Monday, January 14, 2013

Almost giving up on the National Championships - A campaign for change

I turned 39 this year.  In cyclo-cross terms, that means I’m nearly a vet and it also means I’ve been riding cyclo-cross for 25 years.  Today, my mother forbid me from being 40 and I’m inclined to agree with her but it seems I might be forced to take drastic measures just to keep on riding the national cyclo-cross championships.

Every year that I have lived and raced in the UK I have ridden the nationals although when I was 14, it was a much more satisfying affair.  An old-school course in Sutton Coldfield with all the great and good of the British Cyclo-cross association.  Elbows, mud, hairy drop offs and an hour of racing.  One year, I think I even raced both the schoolboys and senior events.

Most of the people are still there – and some new ones – for in 2001 (or 2), a headstrong group of people from the North West and Notts and Derby stood up and voted against the BCCA disappearing into the mists of the BCF.  We lost.  Did cyclo-cross lose?  Who knows.  It could’ve disappeared off the radar forever as the BCCA.  It could have flourished as the grass roots, friendly sport that it still is – except for one day of the year.

The national championships is taken over by the UCI.  It’s an elite race now and the rules mean that riders are pulled from the race as soon as they are lapped – sooner if they’re not riding a lap within 80% of the leader’s time.  With my experience of this rule, I stopped riding the UK national championships.  Preferring instead to save my money and get a better work out running around the course encouraging my friends.  This year I thought I’d ride – given that the race was on home territory.  I have to say that the Yorkshire Cyclo-Cross Association did a wonderful job organising this pro level race.  Brilliant marshalling, wonderful support, excellent facilities.

My issue is with the UCI and the associated BCF puppets.  In the women’s race today, over 15 women were pulled out after their third or fourth lap and 35 minutes of racing.  At the end of the race, only 10 riders remained.  I believe that's less women than completed the first national women's cyclo-cross race in the 1980's and in a field of 40 that is a huge number of eliminations.   If it hadn’t been for Nikki Harris’s astounding win over Helen Wyman, the race would have lost interest for so many of the supporters – only there to cheer along their gal – wives, daughters, sisters and team mates.

Personally, I entered the event expecting to be pulled out (though not so soon) as I’m no elite rider – I’m not even much of a local competitor preferring to win seasons through dedication, not speed - but to see 15 other confused women on the wrong side of the barriers wondering “what kind of a race is this?” left a bitter taste in my mouth.  I looked forwards to a furious sprint to the line and tried my best but my fellow competitor didn’t even realise the race was over so there was no sport in my race.

There’s talk of resolving this with a separate vets race which obviously, as a “nearly 4-oh” I am all in favour of.  What happens though, when the elites turn 40?  Will I revert to being put of the national champs for life?  What about the young girls? The lady pulled from the pits, inconsolable because she’d built up her dreams of riding in a national race and really wasn’t expecting some nasty official with a clip board to kick her out?  What about the young girl whose parents had driven her up from Birmingham to race for just 25 minutes?  She was enthusiastic and filled with pride on the start line.

I took up cycling not because I wanted to be like Chris Boardman but because I wanted to be like my dad.  Sometimes in life the best role models aren’t the superstars but our own parents.  If we don’t encourage the mothers of the future Vicki Pendletons in this world, who’s going to bring them to cyclo-cross or track races every Sunday?

I know the national championships is an elite race but in a field of 40, do we not think that true professionals can pass lapped riders with a swift, “on yer left” (or right) on a course which is legally wide enough to pass a bus?  If we’re going to set a cut-off time, can we not set a lap time so that I know that if I can’t lap in 9:30 I will be pulled from the race.  Pitting me against Helen Wyman you might as well ask Fatima Whitbread to guestimate her sprint time against Jessica Ennis.

What I do know is I’ve now bought this blasted license so, short of taking up road racing, my plan is to spend the three months after Ironman getting blisteringly fast.  By god when someone puts the first women vets nationals on my home ground (Derby), I’m going to trophy the hell out of this ridiculous licence, get my money’s worth and try and maintain my dignity next year.

(it’s all talk in case you were quaking in your boots!)

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