Episode #49 – Making the Grade: 6 Ways to Survive Being Upgraded

Episode #49 – Making the Grade: 6 Ways to Survive Being Upgraded

Stepping up a grade can be tough even if you are ready for the challenge. This episode covers the transition with ways to help you survive, and thrive in the change

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Moving up grades or changing categories are inevitable in our sport. Whether it’s going from C to B, 4 to 3 or Open to Veteran, the adjustment can be brutal, motivation sapping and just plain not fun, at least at first.

I’ve been there, age category changes and C to B to A. It’s something you should prepare for, it’s also when you reassessing your goals and motivation should be part of the adjustment. A jump like U23 to Open or even Cat 3 to 2 is a shock to the system. To smooth out the transition I’ve got a list of 6 ways to survive being upgraded.

It’s not the same as when you first start out and everything is new to you. As a new racer you’re not only the slow, but you’re also not the smartest on the bike and missing a lot of important race craft that is very important to success in racing. This time it’s different though, you have more racing experience, your race fitness is better, you have a better idea of your strengths, and most likely know what it takes to win.

So it should be easy right? I mean, with all the sandbaggers in your last grade, you’re definitely strong enough to be there. If you’ve managed the jump with no issues, let me know how. The majority of riders are going to have some degree of time to find their place in the bunch.

Success is all about confidence, and how you look at your new grade.

How did you move into the higher grade? Did you pick yourself, or was it an automatic regulation? This can play a part in setting the tone of the first few races, and everything else that follows. I’ve self selected and I’ve been moved up grades through the grading system or handicapper.

Again this comes down to your goals and understanding why you’re in a certain grade, or want to be in a certain grade.

I once upgraded too early because I wanted to race with the big boys. I thought I was wasting my time in lower grades. Ouch! After some initial top 10s, driven by adrenalin no doubt, I always found myself out the hoop or not finishing races. It was a massive blow to my ego, and my motivation. I was getting my ass handed to me week in week out.

That was a tough season to say the least, but I learnt a lot, including staying within the system is sometimes a good thing, but also check your ego before you fast track yourself before you’re ready. When do you know you’re ready? I’d say when you have proven to yourself the lower grade is not stretching you and you’re overconfident going into races. If the nerves have disappeared, and you’re not afraid of the imminent pain you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.

I’ve also been relegated upwards by handicappers. When “see how you go” comes out of the handicapper’s mouth after requesting a rethink, you know you’re in for a hard time. By the way the pain will continue if you hear this one after the race – “you didn’t disgrace yourself”.

Reflecting on these two scenarios, how I looked at it. My ego was larger than my fitness, meaning when it got tough in the race, I had nothing to call on to get me through. Compared to a season later when I went back down, won 3 or 4 races and got put up through the system. I was in a better place physically and mentally. Having a few cheap wins under the belt does wonders for the motivation and confidence, it also gives your season a sense of accomplishment rather than hard fought top 10s.

Again though this is where I was at, and it helped me smooth out the transition. You may be different. Moving up when it feels right, which is not always possible, is going to get you ready for the challenge.

In reality there is no magic way for me to help you hang on when a hitter puts it in the gutter. I will say this though, if you’re in line for an upgrade towards the end of the season, I’d take it. Rather than waiting the entire offseason before you get crushed. It will give you an idea of the fitness and skills you need to compete, which is great fuel to come out firing in the next season.


What to Expect?

In simple terms an upgrade means larger pelotons, more aggressiveness, faster pace, better tactics, and better-organised teams. Races are longer and harder. It’s not the course that makes a race as hard as the competition and each level has a higher quality of rider.


Top Dog to Small Hog

It’s the same in any area of life, whether it is sports or business. When you make the jump up, you are basically at the bottom of the totem pole and have to start over in terms of paying your dues and adjusting to the new level you have just attained.

My advice is exactly the same as in all aspects of cycling. pretty simple. It requires patience and hard work. Don’t forget you made the jump to get there, so you must have been doing something right. Keep doing the same things and have patience that in time, your fitness will improve; you will learn the new level of competition and ultimately will have success.

I know the feeling of watching the race winner from half a lap down in a criterium, at my limit, or not even being able to keep up when the hammer goes down, and just being baffled at how to get there. Trust me though, and to quote Dan Andrews – even though moving up in your grade is tough it will still be “shorter than you think but longer than you can stand”.

With that, let’s get to the 6 ways to survive being upgraded:

1. Ride like the the good riders

Putting yourself in a position to do well even if you don’t finish the race. Sitting at the back of the race won’t give you the exposure to the tactics or experience needed to be competitive. Little things like knowing how to act in a breakaway, even how to exit the bunch when the pace is too hot.

2. Be aggressive

Walk the fine line between aggression and being that rider. The jerk that leaves gaps, fights at the wrong time, makes enemies by riding dirty. Don’t let your insecurity get in the way of good sportsmanship. You need to start creating allies, this can only be built on respect, and if it’s not respect for your class, then make it about courage, determination and not being a wanker. If one (of many) things came out about how to become a better bike racer and competitor, it’s that you have to be aggressive. You have to realize that, to be successful, you have to make it happen, as the red carpet to victory doesn’t just roll out for you. It’s a fight and a struggle.

3. Make a race within a race

Remember it’s not about making crazy moves to come in 28th on a race, it’s more about gauging how you’re tracking. Race data and numbers can only tell us so much about our performance, but beating close rival is satisfying, especially if they’ve had it over you for a while.

4. Change disciplines

If you really are finding the adjustment hard, refreshing your discipline my break up the bad times. Shifting from road to short track mtb or CX may give you the mental break while still working on your form. It may seem like a cop out, but if you don’t have any room to move in your current grade, consider it a vacation rather than changing workplaces. After All, racing is meant to be fun right?

5. Start training with the people in your grade

You may already be doing this, but hunting down the good guys and asking to join in their group rides is going to go a long way in working out what makes a successful rider, physically and mentally.

6. Upgrade Your Training Environment

For the majority of riders, our environment and not our physiology limit us. That is a very important concept to grasp. Most athletes are limited by what they can do training and racing due to family, life, jobs, etc. This has to be taken into account when you consider when and if to upgrade. Most athletes we work with and test are well within the bell curve of having “what it takes” to compete. It’s more about how much they can sacrifice to become a better bike racer. So, make sure you understand this and make the most of out your training and racing program to be the best you can be! Check out episode 19 for advice on how to do this.



Photo Credit: thelearningcurvedotca on Flickr



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