It takes Two to Tango… Pairs Racing
Marathon racing is in decline in Australia. Make no bones about it. No matter how many cries of ‘there are just more races out there, so numbers are diluted’ I hear, the simple facts are that fewer people are attending marathon races – regardless of reason and when they do, more are racing the ½ distance event (50 or 60km) than signing up for the full distance.
Could it be that the gloss has worn off? That riders simply are no longer excited by the challenge – these are events that used to melt web-servers with the flurry of activity when online registration opened, less than 5 years ago.
In response to the downturn – it could be argued that race promotors haven’t really taken up the challenge and offered anything different. The majority of major marathons have continued, essentially unchanged, but with fewer riders. Some really great races have disappeared altogether (RIP Capital Punishment, The Wombat 100, Angry Doctor, 3 Ring Circus for example). It’s as if we have run out of ideas and the decline is being accepted as ‘the inevitable development of the sport’. Not so. Marathon racing is still growing strongly in other countries, alongside the growth of all-mountain racing and more trail riding oriented events – like the Epic Cymru. More and more people are riding bikes. What they are looking for in an event is changing.
Mountain bike riding is a social event. It is something that most of us do with our mates. Marathon racing – well, it’s a little bit less ‘matey’. The concept of taking the best aspect of ‘4 or 6 man team events’ and blending them together with the challenge of marathon racing – it looks pretty appealing. The best thing about team events is not when you are on track bleeding through your ears because you are going so hard; it’s when you are back at the tent talking with your mates about how fast your last lap was, the size of your huge stack on the dodgy corner and how you made a hero over-take manoeuvre in the final 50m. By blending the two formats, team mates and marathons – no longer will you be all alone into that head wind. You and your partner can share the load. Much of the South African National Marathon Series is raced in Pairs by default, given the volume of paired stage racing the country has. It allows for exciting racing, and offers the chance to work really hard with your team mate.
That means that the many riders for whom the 100km solo race is too much of a training commitment and thus stepped down to the 50km, could now enter the bigger distance and still know they would be fine. Less daunting. Furthermore, they could share their experiences with their close mate – does it get better?
Is pairs racing the answer?
Could racing with a partner be the answer – the change that we need. Let’s think about the races that people are talking about right now. Of course, the one that immediately springs to mind – the mother of all MTB races – the world leading Cape-Epic. While far from the first paired stage race is has grown to be one of the most popular, along with the JoBerg2c, Transalp and the younger Swiss Epic. It has been going for 10yrs now. The race is sold out within minutes of going on sale, and draws everyone from Olympic Gold Medallists through to ex-professional rugby players, TV celebrities and even real novice MTB riders. Can you ever see that demographic lining up, shoulder to shoulder for a one day solo Marathon? I didn’t think so. That alone is a case in point.
In fact, the success of the Cape-Epic in South Africa has spawned a number of ‘copy-cat’ events in the same country – all of which are also oversubscribed.
Furthermore, and a much less acknowledged fact – is it has led to a big increase in the number of female competitors – because they can attend supported by a good friend or a race partner (often in a personal relationship sense also), a club mate but most of all – it’s a buddy – to intro them to racing. It is significantly less daunting. Anything that brings more women to racing is a good thing in my book.
In Australia, there are some great examples of success – the recent Duo Classic in Canberra. A fantastic event with a great vibe, special trails, but most of all – pairs racing with a mass start. Everyone heads off together, hoping that their ‘teamie’ is locked onto their back wheel up the first hill, but unable to look round to check for them – such is the concentration.
The Hellfire Cup in Tasmania has incredible format – pairs stage racing. A couple of stages pairs ride together as a team, and a couple they ride alone – working on ‘total’ team time. Great fun – and again, it has a race ‘vibe’ unlike any other solo stage race I have attended.
The Pioneer in NZ – very fresh in the memory, and seemingly a huge success for an inaugural year. Long days, ridden with your partner – a shared load so immediately more manageable.
The Otway300 is a new addition to the Australian calendar this April. It is two days long, covering 300km of some of the most remote hills in the Otway ranges – interspersed with singletrack, some views, and even the odd bit of bitumen, on the iconic Great Ocean Road no-less, allows for some respite.
At an event like this I can enjoy all of this with a mate for company. A wheel to sit on when I need a drink, someone to help me in the bad moments, someone to need my help when I am feeling good. Shared tools, and spares, and with that, shared worry and responsibility.
Best of all – a shared experience. So much chatter throughout the ride. Probably with another team or two for company. All of a sudden, that’s six people riding together. That is fun. That is the root of mountain bike riding – it’s social.
Away from the increased participation aspect of Pairs racing, and looking specifically at the competition side – it provides an entirely different challenge. I was recently chatting with a friend who had raced at the Duo Classic with a partner slightly slower than he. Despite it not being the immense physical challenge that it might have been if he were alone, he was explaining the huge enjoyment he took from racing hard, but still having clear enough of a mind to be able to think tactics, and help his partner with drinks, and to relax, and watch other teams and to really ‘race’ within the event. It was much more rewarding for him than merely just going as hard as he could and seeing only at the end if it was good enough.
Out on the trails, or on the roads, more and more friends are grouping together to form mini-teams. Club kit is getting cheaper and more viable to buy and print in small numbers, so people are grouping up to form clubs. There is something to be said for that feeling of ‘membership of a gang’.
At the top end of the sport, there are great examples of teams that race together to influence the outcomes of races – Torq, Trek, Specialized, Onya – highly visible at races, and almost always the team aspect of tactics will impact the outcome of the solo victory. In this sense, we are already racing as teams, but without the recognition.
We have the National Marathon Championships – run by MTBA. A great event in Derby last year. Despite this numbers are never that high relative to those seen at a commercial marathon. Imagine if this year, one of the major privately run marathons announced that it was the ‘National Teams Marathon Championships’? Who cares if it’s not a UCI recognised category? We have a National 24hr MTB Champ – and the UCI don’t recognise that either! An event run over 120km, a Pairs format. Male, Female, Mixed – and a few age-groups. The ½ distance event (60km) is open to solos – so the race organiser wouldn’t need to fear alienating anyone, but the full distance is teams only.
Let’s be honest – everyone has a riding buddy they could team up with. Often there is one that considers themselves the ‘techo rider’, the other is the ‘roadie’ – all of a sudden they are a competitive team. They train together and get excited. The help each other, they complement each other styles.
I just have a hunch that it would sell really well. It would reignite the excitement in the sport, and it would get people riding together more and attending marathon races again.
Come on race organisers – maybe its time for a change?