The fundamental goal of every race is to have a group of people compete against the clock, each other, and themselves.
Some people race to be the fastest across the finish line. Other people race to be the fastest of their friends or peers.
While others just recently went from walking to running, or running to riding, and are looking for a way to gauge their progress, accomplish something they didn’t know they could do, or just feel alive doing something athletic.
Regardless of the motivation for becoming a participant in your race, all of these racers have one thing in common:
They all want to feel like winners.
But how do you make them feel that way?
The answer is skill- and age-based delineations.
Sure. You could run a race with 200 racers and have only one clear winner. One winner, and 199 losers.
Wouldn’t that be fun?
No. No, it would not. Not only would that not be fun, but good luck having anyone come back.
To stop the limitation of having only a handful of winners on a single podium, many sports organizations have created a category and class system.
This system breaks down all participants into smaller groups, allowing for a greater number of racers to get on the podium.
It also allows the race promoter to spread out the love of being a winner to more racers.
Because, those that win, race again™ (Yeah, it’s like a household word).
How do categories and classes work?
That’s an excellent question and something that causes a lot of confusion.
Let’s start with how categories and classes are defined from a national organization’s perspective and work from there.
I’m a mountain bike racer, so for this article, I will be using what I know about categories and classes based on my experience as a mountain bike race promoter.
But the same basic principles apply to everything from off-road triathlons, to ultra trail runs.
Herding Cats into Categories
The first definition we need to define is the category.
A category is simply a numeric ranking that represents the racer’s proficiency and ability.
Take USA Cycling’s (USAC) category structure for instance (as defined by the USAC Rulebook – Rider Categories 1D1).
They rank mountain bike racers by a category system that goes from 3 to 1. Leaving anything above category 1 to be considered Pro or Semi-Pro.
The USAC structure considers Category 3 (CAT3) to be Beginner Country. All mountain bike riders usually start at CAT3.
Category 2 (CAT2) is that area where you’re good, but still not fast or skilled enough to hit the podium every time you race. This is the category most successful CAT3 riders are supposed to move into when they podium more than a few times in CAT3 races.
Then there is Category 1 (CAT1). This is a strong category full of fast riders with very good skills. Some of these riders race for established clubs, find their way onto professional teams or win enough regional or national races to be asked to join a US team that races internationally.
Sometimes CAT1 is mixed together with the Professional (PRO) category. Usually, the differences between the two have everything to do with amateur status and money, but even that changes depending on the sport and the level of event you’re racing in.
This is why most local or regional events combine CAT1 with PRO and treat them as the same category.
Why do they do that?
One reason is that few PRO category racers will show up to your race, so combining the category makes sense, especially if you are offering a cash purse.
The other reason is that there are more CAT1 riders than PRO riders. By combining the category, you make CAT1 riders feel like PRO riders, without actually being PRO riders.
They might not admit it, but racing in the CAT1/PRO category does make these racers feel like winners, even if they don’t win.
You should always use categories to create a clear line between beginner/slow, moderate/medium, and expert/fast skill levels.
It communicates to riders that they will be racing against those of the same skill level and speed, and keeps riders out of groups that will leave them in the dust.
If your category structure can do that, your racers will not become confused when trying to figure out which one of your categories fits them the best.
Time for Some Class… es
The next definition is the class.
If categories represent the racer’s proficiency, then the class is a way to divide up each category into an age range (as per the USAC Rulebook – Rider Classes 1C1).
Why an age range?
If you’re a 43-year-old racer in CAT3, do you really want to be racing against a 21-year-old in the same category as you?
I know some 43-year-old’s that can put plenty of 21-year-old’s to shame. However, most 43-year-old’s are not built that way.
For those built closer to the average (which is most racers), the use of classes allows racers to race only against those close to their own age.
For example, 30 somethings race would race against other 30 somethings, 40 somethings would race against other 40 somethings, and so on.
The science is not perfect when it comes to who can do what, and at what age. But the average capabilities of those in a particular class should be close enough to make it a fair fight.
Most national organizations believe that racers in a particular age range are more likely to have the same physical conditioning, overall health, and speed. But even they have started to think about adding category/class hybrids (e.g. Juniors and Masters).
Again, not perfect. However, it creates a matrix of mini or micro races within each category that can be used to identify and celebrate accomplishments.
Instead of having the winner be only the fastest racer out of everyone in the race, you can use classes to find the winners in each category.
For instance, if you have a 40-45 class in your race, you can have a podium for the fastest three CAT3 racers in the 40-45 age range, a podium for the fastest three CAT2 racers in the 40-45 age range, and a podium for the fastest three CAT1 racers in the 40-45 age range.
In just one race, each category can have multiple classes, each with a top-three podium each.
The result is the creation of multiple mini-races within each age group. This in turn creates multiple winners throughout your race categories.
Everyone knows that none of these racers actually beat everyone in the race, but they don’t care.
They raced their own race, and the top racers beat everyone in their class! Forget the rest of the racers. Only their class in their category matters to them.
And when it comes to racing, beating everyone in your class is enough to make you feel like a winner.
Remember the motto from before? Those that win, race again™?
Imagine how many winners you can create when you divide your race into multiple age groups, spanning multiple categories.
If you balance it out correctly, your awards ceremony will be very active. As will the number of racers that will most likely return to your race next year.
The Hybrid Approach
Another way to divide your race into more classes is to use a hybrid of both age and speed.
This concept has created category/class hybrids like Juniors, Beginner, Sport, Expert, Masters, and Clydesdale.
Are they categories? Are they classes?
The short answer is that these hybrids are a bit of both.
Yes! These hybrids can both span categories, by going beyond skill level or speed as a factor, and span classes, by combining age groups or having special rules.
Examples of category/class hybrids include:
- Ageless — “Beginners” requires no real age requirement except being over the age of 18
- Combined Age Groups — “Masters 35+” is for racers age 35 and older
- Sexless — “Masters 45+ Open” is for both men and women age 45 and older
- Spans Categories — Clydesdale Open allows CAT1, CAT2, or CAT3 riders, but requires riders to be 200-lbs or heavier
- Special Rules — “Fat Bike Open” is for both men and women of all ages but requires a mountain bike with 3.5-inch tires or wider
Category/class hybrids are common in local, non-sanctioned races, or local and regional sanctioned events that need to combine multiple classes. They also allow for new categories that are not represented by the national category and class standards.
Often, category/class hybrids serve riders that don’t fit neatly into a particular category and have become creative ways to get these racers to register for races without using age, or a national organization’s license, as the only deciding factor.
This is especially true in mountain biking, where a counter-culture has formed against the overreach of national organizations.
Only in national events do the national associations require their category and class system to be enforced, leaving local and regional events to mix and match classes as needed.
Regardless of what classes you use, the main concept behind dividing racers into classes, beyond giving more people a chance to be a winner, is to make winning the race as fair as possible.
If that includes creative categories like Clydesdale or Masters, you should consider hybrids in your next race.
Perfect System, Imperfect People
There is a dark side to the category and class system.
We call them Sandbaggers.
Yes. Those tools that register for a race in a category and/or class far below their skill level, in order to gain an unfair advantage.
Can you stop sandbaggers from registering for categories and classes they don’t belong in?
Unfortunately, no. Some sandbaggers don’t know they’re sandbaggers.
They have skills but have never raced. You can’t help it if you have never raced before and ended up crushing all the beginners.
And that’s ok.
Slow or out-of-shape racers do this too. They are highly skilled but choose their category based on speed rather than skill. They don’t ever podium, but they often don’t care if they do. They are there just to enjoy the race.
That’s ok too.
What is not ok, is that racer that knows damn well they can crush beginners, but still goes around to local races and register as a beginner, just so they can podium in a class they don’t belong in.
Since the goal of any sandbaggers is to look for the advantage that will give them an easy win, they continuously refuse to upgrade to a level where they will actually be challenged.
Although there is no surefire way to stop sandbaggers in local races, there are some tactics you can try to curb their impact.
Regional and national races use licenses and race records to deal with sandbaggers. Win too many podiums in a year or two, and be expected to have your category upgraded for you.
The good news is that the category and class system does work in most situations, and racers often police themselves.
The bad news is that unless you include rules or policies to force repeat winners to go up a category, you will have a difficult time weeding out sandbaggers from your races.
No category and class system will be perfect enough to stop all sandbaggers.
However, if you know that sandbaggers will always exist and that they will continuously try to skirt your category and class system, you will be better prepared to deal with them when they show up.
Limited Resources as Constraints
You can slice-and-dice your event into all sorts of categories and classes.
You can use official structures, or mix-and-match with creative hybrid creations.
If you are doing your own race and using your own rules, you can build any structure you want.
The list can be endless, especially when the goal of your race is to make as many racers feel like winners as possible.
Remember, those that win, race again™ (You can’t say this enough)!
However, you will always be constrained by how many podiums you can afford.
Yup, next to insurance and greens fees, your podium awards will be your biggest expense.
With each class you create comes a top-3, or top-5, finishers podium. Multiply each class you include in your race with the number of potential winners during each podium, and you quickly discover how many prizes, medals, or cash purses you need to give out.
You do not want to break the bank by trying to give an award to everyone.
So don’t go overboard your first time out.
Start by using an existing category and class structure. You can adapt your races to include some of the under-represented racer category/class hybrids only after you’ve run your first few races using a category and class system that you can manage.
When you know more about your racers, then you can consider increasing the number of podiums you will want to promote.
Until then, Keep it simple and save yourself some time and effort when considering what you should, and should not, include in your first race categories and classes.
Now go build something great!