New masters categories prove a winning solution in Wisconsin


by Gus Grissom

When Bob Schallhorn of Hartland, Wis., started talking to his local spin class instructor about “getting into bike racing a bit,” he had no idea what that really meant. Like so many others, he was nervous about the idea but easily convinced that his fitness on the indoor trainer might translate to some fun, spirited, but casual events on outdoor courses. The races might allow him to find a new outlet for his competitive urges and help him stay in shape. The reality, however, was quite different. He openly admits that in this first race, he “just got shelled” right off the back of the pack. But, just as quickly as he made his unremarkable — yet familiar to us all! — exit from the race, he also realized that this “first race was a gateway” to a new hobby, one that sparked hope of eventually becoming competitive in the local cycling scene.
Today, not only is Schallhorn an avid Category 3 masters racer, he also serves as the treasurer of the Wisconsin Cycling Association (WCA), and works with race promoters across the region to encourage masters racers both to get started in the sport and to stick with it. He and the other board members have developed a unique system within the Wisconsin cycling community that accomplishes both goals while helping every category experience growing fields and competitive racing.
The unique niche Schallhorn and the others have established is a series of masters categories at every race, such as masters 4/5 and 3/4, which allow older racers the chance to “learn the ropes” of racing while avoiding the risks inherent in competing with younger athletes who are often more likely to take greater risks in the pursuit of upgrade points and — hopefully — professional contracts someday. At the start of his racing experience, Schallhorn says, there were two only options for a masters racer with a few mass starts on his record. He could “race with the kids” in the 4/5 category or make the leap to the masters open (1/2/3/4), which is always, in Schallhorn’s words, “crazy, wicked fast.”

Though Schallhorn wanted to become as active as possible in the WCA’s robust racing circuit, he and other masters racers were hesitant to race constantly in the Senior categories. He was dissuaded by the “sense of abandon” with which younger riders often raced as they embraced their “youthful exuberance” that felt too risky for older racers who were more concerned about getting to their jobs on Monday. Schallhorn and others felt they could not learn bike racing tactics in this environment because so many of the events came down to a sprint finish. Older, perhaps more patient, racers never got to experience the true ebb and flow of a team-oriented, tactically determined race. Riders like Schallhorn never got to experience the team dynamics that drove the breakaways they saw happening every week in the masters open category. Yet their inexperience left them unable to compete in the higher level masters categories in which they might feel safer and might enjoy the racing dynamics more.
The Wisconsin Cycling Association recognized this issue and responded to the growing demand of these masters racers who were filling up the senior category races on a regular basis. The WCA convinced promoters to host a masters 4/5 field at as many events as possible. The results were immediate: within one year, every event that held a masters 4/5 field saw an average of 50-60 racers pre-registering and showing up to support the venue by bringing their families to enjoy the races.
That positive response, however, quickly led to another unexpected problem as the masters 4/5 category became somewhat of a bottleneck for development. Schallhorn explains, “after a short period of time, the strongest racers in the category were winning all of the events.” Though these riders were quietly labeled as “sandbaggers” by those who couldn’t quite make their way onto the podium, Schallhorn argues that nothing could be farther from the truth. As he says, “those guys were strong in the 4/5 field, but barely able to be pack-fillers in the 1/2/3 fields” because they were not use to the tactics and dynamics of team racing in the higher categories. Choosing to upgrade, in other words, meant choosing to race in a field for which they were not truly qualified even though on paper it appeared as though they were so.
Photo courtesy of Eric Brandt
Photo courtesy of Eric Brandt
Again, the Wisconsin Cycling Association responded to the continually growing demand from masters racers. They began to encourage all promoters in the region to expand the masters offerings to include a masters 3/4 category at every event. It was, in Schallhorn’s opinion, “the perfect bridge for the strongest 4/5 riders” and it also allowed those who had upgraded to Category 3 but were not competitive against Category 1 and 2 racers, to find the perfect niche for their racing ability. This immediately cleared out the bottleneck in the masters 4/5 category as the top racers upgraded, making way for other racers to experience success in the lower categories. It also allowed stronger racers to continue their growth trajectory by putting them in a field with racers who had learned from the Category 1 and 2 racers what a race “could” be like when team tactics and dynamic racing are incorporated. The “let’s get this together for a sprint finish” inertia that seemed to dominate the lower category races was swept aside. Schallhorn notes that the masters 3/4 category became the “perfect opportunity for masters racers to learn the tactics of racing. They can bridge the ability gap between true beginners and the higher category racers, but they can do it safely, with other racers of their own maturity level and with their own unique concerns.”  He points to the results as proof: approximately 80% of all masters 3/4 races are won out of breakaways driven by team tactics, which are now a decisive factor in the region’s masters events.
The bottleneck that racers saw in the 4/5 categories has not extended to the 3/4 category; The strongest riders eventually upgrade after they gain enough experience. Having had a little more time and a lot more exposure to higher level racing, those who do upgrade out of the 3/4 ranks have generally found themselves much more prepared for the masters open events because, in Schallhorn’s words, “they have not only more experience, but more confidence to rely on that experience. This is something they just can’t get if they are forced to make the leap from 4/5 races to 1/2/3 events after only a couple of racing seasons.”
The new categories have proven to be a winning solution for everyone: racers, promoters and the Wisconsin Cycling Association in general. The racers benefit by gaining experience and confidence to improve their racing. Additionally, the promoters and the WCA are also benefitting from the growing numbers of masters racers in the region. By setting up a variety of masters events in these “split categories” such as the 4/5 and 3/4 along with more standard masters events, they are noticing that racers often “double up” on race day to enjoy two separate races with distinctly different dynamics and learning experiences. Less experienced racers are more easily encouraged to “test the waters” as Schallhorn contends, while the more experienced racers get to continue building their confidence by engaging with racers in the highest categories. While the WCA does not dictate to promoters what events they must host in their races, they do strongly encourage all promoters to adhere as closely as possible to what has become, in Schallhorn’s words, a “commonly accepted standard” as far as masters categories are concerned. By even standardizing race day schedules, it helps the racers plan their weekend activities.This helps ensure a certain predictability to registration numbers that reduces the anxiety for promoters as they wait to see how many racers will sign up and how much money they stand to lose if numbers should happen to be less than anticipated.
As the racers of the Wisconsin Cycling Association have seen in the past few years, it pays to understand and make accommodations for the unique demands of masters racers. While it may seem to be serving only one segment of the overall racing population, and one might argue that it serves that segment at the expense of the younger, more up-and-coming segment of future racing superstars, the WCA has seen nothing but good things from this program. By encouraging more masters racers to enjoy the sport, they have helped promoters hold more successful -- and financially sustainable! -- events. This not only helps the masters racers, but also the juniors, seniors and women’s categories as well. For the Wisconsin Cycling Association, helping the masters become more involved has opened gateways for everyone to become more involved.

This Article Updated November 8, 2012 @ 04:55 PM For more information contact: