Technology has improved the racing experience for licensed road cyclists competing in USA Cycling (USAC) events in recent years. One example of this is the use of frameless finish-line cameras that consistently produce accurate results.
This allows officials to provide almost instant results for every competitor in the race. Riders can then track those results online through USAC's website. Using this information, USAC let's us see how we rank against all the other riders in our category. We can also see a computerized predictor of how we will perform in our next race.
It sounds great, but there's a catch.
The most obvious flaw in a computerized predictor is that it takes your prior results and assigns a value to them. But that value is impossible to quantify.
For example, the computer takes the raw data: Rider X finished in 47th place one week racing against riders A, B and C. He finished in 28th place the next week against riders A, B and C.
Therefore, the computer predicts that rider X will finish in 17th place at the next event.
The problem is, the computer doesn't know a thing about bike racing. It only knows math and probabilities. It doesn't know why a rider may finish in 47th place. It incorrectly assumes that every rider is sprinting to do the best they can in every event they enter.
While this may be the case in triathlons, running races, gran fondos and mountain bike events, it doesn't hold true in road cycling's mass-start events. The dynamics of pack riding and teamwork create a casserole of motivations in the final mile. Some riders are cooked from having protected their leader and are just trying to make it home.
Some cyclists are going to slow because they just provided a lead out to their sprinter. Others might be outgunned from the start and are just happy to finish. And of course, contenders for the prize list are sprinting at the front hoping to capture a top 10 spot in the overall standings.
So a rider who's sprinting wildly for 17th place (hoping to improve upon last week's 28th place) unwittingly creates a dangerous situation by sprinting when others are not.
There's an expectation among riders in the peloton that the front riders will actively sprint for a place in the standings while riders not in contention for the prize list will simply get across the line safely with no concern for the finishing order. Having a rider sprinting through a pack of decelerating riders is dangerous. It also produces a meaningless result.
What does it mean for him to have beaten twenty other guys who weren't pedaling? Nothing. Yet the computer will rank his effort along with his competitors' and churn out a prediction for next week's race based on this sprint.
Be careful placing importance on those national rankings and the computer-generated predictions. They don't tell a complete story of your race or the sport of bike racing.
A better indicator of your performance in a mass-start event (criterium, road race, or circuit race) is to compare yourself to a known competitor who regularly achieves a top placing. Where are you in relationship to them? How much effort are they putting into the final push to the finish?
If you're sprinting past riders who are coasting, chances are they've stopped pedaling for a reason. It's time to forget about numbers and rankings, and focus on getting home safely.Search for a cycling event.