The more chances you give your racers to stand on the podium, the more likely they are to come to your race, and come back to your race.

Racers like to win stuff (even if it is just a medal) and associate your race with what you give out as podium awards as much as the organization of the race itself.

This is why having an understanding of how categories and classes impact your race’s turnout is essential.

In each one of your races, you need to divide your racers into categories (skill levels), and then divide your categories into competitive classes (division within each category) based on factors such as age, sex, or other qualifiers.

This gets as many similar racers into similar group as possible.

However, finding the right balance between how many podium winners you want to have, and how much you want (or can) spend on on awards (e.g. medals, swag/prizes, cash purses) is tough.

If you don’t have enough winners, you risk not having racers come back.

If you have too many winners, you risk spending a large amount of money on awards.

If you go cheap on your awards, you risk losing racer respect for your race, and not come back.

Not enough winners and cheap awards is good for your timeline and budget, but bad for turnout.

Too many winners and expensive prizes is bad for for your timeline and budget, but good for turnout.

So what is a race promoter to do?

Where To Start
The key is balance based on the size of your event.

We know that most events fall in to one of three types: national, regional, and local.

Your event will most likely be a local event, so we’ll focus on starting there.

But before we can begin, we need a good example.

A race that I am very familiar with is a local mountain bike race called Wednesdays at Wakefield.

This four race series held every Summer is run by the Potomac Velo Club’s (PVC) on — you guessed it — Wednesday’s nights!

Every year, Wednesdays at Wakefield (WAW) brings in roughly 200 riders per race, organizing registration into the following categories and classes:

  • Super Junior Boys (10 and Under)
  • Super Junior Girls (10 and Under)
  • Junior Boys (11-12)
  • Junior Girls (11-12)
  • Junior Boys (13-14)
  • Junior Girls (13-14)
  • Junior Boys (15-16)
  • Junior Girls (15-16)
  • Junior Boys (17-18)
  • Junior Girls (17-18)
  • Beginner Men
  • Beginner Woman
  • Sport Men
  • Sport Woman
  • Expert Men
  • Expert Woman
  • Masters 35+ Men
  • Masters 35+ Woman
  • Masters 45+ Open
  • Single-Speed Open
  • Clydesdale (200lbs+)
  • Fat Bike (3.5in+)

Now this seems like a good example we can work with!

Whoa! That seems like a lot of categories.

No worries. It may look as if it could be too many to work with, but this structure has served WAW well for almost 15 years.

It will serve us well too.

Exploring our Example
At first glance, the Wednesdays at Wakefield race categories and classes consists of a little of everything.

We learned in a previous article Understanding race categories and classes that WAW uses a hybrid model for this race series.

Why is it done this way?

To hear PVC tell it, WAW is a backyard kind of race that tries to accommodate the interests of local racers.

It tries not to be tied to tightly to USA Cycling’s structure, so that they can include categories that only local riders like to race.

What categories are those?

We’ll get into that later. Right now, we need to understand what drives the WAW categories in the first place.

By doing a little analysis, we can determine a few things about any race that maybe even the race promoters do not know.

Here is what I found out with about 1-hour of research online:

  • Adult Demographics: Five (5) large suburban communities all come together right where their race venue is located, making an excellent location for their major demographic: 25-40 year-old men and women, who enjoy outdoor recreation like mountain biking.
  • Junior Demographics: Five of the largest high-schools in Virginia, plus the largest public university (George Mason University) are located within 10-miles of the race venue.
  • Mountain Bike Rider Demographics: The Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiast (MORE) are a prime organization for maintaining the venue’s trails. Between MORE and the venue, they estimate about 10,000 mountain bike riders visit the park annually.
  • Location: The venue supports miles of single and double track trials, perfect for capturing the interest of causal and serious riders alike. Plus it is right off the freeway. An added bonus for an event that takes place on a weekday during rush hour. It is “on the way” home from the office, making it a perfect place to go after work. Besides, who wants to sit in traffic when they could be racing in the woods?

You too can do this same kind of venue research on your own.

But research of the venue can only tell us one part of the tale. The race promoter’s success with their organization should tell us the rest.

Digging into the Race Structure
Now that we understand a little about the WAW audience, let’s explore the list group-by-group:

Juniors
You could call it the future. You could call it expanded customer base. You could call it being more inclusive of members of your community.

Whatever you call it, Juniors are an essential part of your race.

Why are they so important?

Because a large demographic in outdoor recreation is adults in their 30’s and 40’s, who are parents of children.

If you plan on bringing in parents of riding-age children, why not create an event that their kids can ride in too?

Junior categories do just that. And sometimes it is the kids that find your race, and bring their parents who then race too.

Play to your advantages.

Make no mistake, Junior categories are an advantage.

Starting with the Junior Category, we see that our example is divided into five (5) main classes as follows:

  • Super Juniors (10 and Under)
  • Juniors (11-12)
  • Juniors (13-14)
  • Juniors (15-16)
  • Juniors (17-18)

Each main class is then divided into both a Boys and Girls classes based on age, creating ten (10) classes in total:

  • Super Junior Boys (10 and Under)
  • Super Junior Girls (10 and Under)
  • Junior Boys (11-12)
  • Junior Girls (11-12)
  • Junior Boys (13-14)
  • Junior Girls (13-14)
  • Junior Boys (15-16)
  • Junior Girls (15-16)
  • Junior Boys (17-18)
  • Junior Girls (17-18)

If you use Top-3 as our podium standard, we can quickly calculate how many podium positions the Junior category will have after the race:

  • 3 x Super Junior Boys (10 and Under)
  • 3 x Super Junior Girls (10 and Under)
  • 3 x Junior Boys (11-12)
  • 3 x Junior Girls (11-12)
  • 3 x Junior Boys (13-14)
  • 3 x Junior Girls (13-14)
  • 3 x Junior Boys (15-16)
  • 3 x Junior Girls (15-16)
  • 3 x Junior Boys (17-18)
  • 3 x Junior Girls (17-18)

This works out to be:
10 Classes x 3 (Top-3) = 30 Awards

If we decide to make all our awards medals, we can quickly calculate how much the Junior category will cost us.

Using Amazon.com as our resource for medal prices, we can quickly find a vendor (and an Amazon Prime shipper too!) that has a nice looking product.

These example medals are bit pricey, but let’s go with the expensive 3-inch, zinc versions, and see what the total cost will be before we look for something cheaper:

  • 10 x 1st Place Medal @ $6.99/each = $69.90
  • 10 x 2nd Place Medal @ $6.99/each = $69.90
  • 10 x 3rd Place Medal @ $6.99/each = $69.90

Total $209.70

Wow! Buying medals for just 30 Junior winners will cost us $210.00 (rounded up).

We could probably find other vendors, or even a local vendor, that could give us a bulk discount. But let’s save that for another time.

For Wednesdays at Wakefield, PVC goes a different route. They are closely related to a local charity called Trails for Youth (TYO) that is very interested in getting city kids into riding bikes.

TYO handles all the Junior categories from Super Juniors, to Junior (13-14), leaving PVC to handle Junior (15-16) and (17-18).

In turn, PVC donates 15-percent of their proceeds to TYO.

PVC gets to have a robust Juniors part of their race, playing towards their primary demographic. More parents coming out with their kids is good for the race.

Meanwhile, TYO gets to use PVC’s course, volunteers, and direction to bring kids out to ride mountain bikes. This allows TYO to fulfill their charity’s mission, plus the added incentive of a donation gives TYO a good reason to partner with PVC.

If you can find a charity like TYO for your event, you can greatly improve your Junior category efforts while helping a good cause at the same time.

In this case, the resulting partnership means that TYO takes charge of six (6) of the Junior categories, leaving four (4) for PVC to manage.

TYO also provides their own medals to the Junior winners they work with, leaving PVC to only provide the the following awards:

  • 3 x Junior Boys (15-16)
  • 3 x Junior Girls (15-16)
  • 3 x Junior Boys (17-18)
  • 3 x Junior Girls (17-18)

This finally works out to be:
4 Classes x 3 Podium Places Each (Top-3) = 12 Awards

If we used the same distribution, our overall costs will look like this:

  • 4 x 1st Place Medal @ $6.99/each = $27.96
  • 4 x 2nd Place Medal @ $6.99/each = $27.96
  • 4 x 3rd Place Medal @ $6.99/each = $27.96

Total $83.88

Buying medals for just 12 winners at $84.00 (rounded up) is now a bit more manageable than $210.00.

If you think about it in terms of breaking even, you would only need three (3) $30.00 registrations to pay for all the medals you will give to your Juniors.

Adult Skill Categories
Beginner, Sport, and Expert categories are similar to the USA Cycling categories of Category 3 (CAT3) represented by Beginners, Category 2 (CAT2) represented by Sport, and Category 1 (CAT1) represented by Expert.

This creates a simple division of three three (3) main classes as follows:

  • Beginner
  • Sport
  • Expert

These basic categories are designed to compliment the established categories of the national organization that governs mountain biking.

They also make it simple for racers to figure out where they fit.

Each main class is then divided into only Men and Women classes, creating six (6) classes in total:

  • Beginner Men
  • Beginner Woman
  • Sport Men
  • Sport Woman
  • Expert Men
  • Expert Woman

There is no age requirement, and each category is only governed by two things: your sex, and your speed.

Are you a woman that is new to mountain biking?

Then Beginner Women is for you!

Are you a man that is faster than beginner, but no where close to the speed of experts?

Then Sport Men is for you!

Are you a woman that can go Mach-2 with your hair on fire?

Then you are most certainly an Expert.

The idea is simple and requires only self selection. In other words, the racer makes the call about which category to register for.

There is no one from the racing staff there to judge.

Like is said, these categories are simple.

There is the added bonus of having a four race series too. If they make a mistake, and race in a category that is beyond their skill level (or too easy), they can remedy it in the next race.

A word of caution, though. These are the categories that can attract sandbaggers.

Back to the math!

Staying with our Top-3 podium standard, we can calculate our podium positions as follows:

  • 3 x Beginner Men
  • 3 x Beginner Woman
  • 3 x Sport Male
  • 3 x Sport Woman
  • 3 x Expert Men
  • 3 x Expert Woman

This works out to be:
6 Classes x 3 Podium Places Each (Top-3) = 18 Awards

We’re going to stay with or prize example of medals, and calculate how much these categories will cost us as before:

  • 6 x 1st Place Medal @ $6.99/each = $41.94
  • 6 x 2nd Place Medal @ $6.99/each = $41.94
  • 6 x 3rd Place Medal @ $6.99/each = $41.94

Total $125.82

Medals for 18 winners will cost us $126.00 (rounded up). If we add our Junior medals to our growing expenses list we get:

$126.00 + $84.00 = $210.00

Returning to our break even thinking, we now would need seven (7) $30.00 registrations to pay (or recoup your costs from) for all the medals you will give out during the awards ceremony.

Special Skill Categories
Age and speed are two easy ways to divide up your race categories and classes.

But how do you reach out that demographic that does not fit nicely into one of your registration boxes?

What do you mean?

Wednesdays at Wakefield is a good sized local race. But it is not big enough to have an age bracket for very 5 years of age group out their.

Additionally, most of the Sport and Expert classes are full of fast riders.

So what do you do if you’re a good rider, maybe better than the Sport class, but just not fast enough to keep up with the Experts?

Or better yet, have no desire to compete against fast riders half their age.

Enter the special category of Masters.

Masters is a clever way to title what is essentially Sport or Expert classes for a particular age group.

In our example, WAW has created three (3) Masters classes as follows:

  • Masters 35+ Men
  • Masters 35+ Woman
  • Masters 45+ Open

These classes allow a very specific cross-section of the racing community to have their own class that both includes similar racers, but excludes the younger riders.

They could have just as easily called these classes Sport 35+ or Expert 45+. But the Masters label gives the category a level of respect that these racers enjoy having. And it removes the stigma of a class like Seniors (which no one likes).

Another special kind of racer’s are those that ride very particular kinds bikes.

In our example, WAW has two (2) of these “bike specific” classes as follows:

  • Single-Speed Open
  • Fat Bike Open (3.5in+)

The Single-Speed is a class that any one can ride in provided they have a bike that is designed to have only one gear.

Just like the BMX bikes we rode as kids, single-speed bikes do not allow you up-shift or down-shift when the terrain changes. Instead, you have to pedal it out, or walk it.

With all the single-speed bikes more or less the same, this class is one on to itself in true skill and strength. It does not fit into any other speed category, nor does age seem to be a big factor in single-speed competition.

USA Cycling does not have a category or class this neatly fits into either.

That’s why single-speed racers are special.

Fat bikes are a different kind of special. They are mountain bikes with over-sized tires. These huge tires are fantastic for rolling over holes and obstacles.

However, they add weight to the bike, in both additional tire rubber and heavier support frames.

Where would you race a Fat Bike in the speed categories?

You wouldn’t, which is why you don’t see them at races all to often. PVC decided there was enough Fat Bike riders coming to their races to create a whole category all to themselves.

Man or women, Fat Bike Open only requires you have a mountain bike with tires measuring 3.5-inches or wider.

Wider than 3.5-inches?

Yes, they can be wider. It’s crazy!

Our final special category is one of my favorites. This category has nothing to do with age, sex, or even the way your mountain bike is built.

It is the Clydesdale class. And the Clydesdale category has everything to do with how much you weight!

How much I weight?

Absolutely! As long as you are over 200-lbs, you can race in the Clydesdale class.

In our example, WAW has one (1) of these “weight specific” classes as follows:

  • Clydesdale (200lbs+)

Why would anyone do that?

Again, it has everything to do with your customers. Clydesdale class riders tend to be big people. Not overweight big, but BIG! Like over 6-feet tall.

When racing in other categories or classes, being a bigger rider can have its drawbacks.

Littler riders are lighter, can move the bike with less energy, and climb faster then someone designed for Clydesdale class riding.

By having their own class, the big riders that do not want to compete with other classes get to have their own race.

Do you need a Clydesdale class in your race? Maybe. This class is special in that it really only applies to men.

Why only men?

Women races do not necessarily enjoy registering for a weight specific class. Some race promoters have tried with classes such as “Athena”, but most of these fail to attract any racers.

Ok. Let’s review our special categories:

  • Masters 35+ Men
  • Masters 35+ Woman
  • Masters 45+ Open
  • Single-Speed Open
  • Clydesdale (200lbs+)
  • Fat Bike (3.5in+)

Using our Top-3 podium standard again, we can calculate our podium positions as follows:

  • 3 x Masters 35+ Men
  • 3 x Masters 35+ Woman
  • 3 x Masters 45+ Open
  • 3 x Single-Speed Open
  • 3 x Clydesdale (200lbs+)
  • 3 x Fat Bike (3.5in+)

This works out to be the same as our previous categories:
6 Classes x 3 Podium Places Each (Top-3) = 18 Awards

Our medals count will also come out to cost us the same as before:

  • 6 x 1st Place Medal @ $6.99/each = $41.94
  • 6 x 2nd Place Medal @ $6.99/each = $41.94
  • 6 x 3rd Place Medal @ $6.99/each = $41.94

Total $125.82

Medals for 18 additional winners will cost us $126.00 (rounded up).

Total Prize Costs
If we add our Junior, Adult Skill categories to our medal costs, our total race expenses for medals should be:

$126.00 + $126.00 + $84.00 = $336.00

If we include shipping and tax, we’re probably looking at around $350.00 for 48 medals that includes:

  • 16 x 1st Place Medal @ $6.99/each = $111.84
  • 16 x 2nd Place Medal @ $6.99/each = $111.84
  • 16 x 3rd Place Medal @ $6.99/each = $111.84
  • Shipping and Tax +/- $15.00

Break even thinking would see us needing (12) $30.00 registrations (which comes out to $360.00) to pay (or recoup your costs from) for all the medals you will give out during the awards ceremony.

The registration from only twelve (12) racers can pay for all your medals.

Do you think you can get twelve racers to come to your race?

Sure you can!

Beyond Prizes
In our example, we used $6.99/each zinc medals as our default prize. By using only medals — good medals — we quickly determined the a race with a dozen or categories and classes can add up to about $350.00 per race.

Medals, however, is not the only thing you can give away. You can up the cost of your prizes by providing swag that your racers will want.

In a mountain bike race, racers are always in need of tires.

Tires, tools, tubes, CO2, pumps, gloves, helmets, etc.

You can take just about any kind of bike related item and make it a prize. Some races even go as far to include medals AND prizes for Top-3 finishers.

For you first races, I would suggest sticking to only medals.

Why only medals?

Medals are easy to acquire, cheap to purchase, simple to keep track of, and racers like them.

Bigger prizes come with you have a bigger budget, not before. Do not spend all your pre-registration money on expensive prizes, only to have no one show up.

That would be a huge expense for little pay off.

Get you race off the ground first, then start adding in prizes as you mature.

Sponsors are an excellent source of prizes too. Especially if you can partner with a local bike shop or retailer.

Bike shops are very interested in sponsoring races, and even more interested if they do not have to promote and direct it themselves.

A shop could be an excellent source for bike-related prizes, and even provide your race with “on-site” bike repairs as a bonus.

Always be on the lookout for sponsors that could benefit your prize offerings.

Cash Purses as Prizes
Cash purses are another way to increase your prize pool. Rather than giving out a prize or medal, you can give the Top-3 winners in certain categories a check.

How does that work?

It use to be a tradition, at least for cycling, that Experts, or CAT1 level racers trying to become professionals, would go from race to race trying to earn a living on cash purses.

Those days have passed, but the tradition still remains.

In practice, the race promoter takes the total amount of race registration for that class, divides it by two (2), then distributes that amount between the three podium winners.

First place usually gets the lion’s share (or 50-percent), and Second and Third place receive the rest (30-percent for Second place, and 20-percent for Third).

For example, Wednesdays at Wakefield provides a cash purse for Expert Men and Expert Women.

If six (6) Expert Women race in one of the races, their total race registration would be $120.00 (PVC charges $20.00 per race).

The race promoter would divide $120.00 by two (2):
$120.00/2 = $60.00

During the awards ceremony, the Top-3 finishers would receive the following amounts in the form of a check:

  • First Place = $30.00
  • Second Place = $20.00
  • Third Place = $10.00

It doesn’t seem like much, mainly because only six (6) riders raced in our example.

Let’s take it up a notch!

During one Wednesdays at Wakefield race, they had roughly 20 Expert Men should up to race. That comes out to be something like $400.00 (20 x $20.00) total race registration.

The race promoter would again divide $400.00 by two (2):
$400.00/2 = $200.00

During the awards ceremony, the Top-3 finishers Expert Men would receive the following amounts in the form of a check:

  • First Place = $100.00
  • Second Place = $60.00
  • Third Place = $40.00

Not a bad cash purse for one local race!

Cash purses do work when it comes to getting experienced racers to show up. Some promoters argue that it is the experienced racers that bring the crowds, but you will need to be the judge of that.

You customers will tell you when a cash purse is working, and when it is not. If only a few racers show up, it’s not working.

But if you can get enough racers to make a cash purse of some value, it can help in creating good word-of-mouth about your race within the community.

Remember, those that win, race again.

Should I have cash purses at my race?

When you are first starting out, I would advise against it.

Why?

Half of registration you earn from a cash purse category will go to the podium. In a small race, that could be all of your profit.

Wait until you can bring in an average of 100 racers or more to your event.

Establish a clear path to your medals and prizes first, then start exploring the marketing benefits of a cash purse.

Walk before you run. Run before you ride!

Combining Categories and Classes
Sometimes it becomes necessary to combine categories and classes.

Not all races get an equal distribution of racers. Some races will have a huge turnout for Masters 35+ Men, while others will be the race that all the Expert Men show up in.

Unfortunately, it will be the Junior and Women classes that will have the smallest turnouts.

If your race is not during the Summer, Junior racers have school to deal with.

Meanwhile, sports like mountain biking have a small (but growing) number of women riders.

In either case, you don’t want to hand out prizes to a podium of only one or two winners, out of one or two racers.

When turnout in these under-represented classes is low, one thing you can do to make it both better for your bottom line, and more competitive for your racers, is to combine classes.

Sometimes called “combining fields”, combining a class is a simple process of informing the racers what you are doing, and then do it.

Communicate to your racers, but be decisive. Don’t go back once you’ve combined the class.

A good example of combining classes is in the Juniors category. Junior Girls (15-16) and (17-18) can have low turnout even in big races.

By changing the Junior Girls class into Junior Girls (15-18), you have just combined them into a single class. Even if their is only three (3) racers in that new class (in which case they all get on the podium), they at least get the chance to have a real race.

Because racing against yourself at a race with other racers is not fun.

Reserve the right to combine classes, but make sure everyone knows what criteria you will use to do it.

Make sure all your communications and marketing materials state that you can combine classes as you see fit, but also tell them how you will come to this decision.

I use the Rule of Three’s. If there is less than three (3) racers in a class, I reserve the right to combine that class with a similar class.

You don’t have to do it if you don’t see any reason to. But always have the option if you need to.

Tailoring Your Race to Match Your Customers
Understanding your potential customers is an important part of designing your category and class structure.

You want your registrations to be tailored for them, not you.

Have a large beginner population?

Then you should have more junior and beginner classes.

Discover that several teams and clubs like to ride at your target venue?

Then focus on your speed categories like Sport and Expert classes.

Experimentation may be necessary as you develop your own structure. Your customer base may not be obvious at first.

But after a few races within that particular community, it will become clear what kind of racers you have most of.

Posted by Kyle Bondo

@MerchantsofDirt -- Creative strategy dragon, podcaster, author, speaker, WordPress developer, outdoor race promoter, and US Navy Veteran. Current products: Reckoneer, Merchants of Dirt Podcast, and Get Lost Racing Podcast.