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Smart Athlete helps a lot of athletes achieve their goal of upgrading their racing category. But should you always take an upgrade? ‘Catting-up’ is tempting but it worth considering if it is the best choice for your development, enjoyment, family/life schedule, and your budget! This post uses mountain bike XCO specific examples but you can apply similar/same concepts to all disciplines with category upgrades.
In life we would rarely refuse an upgrade:
“Biggie size fries?” …. “YES! (sweet potato of course)”
“How about a 1st class upgrade for you, tired looking bike racer?” … “Why, Thank You!”
We generally say yes when presented with an upgrade opportunity but I believe the cycling category upgrade needs to be treated with caution, perhaps not unlike the biggie size fries, because we may not be making a choice that brings us closer to our goals and/or to a better version of ourselves. I believe this choice greatly affects development and enjoyment of the sport.
To explain further, I am pained to see so many athletes upgrade early. Cat-ing up means moving from beginner to sport (cat1/2), or from sport to expert (cat 2/3), or making the jump to Pro/elite from expert. Often these athletes are not going the same speed as the category they are upgrading to despite easier/shorter courses (generally). When someone upgrades early they don’t have the capacity to go fast for fewer laps but when they upgrade they will have to go faster for longer. The common reality is that if you can’t go fast on the easier/shorter course then you will go slower in the new category to finish, which further delays (or prevents) development.
I propose that before accepting an upgrade this fall/winter that you take a look at your races this past year and consider the following:
If not within the speed of top 5 riders in the new category, I suggest staying in the current category. This avg speed should work for most disciplines. Percent-off the leader is another way to look at smaller categories. I think 5-10% is a gap that can be closed but more than that needs time to bring skill and fitness high enough to be in striking range.
Learning to race head to head and go at other people’s paces and use tactics (even in mtb) is critical, especially as you start racing more experienced and better-trained athletes. If you have been sneaking by in 7th or 8th, wait to get at least close to a win.
Self-Indulgent Example: This ‘competitive’ criteria is one that I didn’t obey coming from Junior 7th and 8th place finishes into pro elite. I think this has been one of the hardest things for me to overcome as a pro, especially as the ‘XCO’ discipline becomes more intense/tactical. Had I spent a year or even 3 races in the expert category who knows what would have changed, worst case I would not have scored that 18th overall provincial result and saved approximately enough to buy a new skateboard.
Give your training and focus a solid look, does it match your goal? Ask a coach about the type of hours you would need to reach your goal, it may be more then you have time or interest in. Too often I have this conversation with experts who want to turn elite. They work full time and want to maintain busy social lives but then want to PAY EXTRA to race at the back of an elite field, often at a much more inconvenient time of day (late in the day means a whole day away from family). They could have so much fun and gain more fitness/experience by racing fast and competitively in the expert fields.
I hope this helps you check the right box for you this fall/winter. The worst case is you win a couple races and upgrade with confidence and race experience AND prove me wrong 😉
Please let me know if you agree/disagree or need someone to bounce ideas off of. (try athlete intake form)