World Road Championships as a Target for 2017?

Do you fancy competing in the UCI World Road Cycling Championship in 2017?

No, I am not talking about taking on Peter Sagan & Co. in Norway next year. Rather, there is another but lesser-known World Championships taking place in France at the end of August 2017 – the UCI World Amateur and Masters Road Championships.

Qualifying for this and competing is feasible for a wide range of riders and, as this is the time of the year when many are making plans for next season, I am giving a personal perspective and a flavour of the qualifying process following  my own experience in a qualifying event this year (there is a parallel TT event for anyone more interested in this discipline).


Motivation for the Year Ahead

I usually tend to do something compulsive every Autumn to give myself motivation over the winter and something new to look forward to for the next season. So, on a whim last October, I paid my ‘early-bird’ fee  for the 2016 Tour of Cambridgeshire in the UK which is part of the UCI Gran Fondo World Series (UGFWS).

I wasn’t really interested in qualifying for my age group in the World Masters Championships as they are being held in Perth in 2016 – travelling that distance might be justified if I was podium potential, or somebody else was paying the fare, but neither applied to me! So, apart from being a motivational thing, I saw it as an opportunity to race with a large peloton of my own age-peers and to make a holiday break of it in the Fens area of the UK.


The UCI World Championships and the Gran Fondo World Series

To qualify for participation in the UCI Amateur and Masters World Championships you have to finish in the top 25% of your age group in one event of the UCI Gran Fondo World Series. There are 15 of these held in various parts of the world and the event in Cambridgeshire is the nearest to Ireland. (I also understand that your national federation can nominate you if you are a national champion in the year of the specific world championship, but I not see any mention of this in the UCI material I could access).

The qualifying events are structured as Gran Fondos. ‘What is a Gran Fondo’? you might ask. ‘Is it a race, or a sportive, or what’?

The concept originated in Italy and they are normally mass-participation events on closed roads, with timing and various prizes. The special ones follow a spectacular and/or historical cycling route and tend to have a  festive atmosphere. Some are highly competitive and prestigious, with big prize money.

So, for the serious racers they are definitely a race, but can also be treated like any mass-participation sportive.

According to the UCI, this format encourages mass participation and opens up the possibility of participation in the World Championships and competition for a UCI rainbow jersey to a wide range of riders. It also caters for Masters in five-year age bands from over 35.

However, I personally see the process as part of the creeping commercial exploitation of mass-participation sport. They are not normal road races as such, but are built into large, commercial, mass-participation enterprises.

For example, you don’t have to finish in the top 25% of your age group to qualify if you participate in three events of the series in different parts of the world, and just finish. So, if you have the time and money to travel to various parts of the world you can then compete  for a UCI rainbow jersey, no matter what your ability, while those who are better than you may not qualify.

It’s also big business, run by the UCI in collaboration with a Belgian marketing company. The UK event, for example, had 6,600 riders in 2016 with entry fees ranging from £68 to £88. The event expects to reach 8,000 in 2017. You can do the maths and see the budgets involved.

In addition, the Masters race element is especially open to abuse. While Masters riders are grouped in the five-year UCI age categories, the groups are not kept separated on the road. Therefore, for example, a 50-year old Master competitor could have a group of 20-year-olds working for him or her, against the opposition. Issues like this dilute the integrity of a rainbow jersey.

In this year’s World Championships, for example, four different women’s age cohorts race as one group, ranging in age from 19 to 49, but with four rainbow jerseys being awarded from within the group.

However, perhaps the UCI can’t find a better way to do it, and it has the strong advantage of being accessible to all licensed riders and with the minimum of bureaucracy involved.


The Cambridgeshire Event

The Tour of Cambridgeshire Gran Fondo is based in Peterborough in the east of the UK.

The race groups start at short intervals, beginning with the 19-34 age group and then followed by Masters in their five-year groups, each with a lead car and UCI Commissar. Women compete with men in the age group above.

According to the results, there were 158 competing in my 60-64 age group – this gives an indication of the scale of the event.

At the start riders go to their age-group ‘pens’, but there appeared to be some confusion about this on the morning of the event.

The route distance was given as 80.2 miles (129.07km) and was mainly flat with only 500m. of ascent in total. However, winds across the exposed fens were a big factor (wind is given as a ‘race hazard’ in the race manual). Also, most of the ascent is towards the end, over quite a number of sharp and rolling drags. Therefore, along with the crosswinds, the race broke up quite a lot.

My race settled into a ‘steady-hard’ group – “suffering comfortably” as Eddie Dunbar put it – with a lot of lineouts in cross-winds. More sustained attacking started after about two hours and from then on for me it was a matter of surfing whatever wheels I could to the finish.

The age cohorts were distinguished by different-coloured numbers. Mine was blue, but into the event, when the racing became more confused, I realised there were three different shades of blue numbers and I lost track of my age-group competitors.

Such is the nature of the Gran Fondo-type Masters race, when groups become confused on the road. For example, I benefited for a while when I jumped onto the wheels of two women who came up from behind, working hard to distance themselves from their cohort of competitors. They, in turn, helped me gain distance from mine.

The atmosphere of the event was superb, in as much as you could take in when racing full-on. Along with sunny weather and fully-closed roads, all the villages seemed to be en-fete for the event and large crowds providing tremendous support, atmosphere and enthusiasm.

The race distance was given as 80.2 miles and I was watching my computer coming towards the end as I was in a group of about 15 and wanted to go with any move that had a blue number. However, 80.2 miles came and went. Then 81 miles passed, and 82, and 83, and the bunch still drove on. We passed under two banners across the road that looked like they might be the finish, but at this stage I had no idea how far more we had to go.

The finish line finally loomed at 83.8 miles, by which time I was only able to dribble in at the tail of the group at a time of 3hr. 42min.


More Confusion and Fallout

After the finish it became clear that the confusion I noted at the start had turned serious – at least for those who were interested in results as opposed to those just seeking a good day out on the bike.

Some Masters riders had, either deliberately or inadvertently, started with younger (i.e. faster) age cohorts. There was also confusion over two different timing systems used.

Most of the podium presentations were cancelled and no final results were given. When they were finally ratified by the UCI almost two weeks later, I was given third place in my age cohort, four minutes behind the winner.

One of main victims of the confusion was Chris McCann from Derry who competed in the over-50 category and had to wait almost two weeks, and battle with the UCI, before he was confirmed winner [see Stickybottle article here …] .


An Option for Next Year

No doubt the Tour of Cambridgeshire will have ironed out its problems by next year and, as I mentioned at the outset, that event and the World Championships in France may provide a target for some to work towards over the winter. Their timing, in early June and late August, spans the season nicely.

The slowest 25% qualifying times differed quite a bit between cohorts, but I estimate that they were on average between 30 and 45 minutes behind the winners. Therefore, qualifying should be quite feasible for any well-trained rider.

The Peterborough area is also very interesting to visit. It is a historic town and the countryside around is pleasant cycling territory. The Gran Fondo also has non-race categories and different routes, so it is suitable for mixed-interest groups.

We wish Chris McCann the very best at the M50 World Championships in Perth on Sept. 4th.

[The World Masters Cycling Federation which is not recognized by the UCI also holds a TT and Road World Championships in St. Johann in the Austrian Alps every August. These events are like conventional road races on a 40k circuit, are open to all non-professionals, and some Irish Masters usually compete each year].

Thanks for reading, and message me if you any particular enquiries.

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