It is, as Cyclingnews' reporter John Flynn reported last week, one of the most thankless tasks in bike racing, and Rod Morris, the chief 'handicapper' for the 2006/07 Christmas Carnivals series of track racing in Tasmania, has returned serve after receiving a blast from Burnie newspaper, The Advocate.
They take their cycling very seriously on Australia's 'Apple Isle', and as chief handicapper, Morris has the task of allocating positions on the track for all the riders competing in 'wheelraces'. These are 2000 metre (indoor) or 3000 metre (outdoor) events where weekend warriors, wily veterans and promising juniors get to compete against the top, elite-level riders. The latter ride off 'scratch' (which means they ride the full race distance), while other riders, who are older, younger or have lesser credentials, get a 'head-start' on the track, sometimes over 200 metres in front of the 'scratchmen' (see 'What's a wheelrace?').
Therefore, the person responsible for allocating those head-starts means he is rarely going to please all the riders, all the time. And that's what happened this year in Tasmania. In the Advocate, writer Nigel Tapp said, "Some of the marks and heat make ups were never going to create good, competitive racing and when things were turned around at Devonport - surprise, surprise - the racing improved. If people do not believe the backmarkers will get up, or at least be competitive, they will not bother attending the carnivals and that is certainly the decision they made at Devonport. No one comes to see a rider off 250 m plus, but they do to see a firing Ben Kersten, Nathan Clarke, Leigh Howard or Darren Young."
In response, Morris said in a letter, "It is not all about scratchmen winning the major races and the middle-to-front markers simply making up a support cast. If this was the case, the carnivals would attract nothing more than an elite cast of 20 riders."
Further, he said, "In my opinion, Ben Kersten, Nathan Clarke, Leigh Howard and Cameron Meyer were the pick of the scratchmen for the 2006-07 Christmas Carnivals."
Indeed, after the first two days of competition, leading invited rider Ben Kersten told Cyclingnews that he had found the going hard against the fields in the wheelraces, but remained determined to try and bag a win, which he did in Devonport.
(Cyclingnews has published Morris' letter as it helps to explain how these handicaps are allocated to riders of varying ability.)