Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Moving The Goalposts

Do certain 'celebrations' suck the air out of the challenge of gravel events, or does anyone care?
 NOTE: Large doses of "my opinion" will be handed out in gloppy dollops today. You've been forewarned.....

Recently the Gravel Worlds event announced a "First To Last" initiative "which celebrates every participant’s unique journey", according to a press release sent out by the organization. This follows the well known "DFL celebration", a feature of Mid-South for a few years now. 

The recognition of last place in a cycling event on gravel has a long history. The roots of the phenomenon in gravel go all the way back to the first DK200 where David Pals, once a co-director of mine for Trans Iowa, survived heat, winds, dehydration, thunderstorms, and being hit by a car a few miles from the finish, to come in last place with a big ol' smile on his face. The gathered observers were giving David props for his plucky finish and were amazed that he showed little effect from being hit by a car.

The idea of a recognition of last place in a cycling event goes back further than the DK200 though, and probably the most famous of all of these recognitions is the "lanterne rouge" in the Tour de France. The romanticism of this concept in gravel events, especially early modern-day gravel events, was fairly commonplace. 

While no specific recognition in the form of a prize for this last place rider was noted amongst the early gravel events, it was something that was seen as being a badge of respect amongst fellow riders. That last place person was seen as someone who "gutted it out" and made the grade despite being out in the elements longer than anyone else. I'm not aware of the specifics regarding the genesis of what the Mid-South does with regard to its DFL celebration, but that event has popularized the concept of celebrating last place in a very high profile way. I suspect that the Mid-South's way of doing this grew out of the old "lanterne rouge" ideas.

Scott McConnell finishing up T.I.v12 hours after the official finishing time.

The early gravel events, at least the longer ones which were all well over 100 miles in length, had event cut-of times which put slower folk outside a time limitation. At events like Trans Iowa, sometimes people would go ahead and finish the route anyway, despite being outside the 2:00pm Sunday cut-off. This sort of practice in longer events brought out a slow moving of the goalposts.

In the past, certain event directors felt compelled to ease cut-off times and extended "official finishes" to riders coming in after published time cuts. This was all being done to recognize the efforts of more than just last place on time in an event. To be fair, even the Tour de France does this for certain stages of that event when commissioners feel there are extenuating circumstances

While it seems all-good on the surface, there is a possibility that more is going on here that is not being addressed. Taking a cue from history and the Tour de France's Lanterne Rouge, we can perhaps see what might be going on in the gravel scene - or perhaps soon will be - relating to contestants purposefully gaming to be last place in an event. From the Wikipedia page on the Lanterne Rouge

"Often the rider who comes last is remembered while those a few places ahead are forgotten. The revenue the last rider will generate from later appearance fees can be greater than if he had finished second to last, although this was more true when riders still made much of their income from post-Tour criteriums,"

Rumors are swirling around that have caught my ear here in Iowa that this laying in wait to be last place has been happening at Mid-South. Now, that is unsubstantiated rumor only, but it is entirely plausible that it might occur. Given the hoopla and resulting momentary spotlight given to the individual that attains such a "prize", it is not to be wondered at that someone might game the system to be 'that person'. I don't doubt that in today's social media culture, where being "viral" equates to some sort of digital populist celebrity status, that any kind of attention being offered for last placing in an event is something to be coveted.

Checkpoint 1 at T.I.v12: Image by Ari Andonopoulous

 The celebrations of last place are related to the extension of cut-off times by way of intent, and since that is the case, I see both of these things being related. 

Cut off times get attention at times when event directors feel the nudge to be more lenient towards those who are pushing up against the limitations of a challenge and don't want to be denied. "Goalposts" are hard and maintaining them isn't for the weak of spirit. However; while it may seem arbitrary and cruel to some to make a black and white call on a cut off, it does maintain the integrity and worthiness of any challenge. 

Take any stick and ball sport where rules are dissected to the nth degree and consider how much those calls matter to the integrity of a game. Gravel racing is not immune to such considerations and the integrity of challenge is definitely something that is a part of that. I will reiterate that this is my opinion, and that I have a certain viewpoint that might be seen as unique in gravel racing, but when cut-off times get extended it reduces not only the effort necessary for anyone to make the cut-offs but it lowers the status of your challenge as well. 

Does any of that matter? Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn't. Maybe it is has an unconscious effect that plays into who is attracted to your event now versus previously. Or - Maybe that is intentional. Maybe it brings more people, and therefore more dollars, to an event. Maybe it is a marketing stunt. Maybe it is a conscientious effort to make more people feel seen and appreciated. 

This can all be debated, but moving the goalposts does have effects both obvious and not quite so obvious. Both good and bad. One thing is for sure, gravel racing and events are changing and evolving all the time. At the very least, we can perhaps all agree that gravel racing and cycling isn't under some rigid, universal overseer that makes up arbitrary rules for the sport. 

Well, at least not yet it isn't.


Mr Big Ring said...

Funk Bottoms Gravel will give the Wooden Spoon to the last finisher.

Stud Beefpile said...

RPI has had a DFL "baked potato" award for a few years now, and I can tell you the one year I participated that there was absolutely a person who stalled at the top of the monster descent before the finish line because she wanted the DFL award. She was not the DFL - except for waiting to be (I was DFL for much of the day and never saw her or yo-yo'ed with her at any point earlier in the event). At the time, the DFL award involved a nice Stetson hat or something similar. RPI still involved an enforced cutoff, and Rebecca herself allowed a couple of us on from the cutoff checkpoint, but enforced the cutoff thereafter.

While I'm one of those folks who is sometimes lucky to beat a cutoff, RDs have lives, too, and I think the enforced cutoff should remain. Just like not all kids should necessarily pass a class just because they are enrolled in a class, I believe the cutoff sets an expected standard for an event.

Rydn9ers said...

I ready somewhere last week a phrase that seems to be accurate to the future of "big gravel" it went a little something like this: "Gravel racing is dead, it has been replaced by road racing on gravel".

With more and more pro cyclists filtering down to gravel racing and the events become increasingly larger, most folks realize that their chances of doing well in any given event goes down proportionally to the growth of those things. Putting aside the cutoff times and the possibility of people cheating to become DFL, why not have something for the "have-nots"? What they lack in speed they more than make up for in numbers and money so that the event can put out a purse to draw the pros to the event. If a few bleary eyed people hooping and hollering and the clang of the cowbell keeps them coming back and spending that money, it's a relatively cheap price to pay for the ROI to keep your event rolling.

FarleyBob said...

Doesn't Leadville have a belt buckle award if you beat a certain finish time? That concept might be a way to reward finish times other than podium or DFL? I personally don't need any reward other than finishing, but the buckle concept might be a carrot to spur on the mid-pack racers.

Guitar Ted said...

@Farley Bob - Yes, they have belt buckles for beating certain times. The DK200 kind of had this same idea with the "Race to the Sun" challenge. Beating the sunset was a cool idea there. Lots of folks were motivated by that. I do not know if they do that anymore with Unbound.