I have mentioned CAT 3 limbo multiple times on this blog. It’s the “no-man’s-land” that women racers fall into once they leave the ranks of CAT 4 racing and begin lining up in the Pro 1 2 3 field. Some riders make the transition without problems, but I have heard from many women who have found the transition to be somewhat demoralizing.
I’ve thought a lot about why the transition is so hard and what can be done to ease it a bit. Of one thing I am sure – we all want to see more women racing. Leaving race after race in a constant state of frustration doesn’t bring women back to the sport. The way I see it, there are numerous reasons so many women fail as a CAT 3 and one very simple solution to prevent it. Here are just a few reasons why we fail:
1. Racing legs don’t happen over night – it takes years to develop a good base strength and power output.
2. Racing smarts don’t happen overnight – racing is not as easy as it looks on TV. One wrong move can ruin the race, which makes newbies hesitant to try new tactics, which in turn prolongs the learning process.
3. Over training and burn out happen easily when you want to do well – in an effort to keep up with the “big girls” a lot of women increase their training time, get burnt out, quit riding for a few months and then find themselves back at step one.
4. Moving up from a CAT 4 to a CAT 3 is relatively simple - the requirements for the upgrade are minimal and if you race consistently for 1 year, it’s most likely you’ll make the upgrade.
5. Racing is mentally draining – nobody likes to fail at something they work so hard for. You spend a lot of time training only to get dropped in the first few laps of a race. You begin to believe you’ll never be good at this. Why bother?
So basically, women need a more nurturing racing environment in which to grow. Men’s racing has many separate categories to accomplish this. But, there are so few women racing, that breaking up the categories is simply not feasible. I can accept that. So here’s my suggestion – most events already offer a Women’s CAT 4 race and a Women’s Pro 1 2 3 (or OPEN) race. I propose simply turning the CAT 4 races into a CAT 3/4 field while still offering the Pro 1 2 3 (or OPEN) field as well. I have a few reasons why I believe women will succeed in this set up. When you’re not worried about getting your butt kicked by racers much stronger than you, you can:
1. Test your legs on a breakaway to check your fitness against others of your own ability. And when you feel confident about your fitness, give the OPEN field a try to gauge your progress.
2. Try new tactics. The fear of trying any kind of tactic is greatly reduced when in a field of your own ability.
3. Stay mentally positive. Even sporadic success in a 3/4 field will be enough to keep you coming back for more which means more women staying in the sport.
4. CAT 4’s benefit from racing with riders slightly more experienced than themselves.
5. Gain more experience. Because it’s relatively easy to meet the requirements for an upgrade, riders suddenly find themselves among racers who have considerably better skills then they do. Someone who can’t handle their bike or freaks out easily is going to cause problems for the Pro 1 2 3 field. It’s safer to have a separate field to learn those skills.
6. Upgrade your license with confidence knowing you’re not instantly being thrown to the wolves.
7. Create the opportunity for more riders to “double up” on the races, which means more race entry fees paid, which means more money for the event. Every little bit helps.
8. Integrate racing into your life easier. Some of us don’t have 10 or 15 or 18 hours a week to train in order to be competitive with Pros and Cat 1’s once we’ve upgraded. Some women are happy just racing at the competition level of a CAT 4, but are forced into a CAT 3 upgrade if they have a little success. This way, despite an upgrade, they can stay at a level comfortable to them given the amount of training time they can find.
I have been in races where the USA Cycling Official stands at the start line lecturing the Women’s field; criticizing us that more women don’t race. But I have yet to hear of any solutions or see any changes to bring more women in. That burden is dropped on the shoulders of those who do show up to race week after week - us. There are a lot of groups out there promoting women’s cycling and working very hard to grow the sport. We just need the Organizers and Promoters to help out.
I would encourage you to consider this very simple solution in an effort to grow the sport we all love. Thank you.