Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Race Underground


What if you didn't hold a race, and everyone came?

That scenario may be the plot that plays out this weekend now that the unofficial Marathon Crash Race has been officially cancelled. When the news broke mid-week, it quickly swamped my book sales pitch, and my how-to-wear a cycling cap photo montage, combined. With proclamations and threats of citation, and even the arrest of any riders who choose to ignore the warnings, the city's actions seem bound to drive the event away from the mainstream fringe, and back underground from whence it sprang a handful of years in the past. The problem with the technology of today, it makes the underground easier to find.

There was a time when I viewed the bicycle racing world with one eye closed. It was a segregated vision of first and second class citizens. USA Cycling (the USCF) at the time, was at the apex of the sport. Anything and anyone else occupied an unsanctioned rung on the ladder below. It was a cheap shot, an unsatisfactory way of getting some satisfaction for those 30th-place finishes at the local Sunday criterium - at least those came in "real races", during "real competition", in other words. Or so I convinced myself.

Two things were clear, though, even back then: Firstly, competition is competition, it is not dependent on some designation of official status, and second, riders in those unsanctioned races were strong (this has become more obvious over the years as cross-over has become increasingly common). There might be a lack of race savy or finesse, but lets not forget, grassroots racers tend to be younger - and experience will build together with opportunity.

Why do riders choose to race unsanctioned events rather than sanctioned ones? Perhaps they don't like the structured, or organized, nature of the sport, the faceless "corporate" control exerted by governing bodies. Perhaps it is the expense. Perhaps they have heard of, or even met with, roadie attitude, or at least what they perceive as such. There could be any number of reasons. For some people the grassroots, the unsanctioned, unofficial competitions will always be the more attractive option.

Over the years since its inception, the Marathon Crash Race has become one of the biggest of the grassroots events, attracting riders from far outside, what I would consider, its target. Before this years' cancellation I never knew riders came from around the world to race it. The problem with all that attention is the naysayers of the world bring out their magnifying glasses for a closer look. Often the closer look reveals something those naysayers don't like.

Anyway, as I said, my perceptions of grassroots races has changed over time. I used to be comfortable in the belief that they could serve as gateways, stepping stones to the big league of USA Cycling races. I comfortably assumed that there was a natural progression there. Means to an end. While that belief can still be true in some cases, I have also come to realize that grassroots races exist just fine as ends in and of themselves. In any case, the Marathon Crash Race, and similar events, expose people to the world of competitive cycling. In a way they are a hook, a hook that opens up opportunity, what people choose to do after becoming hooked is up to them. 

It seems to me that the MCR has come to straddle two distinct worlds, the above-ground and the underground. Sooner or later that was bound to lead to friction - is the race underground, or above the boards? The answer to that will have to be decided by next year.

For this year, though, the question remains, what if you didn't hold a race and everyone showed up anyway? Would the race be on? We will find out this Sunday.

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