Shaping a Season

The merry band of misfits is back at it, returning to the road in a few weeks: a wave of orange wool and cobbled together steel bikes rolling on old thirty year old tubulars ready to wreak havoc on the Chicagoland racing scene. As usual, Team TATI's turnover is around 40%, which can be both an exciting and frightening statistic. When every race is novel, every corner a new and exhilarating experience, the optimism and positive energy can be infectious. And thus far, in our short time together, this has proven to be the dominant emotion.

For the past few years, when considering which races to attend and how to generally shape the ebb and flow of our short road season, we've first consulted the Chicago Bike Racing calendar. Now, as always, it's the most current and complete local resource. From there, we looked at which races were the easiest to reach without a car; which races were the least expensive, and which races were part of the Illinois Cup omnium series. And by and large, the process was a pretty straightforward and simple affair. Granted, there were individual scheduling conflicts and upgrade considerations to manage -- but as a coed, yet homogeneously lower category club, the calendar basically built itself.

The first few years, the process was pretty laissez faire. We wrote up a calendar, showed up to races, and that was that. But over the past two seasons, for any number of hand-wringing reasons, participation in local road racing has slipped. I spent much of last year trying to hype the cause, in order to ensure competitive, profitable, and enjoyably large enough fields to make a race... a race. Unfortunately, on far too many occasions, this didn't work. It's not the end of the world, but I think we're just experiencing a very natural cycle as well as the effects of a clear shift in the demographics of amateur racing. Racers are getting older. They are racing less often. But on the other hand, many of the new entrants to the sport have the resources to attend multi-day omniums (such as Galena) -- something that wasn't as true a decade or two ago, when inexpensive, locally managed races were the rule rather than the exception.

But this year is different. It's different first of all, because we will no longer be targeting the Illinois Cup omnium. There are several reasons for this, but simplest is merely that this year's Cup is so abbreviated that, as a team with several collegiate riders, half of the Cup races will be over before we can even begin to field full squads. While we'll certainly attend some of the IL Cup races, it will no longer be an organizing principle for the team calendar.

Next we took a careful look at travel expenses, personal budgets, and race distances. Most of the Tatitos are by necessity frugal, and do not own vehicles -- requiring a very high degree of consensus and coordination. Furthermore, because of our primarily southside location, we suffer from the anomalous perfect storm of NW suburb race locations + weekend afternoon traffic = return drive times are often double that of the trip out. Taking this into consideration, we began to look at long-ignored races in Northwest Michigan. And boy, are there some gems out there.

Finally, after a wonderful experience at Galena last year, we talked a lot about what it would take to attend events with (a) awesome road races and/or (b) multi-day events that wouldn't break the bank. And wouldn't you know it, a half dozen races were immediate added to the calendar.

I don't think our decisions are necessarily indicative of a trend. But I do think that it's important to provide (especially novice) racers with the very best experience possible within a club's logistical and budgetary constraints. This year, that means we'll be heading out to to the Western Michigan Stage Race, Cherry Roubaix, the Gateway Cup, and Tour de Great Midwest - perhaps at the expense of some locally managed parking lot crits. Furthermore, it will possibly mean racing a little less, or choosing a Tuesday Matteson practice crit run by the South Chicago Wheelmen instead of driving out to the burbs for the weekend's edition of the IL Cup.

In the end, the changes aren't all that dramatic. What's changed is the decision-making process. We've expanded our definition of "local" a bit and are trying to weigh each race on its merit, rather than its political importance. For 2012, we've doubled the number of target road races over last year while slightly decreasing total projected expenditures. And that's change I can believe in.