Racing in China

In the West, within the cycling community there’s always an organic appreciation for sport and the value of competition. It’s prescient in everything from grassroots alleycats, to larger, more corporate races. If you decide to race, you’re likely to be forever marooned in a cycle of money-spending to fuel your improvement within the sport. Races below the professional level don’t really offer any money at all, and success is measured by grabbing a free pair of socks for winning a sprint, or chamois cream for bagging a podium spot in a TT. It’s fulfilling, so long as you don’t give a shit about money.

In China, the culture of racing is a bit different. The history of recreational bike racing in the mainland is, well, non-existent. As people increasingly have access to the luxuries of time and money, bike racing is beginning to sprout legs. Interestingly, to cultivate the sport and create solid, internationally-recognized events, money functions as a handy motivator.

This past weekend’s Hurricane Criterium is a solid example. Modeled after the style of fixed gear criterium race popularized by Red Hook Crit, Hurricane Criterium is well-subsidized to help boost it along in its development and reach. Which can be both great and utterly shitty. Here’s why:

To begin with the bad, it’s important to understand money’s influence in a race. To start with, money doesn’t buy an understanding of how racing works. Criterium racing can be incredibly dangerous. For new riders, pushing brakeless bikes through tight corners while shoulder to shoulder with other riders, is sketchy at best. Racing clubs generally cultivate riders by grouping them with others of relative experience. This moderates the pace and intensity that people ride and gives them a safe crash-course for exploring how racing works from inside the pack. It’s also a way to encourage etiquette via osmosis, usually by getting screamed out for doing something dumb while riding in the bunch.

In China, oftentimes there are not enough people to field different levels. There’s no ABC’s or 123’s in terms of categorization. So you end up with little-to-no breakdown in experience level. If you’re lucky you might find separate groups for “competition” and “casual”. There’s too little native support for upper echelons of the type of race that Hurricane Crit is, so money is injected to draw more racers. The problem is you end up pairing large groups of wildly inexperienced riders with ravenous top athletes. Furthermore, without proper classification you’re bound to see serious sandbagging. This obviously robs novice riders of motivation.

Money obviously facilitates the purchase of all the necessary trimmings of a race, but unlike in a vetted race culture, it’s often misappropriated. Race organizers in a grassroots environment are typically of a racing background themselves and know exactly what and where to spend money in the preparation of an event. If an organizer here decides to copy a model of how a criterium race should be run, then oftentimes it’s at a loss for a lot of the crucial details that insure the safety of riders, and the overall quality of the race.

On the positive side, being flush for cash also poses several benefits. To begin with, it’s an incredible incentive to attract racers. In the West, racing is oftentimes thankless. It’s a hobbyist way of motivating a personal training schedule, creating goals and targets. Chinese races oftentimes offer cash prizes, not only sizable for the leader board, but extending out to the back-of-the-pack rider, that ordinarily would be grateful for a simple water hand-up.

Additionally, the race organizer’s subsidies are intended to stimulate attraction. A key component of attracting more riders and creating an authentic, self-motivated, competitive field is by improving the quality of a race. The subsidies shrink if under-utilized, so organizers lap up suggestions on how to improve and where to spend next year’s money to make an event better. This means that over several years, you’ll see enormous leaps in the design and management of a race.

It’s a fine balance. It’s easy to deride a race for its failings and blame it on the purse that pays the bills, but there’s no harm in its utility when cultivating a native racing culture. It seems silly, sometimes, the heavy use of cash. But having always been involved in scrapping together grassroots events, seeing a race organized with cash to burn causes a little stir of envy in me.

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