Horses and Cubes

Earlier today, Craig Richey from the brand new Bentley University team (and elite rider for Trek Red Truck Racing) made a great comment:

As fresh eyes on the scene one possible improvement would be to have some sort of weekend omnium podium after the race on Sunday. Yesterday it was clear people wanted to hang around for a bit of socializing and wrap-up of the weekend’s events, a podium would do this and would give some photos for universities to brag about, which in turn would drive awareness for collegiate cycling. Without some sort of official end to the weekend’s events, it seemed like things kind of fizzled after the race on Sunday. It would also be an opportunity to officially thank the event organizers and cadets (maybe this is just a Canadian thing).

All of those points and ideas are absolutely spot on and insightful, touching multiple dimensions toward growth in numbers and quality: More exciting events and a better social experience, building prestige and support within administrations, outreach to potential recruits and sponsors, acknowledging the volunteers making it all happen.

So, the question is: Why doesn’t the ECCC have podiums? It’s a simple thing, but actually a deep question that hits on a lot of fundamental traits and critical current projects in the conference.

Horses and Cubes

One answer is that we do! Of course at Easterns we hold big semi-formal presentations each day for the race and season winners. Sometimes it’s pretty emotional.

Ben Grass (Dartmouth): Cancer survivor, doctor, green jersey winner.  Photo by David Berg.
Ben Grass (Dartmouth): Cancer survivor, doctor, green jersey winner. Photo by David Berg.

Lots of other races have special trophies and ceremonies. Last year featured two of the very best in ECCC history: The golden stallion from the Shippensburg Scurry Horsekiller Road Race, and the pink & metal cubes from the RISD/Brown/PC Rhode Race.

For the accuracy inclined, Horsekiller Road actually killed horses on the descent, as brewery carts lost control on the steep pitch. But the riders found the ascent just as deadly.
For the accuracy inclined, Horsekiller Road actually killed horses on the descent, as brewery carts lost control on the steep pitch. But the riders found the ascent just as deadly. Photo by Nathan Goates.
All will be assimilated into our post-modern vision of bicycle racing. Resistance is futile.  Photo by Jan Valerie Polk.
All will be assimilated into our post-modern vision of bicycle racing. Resistance is futile. Photo by Jan Valerie Polk.

An important fact to understand is that other than Easterns, the conference in terms of the entity and leadership largely leaves this whole aspect of our events up to the host schools. Our role is to ensure the fundamental conduct of the races. Though important, trophies and podiums are essentially polish or frills on top of well run events that we leave to the promoters to individualize and accentuate their events, or not. The conference could potentially have stacks of medals and drive standardized ceremonies, but they would pale in all meaning to a RISD/Brown/PC cube, Shippensburg horse, East Rock jersey, Boston beanpot, Army black and gold, UVM chainring, Northeastern woodcut, UNH rocks, PSU pint glass, or all the other unique awards that have memorialized promoters’ hearts and efforts over the years.

Have Weather, Will Travel

The question still remains as to why more races don’t have podiums.

One superficial but paramount fact is just that the weather faced by collegiate road racers in the great northeast is more often than not… less than welcoming. Nobody wants to stand around for a podium when it’s 20 degrees out or, worse, 35 and raining. With indoor facilities rare and hard to come by, podium ceremonies frequently get literally flooded or frozen in our unreliable, spiteful road season weather.

Similarly, travel is a fundamental imperative concern. Each weekend, nearly everyone is looking at a long, long drive home. Many attempts at holding some sort of podium ceremony are marred by absent riders. This past Sunday, UVM actually had really sweet, professional looking chainring medallions for the A race podiums. But by the time results were in, protest period over, and the organizers ready to do awards—not an overly long process—much of the podiums had already hit the road, let alone the rest of the crowd. Even at the national level people often don’t stick around for awards; I have a whole box of unclaimed national championship medals from years past.

Excited as they were, none of the survivors of the 2014 MIT X-Pot Crit were going to wait around for awards. Photo by David DeWitt.
Excited as they were, none of the survivors of the 2014 MIT X-Pot Crit were going to wait around for awards. Photo by David DeWitt.

Joie de Vivre

In general though there are fewer podiums, trophies, jerseys, etc., for our races than there used to be, and those two factors have always been there. They don’t account for that decline.

There are undoubtedly multiple reasons, but I believe a large part of that dropoff is the sheer crushing difficulty of putting on races these days. Last year’s RISD/Brown/PC debut event was actually really satisfying to me personally because it felt exactly like the very first year my closest friends and I put on the Philly Phlyer: Ambitious, extravagantly expensive courses; over-the-top race flyers and posters; oft-overlooked touches like support cars or pit support; marshals from the entire community; and an overall joie de vivre toward race promotion of which the standout cube podium trophies were just an outpouring.

That zest is hard to come by. It’s amazingly difficult to put on a bike race, particularly the complicated full slate of events and great courses that are the hallmark of every ECCC weekend. That first year of the Phlyer was the largest, most organized, and most committed the Drexel and UPenn teams have ever been, we had half a dozen core committee people working on the event, financial and procedural supports from the clubs and schools, and I still wound up dropping my classes to make it happen. Every promoter of the simplest business park crit will testify that it’s a lot of work no matter how many years they’ve been doing it. Here in the ECCC we’ve got first time promoters from tiny clubs putting on 2–4 distinct events in a weekend; logistically challenging downtown circuit races, campus crits, and long road races; and all of it in the worst weather on the tightest of shoestring budgets. Every year costs go up, townships and school administrations get less enthusiastic, procedural work mounts, the weather grows wilder, and the boom of automatic growth in youth cycling continues to fade.

It’s hard to remain hyper excited about your event when looking at heavy cash losses year after year, months of grueling stress, and days of frantically pulling together just enough marshals to prevent chaos. Of course awards and podiums get dropped as a forgotten afterthought and unnecessary expense. Other things fall by the wayside too, some of them more critical to actual event conduct: On the one hand it’s great that our racers are understanding that the majority of our road races at this point don’t have wheel vans behind most of the fields because its so difficult to come up with vehicles and drivers, especially for so many fields. On the other hand that’s really unfortunate for the quality of our events, and it’s sad that the expectation no longer exists.

Ernie Lehman (PSU) discovers that not all race day crises are covered in the ECCC Promoters' Guide.  Photo by Tianle Chen.
Ernie Lehman (PSU) discovers that not all race day crises are covered in the ECCC Promoters’ Guide. Photo by Tianle Chen.

Do It For Love

We can do something about all of that. We have to do something about all of that. Addressing the existential challenges to grassroots competitive cycling in general and collegiate racing in particular is the entire purpose of our multi-year ECCC 2015: Go Big or Go Home initiative. Along the way we’ll manifoldly expand our capabilities. We do that by thoroughly reworking the whole model and mechanisms of race promotion to make our races more sustainable; to grow our events bigger and more dramatic; to empower our development of beginner, women’s, and elite cycling.

Some of the specific ways we’re working toward those ends include:

  • Fundamentally shifting the financial model and risks of race promotion from single clubs and individuals to a community cooperative, with everyone collectively shouldering the costs and liabilities of the events we all enjoy and from which we derive so much.
  • Similarly expanding the peoplepower responsibility for race production from single clubs and individuals to the community, fostering and mechanically enabling coalitions of host teams and an espirit de corps in which the entire community contributes critical human resources.
  • Aggressively developing and training on new best practices and systematized procedures to reduce workload and improve product, such as simpler approaches to coordinating marshals.
  • Building a conference backbone of professional staff, ensuring quality events and continuity while guiding and developing student leadership and mitigating unsustainable volunteer tasking.

All of that is extremely lofty, ambitious, and an awful lot of work, but it’s also feasible and necessary. The factors behind a decline in podiums and trophies are all the same factors challenging the overall sustainability and growth of our events and the conference as a whole. If we can address them we’ll put ourselves on a totally different path to a much more upbeat, manageable, exciting future.

As a byproduct, maybe there’ll be more horses and cubes down that road…

Make it happen. PennState sweeps the 2013 conference championship criterium, weekend, and Men's A individual season omnium on their own frat row. Photo by Joe Kopena.
Make it happen. PennState sweeps the 2013 conference championship criterium, weekend, and Men’s A individual season omnium on their own frat row. Photo by Joe Kopena.

Headline photo by Jan Valerie Polk.