I am tackling the issue of whether a more serious aspect of collegiate cycling can coexist and serve a meaningful role in the development of national and world class talent. In this sense, could it realistically be a viable complement to the USA Cycling U23 development pipeline and allow young talent to progress while acquiring an education. Obviously, some athletes will decide to not attend college, and there is no denying that without the "distraction" of studies, athletes will be able to dedicate more time and energy to their cycling development. However, I think it would be a plus for the sport if college was a legitimate, widely-accepted U23 development path.
What would it take?
From my perspective there are 2 problems:
- the perception that collegiate cycling is at a lower level than regional or national-level amateur racing
- the reality that the individual races, competitive season, and division structure results in a competitive environment that does not adequately challenge or prepare young bike racers with future prospects
To the extent that #2 is true, changes need to be made so that #1 can be overcome.
As a starting point, there is no denying that the level of competition at the national collegiate competitions is high enough to prepare athletes for the next step. Numerous domestic and world tour professionals have come from the collegiate ranks. In 2014, Robin Carpenter placed 9th in the collegiate nationals road race in May and went on to win a stage at the USA Pro Challenge in August. Clearly, there are strong riders in the collegiate peloton.
Let's look at the 3 items (individual races, competitive season, and division structure) in turn:
I don't have intimate knowledge of the "A" races in every conference, but I can speak to the RMCCC at present and the WCCC from my days in college.
First, I think the presence of a Team Time Trial is an advantage. This event is rarely found on a USAC regional racing calendar. It provides unique experience that has value to future professionals, including teamwork and self-sacrifice. If any changes could be made here, I would suggest longer events and/or more riders per team. Current the teams are 4 men or women. Lifting the number of riders per team will be hard for some schools to manage, however, it would make the event a clearer training ground for progression to professional level team time trial events.
Second, the Criterium events on the calendar are typically 60-70 minutes, which seems adequate when compared to the length of professional criteriums. The racing is usually very aggressive with genuine team-vs-team tactics at play. This last feature is more pronounced than you typically find in local amateur races. Sometimes the courses can be unorthodox, that is, not flat urban-style criteriums. While I am all for race course variety, or the odd "special" event, it might be best to keep the majority of events consistent with NCC-style criterium courses.
Finally, the Road Race events probably could use some tweaking. I think we should be striving for course that are challenging and encourage aggressive racing. These characteristics will minimize negative-style racing and will allow the best riders natural emerge. Appropriate distances must also be targeted. The calendar typically has 2-3 races of 60+miles. Longer races, 80-120miles, seem to be the standard for top-level amateur and domestic professional racing. I think this is something that could be easily changed that would ensure top collegiate racers are getting adequate race mileage.
Field sizes can also be an issue. If the peloton is too small the racing experience is not comparable to what will be experienced on the national and international level. Obviously, there are only so many collegiate racers who have the experience and results to be eligible to race in the highest collegiate category. That said, I think allowing for some discretionary upgrades would be helpful to move talented athletes into the highest category on a quicker timeline. I fully understand the negatives of moving someone up too fast or before their skills have developed enough to not pose a danger to other riders. This is where discretion comes into play. I think we can all agree there are some riders that should be exempted from racing in the lower categories in order to simply get upgrade points.
Obviously, the competitive season must be balanced with the school calendar. These are student-athletes and have obligations to attend class, study, etc. (although college football and basketball definitely challenges the reality of this theoretical limitation). Second, it is also relevant where the collegiate season falls on the calendar relative to the non-collegiate season for that particular discipline. This second issue relates primarily to MTB, which is raced during the Fall semester. This is essentially after the normal season and while there can be conflicts with the UCI World Championships, the primary conflict is with off-season planning.
The college and standard season for the remaining disciplines tend to overlap and can create conflicts between races. It is typical for aspiring road amateurs to want to race the early season NRC and NCC races. This tends to create a scheduling conflict with some conference races and Road Nationals. The Tour of the Gila and Joe Martin Stage Race are often in close proximity to or overlapping with collegiate road nationals. This causes collegiate teams to lose riders who feel their careers are better served by racing a NRC stage race. There is no denying that the level of racing at a Pro/1 NRC stage race is higher than a collegiate race weekend. There must be a way to resolve or at least ameliorate this conflict.
The solution seems to be twofold: 1) do a more thoughtful job of scheduling collegiate road national championships, and 2) change, as necessary, collegiate nationals qualification procedures so as to not discourage riders from attending these races. (In fact, I believe we should go a step further and create "collegiate all-star program" which guarantees select collegiate racers entry in these events. I'll explore this in a later post.)
Another issue arises at Cyclocross Nationals. This is a joint event where the collegiate races are held in conjunction with the U23 and Pro events. Because all these events must be fit into a 4-day window, collegiate athletes may feel the need to choose between the U23 event and collegiate event. There is no denying that same-day or next-day races could have a negative impact on the later race. USA Cycling could make it a priority to space these events to avoid any conflicts. In my opinion, resolving this conflict should have a higher priority than offering non-championship events and/or concerns about the timing of masters events.
This may ultimately be the biggest hurdle to overcoming any negative perception of collegiate cycling. Or in other words, the easiest way to make concrete progress towards enhancing the competitive level in national competitions.
Membership in a particular division primarily affects national competitions and not conference-level race weekends. (However, the qualification system, which is driven by the division structure, does affect how schools in different divisions compete against each other in conference races) As noted, there are 2 divisions and the schools are divided primarily by school size. Currently, there are varsity programs in both divisions and these teams consistently dominate their respective divisions. At the National Championships this has the effect of splitting the talent, making each race less competitive than it would be if the best riders/teams were all in the same division.
USA Cycling has always been concerned about fairness and continues to try to protect "small" programs from racing against "large" programs. This is laudable, but it is being done in a way that places quality riders/teams in Division II depriving them of the opportunity to race head-to-head against the best riders/teams from Division I and diminishing the overall competitiveness of collegiate cycling. Obviously, this is good for schools in Division II because they can accumulate national titles and enhance their recruiting prospects. However, in my opinion, this does a disservice to the riders at those schools and the sport in general.
I think the argument is to emulate the NCAA Division I, II, III structure where each level has a guiding philosophy regarding the appropriate balance of athletics and academics. This is great, and works for NCAA sports. Cycling is simply not big enough to try to follow this approach. I think we need to establish a functional "top" division before we can start to split the remaining schools into secondary divisions.
This past Road Nationals in 2015 illustrated a great example of how splitting the talent diminished the weight of the outcomes. Brendan Rhim dominated the Division II field winning both events. He is a USA National Team member and should be racing against the best collegiate cycling has to offer. I can't help but wonder how much better the Division I race would have been with him and the other top Division II riders present. Certainly, he and others would evaluate those wins differently if they were achieved against the entire collegiate peloton. This in no way diminishes Division II performances. I have little doubt the strong Division II riders would do well in Division I, and this is exactly why they should all be racing together!
Although the examples I used above were focused on the men's side, the exact same things are true on the women's side (if not more so). There are very strong women in each division that should be racing against each other.
USA Cycling is not unaware of the impact that varsity programs have had on the national level. However, thus far their proposed changes seem to be motivated more by increasing attendance at Nationals events (not without some justification) and taking some kind of paternalistic role to protect smaller cycling programs from having to line up against the well-funded varsity programs. I can't help but see a parallel to local racing with too many categories.
In my next post I will lay out an idea for restructuring the divisions with the primary goal to make sure that the best athletes line up against each other at the National Championships.