Bike Racing Categories

All sports have categories of competition.  Take the NFL for example, there are the “Pros” (NFL Players), and a few ‘minor leagues’, like College Football and Arena Football.  Cycling is no different, with stratification of pro teams and amateur license levels.   The major disciplines of cycling (Road, Mountain, Cyclocross, Track, and BMX) have levels of competition that are separated based on the needs of the individual sport.  I’ll go over the structure of the three sports I know best, Road, Cyclocross, and MTB.

Road:

On the road, racers with a pro contract are licensed “Pro”, and there are amateur Categories 1-5.  In smaller local races, there are not many racers at the top, and the ‘Pro’ race is “Pro 1/2″, with Pros, Cat 1s, and Cat 2s.  National level events have too many qualified riders and split the field into only Pro/1.  Some bigger national races are Pro/1 by team invite only.  Next, there are high ranking UCI Stage races, like Tour of Utah or USAPCC, and they are Pro only and by team invite only.  The above applies to racers of all ages.

Master’s racing (older racers) is a large and growing segment of road racing.  It can be very useful to have masters racers in a separate field for road racing.  Categorization allows racers of similar ability to race against each other.  This takes into account both fitness and race craft.  The Cat 4 race may be the same speed as the Masters 45+, but the masters race will have experienced racers and complex team tactics.

The trend in local racing has been to include more and more master’s fields on the road.  I think this is great as long as the categories have enough riders in the race.  I would suggest the minimum number needed for a proper road event is about 25 racers, with a goal of about 50 per field.  If the race day schedule, course, and turnout supports it, I have no problem seeing a Masters 35+ Category 3 race, a Masters 35+ Open, and a Cat 3 race.  Anything that allows an appropriate sized field of similar ability levels is great for road racing.

I will point out that the Pro/1/2 field had problems intermingling with other categories on the road multiple times last season.  This is why the race day schedule and course must be able to support additional fields for them to be included.

Cyclocross:

Cyclocross locally has similar structure to road, with the exception of ‘Pros’.  Technically, there are no ‘Pros’ in cyclocross as far as licensing is concerned.  The ‘Pro’ race locally is open to any category, but is mostly Cat 1 and 2.  National level pro races are “UCI Elite”, which is Cat 1 and 2.  The issue I have is that local cyclocross has similar structure to the road, despite the nature of the racing being quite different.

There are minimal team tactics in cyclocross, and far less concern about an inexperienced racer taking out the entire peloton.  Those are both reasons to separate age groups in road racing that don’t apply in cyclocross.  I believe it is important to support master’s racing for ‘open’ categories (i.e. 35+, 45+, 55+, etc), but that separating lower masters categories is unnecessary.  Cyclocross should be categorized for racers of similar speed, to maximize competition and minimize lapped traffic.

Hopefully I can follow up this post with some hard numbers on the speeds of local cyclocross categories since there is some lap time data available from our new timing chip system.

Mountain:

Mountain biking is an entirely different animal.  Categories seem similar, with ‘Pro’, and Categories 1-3.  However, a ‘Pro’ license is only the top category; anyone can have a ‘Pro’ license if they are fast enough to earn it.  The only category for mountain bike racing that is not divided by age group is “Pro”.  All other categories are divided into (usually) 10 year age groups.

Mountain bike racing has categories frequently racing on different courses and/or shortened loops.  It may not be safe or fun to have the beginner racers (Cat 3) race a difficult climb or gnarly descent.  Also, since there are so many ten year age groups, the finishing fields are quite small.  Take for example Cat 2 Men 30-39, which may only have a handful of finishers in that category.  While scored separately, generally all of the Cat 2 men of all ages will start the race together and race the same course.

Overall the system works pretty well for mountain biking, as the starting fields are reasonably sized, and everyone can go home happy with a good age group result.  In races where every racer completes the same course, there will usually be multiple results sheets, one by age group, one by category, and one by overall time for all racers.

Personally I am not thrilled with the MTB system.  I would prefer to only have one finishing place for a days racing, rather than “31st overall, 5th Cat 1, and 2nd in Cat 1 30-39″.

Conclusion:

I hope this clears up some confusion about cycling categorization and hopfully will help some of you reading race results sheets.

About Russell

I have been racing bicycles for a decade. This blog will chronicle my efforts as a Category 2 road racer and lining up with the PROs.
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4 Responses to Bike Racing Categories

  1. says:

    Thanks, Russell. I think I understand now. So the example I have in mind is the mtb 24 hrs of COS, which was a national championship race. Two types of teams raced in the “open” category: “nationals” and “non-nationals.” The non-nationals I have learned do not have racing licenses. Based on your helpful post, having a racing license as a mountain biker makes you a “pro,” you don’t need to have a paid contract like in road racing, correct?

    You write, if they are fast enough to earn the pro mtb license they can get one. Can you share what “fast enough” means?

    Thanks for helping me to get this straight. Hope the typing wasn’t uncomfortable.

    • says:

      Yes, having a ‘Pro’ MTB license is only the top level of license, and has no relation to a rider’s actual status as pro or amateur.

      To get a ‘Pro’ MTB license, you need to have two top three (or three top five) placings by time in the Cat 1 overall at the Pro XCT (A series of six national level events)

  2. Jason W says:

    So you’re saying a “Pro” mtn biker isn’t really a Pro unless they sign a contract? The practical definition, imo, is “How much money do you make?” If you need another job, I wouldn’t call that person a “Pro”. A “Pro” mtn bike license lets you race a UCI event in the USA without being on a top team. That is pretty sweet, since you can race against the best in the world (OK, absalon didn’t travel last few years). Sure, most Pro mtn bikers are like Cat 2 on the road; however, there are always some top mtn bikers that become great Pro cyclists (Evans, Danielson, Rasmusson, etc..). Even Lance got beat down at Steamboat when he raced. The problem with mtn biking is the endless amount of categories that allow such an upgrade possible, and depth of talent at most races are lacking, but this all comes out in the end when you compare results at the world cup. Of course, the paycheck is the final arbiter.

    • says:

      It is an interesting distinction between road and mountain.

      On the road, a holder of a ‘Pro’ license is on a pro team. However, “Continental” (lowest) level pro road teams still don’t have a salary minimum, and many riders still have day jobs to pay the bills.

      In Mountain Biking, a holder of a ‘Pro’ license only shows that they have upgraded to the highest category of license available.

      As for who I consider ‘Pro’ or not… it is a tough distinction. Of course there are the superstar pros: Salary, Car, Travel, Expenses, Endorsements, etc. But what about a ‘Pro’ female mountain biker, sponsored by a cycling company where she spends her ‘day job’ marketing and managing inventory, but also has allowance for time, money, and equipment to train and race internationally? The line between pro and amateur can be pretty blurry sometimes.

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