September 5, 2017/ Jim Parker
The directors of Race Across America (RAAM) issued a new policy regarding how awards will be distributed at one of their annual events, the 6-12-24 World TT Championship, to be held in November in Borrego Springs, California. Recumbent racers who finish with one of the three fastest times will no longer share the podium with standard racers. This feels like a rebuke to recumbent racers in general and Cruzbike racers in particular.
Jason Perez shares the podium with Christoph Strasser and Markoh Baloh, 2016.
At the event last year, Cruzbike racers Jason Perez and Kevin Gambill both made the overall podium (2nd place for Jason in the 24-hour and 3rd place for Kevin in the 12-hour). Before I dive deeper into my response, here is the actual statement from RAAM:
“We made two announcements this week regarding the 6-12-24 WTTC: First, there will be a 200-rider limit on the race field for the 2017 race; and second, due to the ongoing debate regarding the advantages and disadvantages of standard bicycles versus recumbent bicycles, the recognized material differences between the two, and the importance of maintaining a level playing field, there will be separate overall podiums for each bicycle type in the solo divisions.
For the 2017 race, there will be an overall podium (first, second and third places) for each of the 6, 12 and 24-hour divisions for standard and recumbent bicycles. This will recognize each for their achievement against comparable competitors. We will continue to recognize age group, gender, bicycle type, solo and team division winners.”
I can only assume that one or more standard racers complained, either because they got bumped off the podium by a Cruzbike racer; or simply seeing an upstart young recumbent racer share the limelight with two famously accomplished ultra-cyclists is an affront to their sensibilities. It’s also likely that the policy change is perceived to make the event more popular and profitable. The folks at RAAM have every right to set their own rules and to make a profit. These events take a huge amount of work and I truly hope their business is financially successful. RAAM has always welcomed recumbent racers and we want them to continue organizing races that encourage recumbent racers to challenge themselves. Having said that, they are running the risk of alienating recumbent racers, who make up a small but reliable subset of the the ultracycling community. The Parker family alone has spent well into the 5-figure dollar range on RAAM events over the past five years, not including travel costs. If recumbent racers feel marginalized, they will not make the substantial investment in time and money to attend these events. For example, Jason Perez performed heroically last year, averaging 21.4 mph for 24-hours, much of it in intolerable desert heat, and, deservedly, shared the podium with world-class cyclists Christoph Strasser and Marko Baloh. People noticed. Jason felt recognized for his efforts. Now consider if Jason was put on the podium either completely by himself, or with one other recumbent racer, a 65-year-old who averaged 7.9 mph. Would it have felt the same to Jason?
Let’s talk about the “level playing field” concept with regard to recumbent-versus-standard bikes. Personally I think recumbent bikes often are faster, but not always, and not for all racers. I certainly think they are safer and more comfortable than standard bikes, and there’s a lot of published research to support that position. But, to borrow a phrase from the climate-debate, is “the science settled” on the question of speed? Have Cruzbike racers changed the policy-makers’ minds? Is it no longer possible to deny that our bikes and other modern recumbent racing machines are faster?
Will every standard bike racer who thinks recumbents are faster on a rough outdoor course like Borrego Springs, please just say so? I’ve been involved in many frustrating discussions with race directors who ban recumbents and they will argue out of both sides of their mouths… “recumbent bikes are slower and therefore they don’t mix well… recumbent bikes are too fast, so it’s not fair.” A consensus would be refreshing, either way. If you ride a standard bike and don’t think you’d be faster on a recumbent, then why complain if they take your podium spot? If, on the other hand, you do think you’d be faster on a recumbent bike, then go get one and race it. That’s a level playing field… allow everyone to race the bike they think will be the fastest for them. We could bring cycling into the 21st century with that mentality. If allowed to evolve naturally in competition, bike designs would become faster, safer, and more comfortable.
But maybe I’m being too rational. Cyclists are all-too-human, breaking down into our tribal “us-versus-them” instinct at any perceived threat to our hegemony. Maybe it’s too much to ask for acceptance of recumbent racers on an actual “overall” podium. But as an advocate for Cruzbike racers in particular, and recumbent racers in general, I will anyway. Race Directors, I get it. We struck a nerve at this event last year. Try out the separate podium ceremonies. But also consider honoring the true overall winners before or after the winners on different bike-types climb the podium. Based on past performance, they will likely be standard bike racers. But if a guy or gal on a recumbent finishes in the top three, and it’s not pointed out at the awards ceremony, that just isn’t acceptable. I made the trip all the way from North Carolina to Borrego Springs, California last year for a chance to get on the podium. There were only three recumbent racers in my event (the 6-hour), all with a guaranteed spot on the recumbent podium. I probably would not have made the trip if the new policy had been in effect. I probably won’t make the trip this year because of the policy. But I wish you well and offer a suggestion: Only when there are enough recumbent entrants (5 or more) to make a completely separate recumbent podium meaningful, implement the policy change. If you make it too soon, we may never get to that number, and that would be a loss for recumbent racers, and a loss for RAAM.
Kevin Gambill, Jason Perez, and I relaxing after the 6-12-24 WTTC in 2016.