The very word “elite” conjurs up some fairly visceral reactions on all sides. Those who think themselves worthy of the title defend their privilege, while those left out decry the injustice of creating and perpetuating hierarchies. Our pithy regional cycling blogosphere revisited the elitism issue recently, partly in response to posts from my team’s listing in cylingnews.com, where we advertised our “Elite Masters Team.” That designation is certainly controversial, and I’ve had to deal with the fallout several years ago, when most of my local teammates quit the team, rather than continue as something less than “elite.”
But, alas. Hierarchies exist. Arguing that we shouldn’t have elite universities would not make my somewhat humble SIU equal to Johns Hopkins or Duke, nor would disestablishing hierarchies make SEMO or Murray State closer to SIU. In cycling, I’m a bit perplexed by the issue. In the end, we carry around cards in our wallets that tell us pretty much where we stand, and our placement in the strata determines which races we’re allowed to start. Team Mack has an Elite Masters team which is comprised of the old farts who are qualified to start at Masters Road Nationals. If you aren’t at least a Cat-3, you can’t race Nationals on the road, and there are several other Masters races which also make category distinctions based on 1-2-3 licenses. For young guys, USCF generally goes 1-2 for stuff like that, but for us old guys, they give a break to the fact that many people downgrade to Cat-3 as they get older, and some older guys, like me, prefer to race masters rather than 3’s if they came into the sport late.
Mostly, however, the trend towards designating “elite” versus “recreational” or “club” teams is a function of increased participation and limited resources. I race for an “indie” team. We don’t have an anchor sponsor with a pecuniary interest. Team Mack Paper Company does the title sponsor well by existing, as far as I can tell. I’ve seen their factory in Rockford, but I don’t think I can actually buy Mack Paper. Many of our other sponsors are guys on the team. Steve, Dan, the other Dan. Nobody is losing anything from that arrangement. They want their name on jerseys and that satisfies their marketing objectives, and Mack gives that to them. In contrast, we also have equipment sponsors. Given that we’re NOT affiliated with a shop which sells those goods, equipment sponsors are interested in Mack because we deliver visibility and credibility in the racing community. If old farts can win high profile bike races on Waterford steel bike frames in 2008, I think that says something about their product, and I think we deliver a pretty credible marketing bang for their investment. But, how many frames are you going to dole out for marginal profit? Mack is not a shop. It’s not like we’ll pimp them to other riders in any direct way. At one time, I think we had over 200 members on Team Mack. Should Waterford/Gunnar or other sponsors be dealing in that kind of volume for limited profit? Probably not. Making an elite designation became essential for sheltering sponsors from the burden of committing to giving factory level pricing to huge numbers of people, with little hope for a return on their investment.
For teams associated with bike shops, the problem is even more pronounced, since the profit cut happens at the shop, rather than being a more abstract marketing decision by a sales representative. Josh Johnson, AKA Butthead, of the venerable Big Shark racing team, made a quite nobel response to a negative post about “elite” club postings on cyclingnews. Butthead pointed out that teams are really just trying to do their job to promote sponsors, and that many clubs create elite designations because of cost concerns. What, is Big Shark supposed to give every Cat-5 in STL a jersey and bibs? Should they give them all race fees? Provide bikes at cost? I shouldn’t be picking on the cat-5’s, because the same holds for the Cat-3’s! Mike Weiss is running a bike shop, for fuck’s sake, not a charity. If you’re a cat-3, and if you race a lot, and if you win a lot, and if you promote his bike shop, and if you’re dead flat broke, then maybe, maybe, if you’re nice, Mike should take pity on you and give you something. Generally, if you’re in that situation, notice, you’re not a cat 3, you’re quickly a cat-2. And, maybe he’d have an interest in promoting you more, but maybe not! The cult of Butthead may actually benefit Big Shark, but I don’t know how many other “elite” level racers a shop can afford to heap with largesse (though I doubt even Butthead is slathered in schwag, because Mike Weiss isn’t a moron). And, as Big Shark’s Matt aptly noted, if you’re not on your club’s elite team, it gives you some motivation to improve.
Non-elite clubs have their place, and are important for shops, and for cycling communities. Recreational riders, Cat-5 and Cat-4 racers are the lifeblood of US cycling. They are the fans, the developing talent, and the friends who we train with. They are the people who keep bike shops solvent, and who encourage young people to ride bikes. The “elite’ designation is unfortunate, mostly because of the connotations. But, there aren’t many alternatives.