big in Europe for many years, they are now gaining popularity in the States. Gran Fondo NY has a 7,000 rider limit and costs $265 to enter. Levi's gran fondo in California sells out at 7,500 riders. These events are not labeled as races, but they are either timed or have timed segments.

Gran Fondo NY has three timed climbs. You can cruise the rest of the course socializing with your friends, but when you cross the timing mat beginning one of the timed climbs, the gloves come off.  Modern chip timing enables this format of competition. You are not competing against other riders in real time, but against the clock. At the end of the day, leaderboards show who won.

The revelation that came to me was how opposite and yet how similar gran fondos are to enduros. They are opposite in that gran fondos tend to time the uphills, while enduros tend to time the downhills. They are similar in that the total elapsed time is irrelevant and competitors can spend time socializing and enjoying the day. Promoters of these formats state this is how you often ride with your friends anyway, so why not organize events this way.

I also can't help but notice the co-evolution of websites like Strava and this new racing format.  Strava users treat each ride like a personal gran fondo or enduro. Spin easy to the next segment, then kill it. You only need a GPS and Strava takes care of the rest, building the leaderboards for you.

Multi-lap circuit races definitely seem to be fading into obscurity. Doesn't make for interesting Strava content. Cyclocross is the only exception here, especially with worlds on US soil this year. To be sure, there are several other racing formats that are gaining traction too. One of my favorites is "monster cross," where a cross bike is taken on a single loop trek cross-country style, over a variety of terrain and obstacles, usually for 100km. There is a monster cross series now. Multi-day MTB stage racing continues to grow in popularity too, where each day a unique loop is ridden or more distance is traversed in a several hundred mile point-to-point race.

So where do things go from here?  Race promoters, bicycle industry and web app folks with vision to see the near and medium term future could prosper. No doubt the web will become increasingly integrated with bicycle competition in ways I can only begin to imagine. Could sanctioned competitions take place not in real-time? This already is happens in one form or another. Stava posts all sorts of challenges.  How do you officiate online competitions to thwart cheating or corruption of results? Moto-pacing, using mechanical assistance, or just uploading a track from driving your car would quickly lead the community to dismiss these types of competitions.  GPS files are pretty easily edited too, to enhance one's results.

I see GPS's getting much smarter (Garmin, are you listening?). Or the GPS's in smart phones need to get much better. An app that encrypts the data for competition, so it cannot easily be edited, would ensure integrity of data. Only upload direct to web app can decrypt the data. It would be nice if GPSs could alert riders to upcoming segments too, and then tell you your time after completing the segment. Maybe smart phone apps do this already (I don't have one). There are many opportunities for GPS, smart phone, device and web app folks here.


CB2 said...

It's hard for me to fathom paying that kind of money for something styled after the way people ride anyways. I'd much rather ride with a small group too.

mark said...

Hmmm, I don't know if this is a trend that will eclipse traditional mass-start races. There seems to be plenty of events already scheduled for this upcoming season on both the EFTA and Root 66 series. Certainly the ultra endurance formats (12/24 hr. races, etc) have eaten into that pie a little but it still survives. I don't know if we'll ever see a return to how things were in the mid-90s but there are still plenty of us who like to abuse ourselves in a pack and on the climbs.