USA Cycling announced a new mountain bike category system to take effect for the 2009 season. The national governing body and the National Off Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) Board of Trustees analyzed and improved the changes with the goal of strengthening professional fields and adding depth to amateur categories at the grass roots level.
The new categories, which closely resemble those used in other disciplines of competitive cycling, will take effect on December 1, 2008. The previous license categories will be replaced with a new system which include Category 1, 2, 3 and Pro designations.
The previous structure, which consisted of five categories Beginner, Sport, Expert, Semi-Pro and Pro has been condensed to include four categories. Like the categories they're replacing, Categories 1, 2 and 3 will also feature age groups classes.
"This change has been discussed, studied and considered in some form for the last two years," said Lisa Nye-Salladin, NORBA Board of Trustees President and race promoter for the Texas Mountain Bike Racing Association. "Ultimately, the NORBA Board of Trustees spearheaded this evolution in order to make racing more competitive and create a clear distinction between amateur and professional athletes. The names of the categories were also revised to better reflect the new levels of racing. The terms 'Beginner', 'Sport' and 'Expert' carry little relevance outside of the mountain bike community, which makes it difficult for sponsors and the public to relate. The simplicity of using numbered categories brings with it a universal understanding."
NORBA Board of Trustees member Gary Fisher was a major proponent of the change in order to create a more competitive environment domestically and improve the success of riders from the US globally.
"We want bigger pro fields in the National Calendar events so our racers can better prepare for international competition like World Cups and World Championships," said Fisher. "Our pro fields are tiny compared to our European counterparts. We have the numbers in terms of ridership, but we've been referring to them as Semi-Pros."
Olympian and four-time national cross country champion Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, who also sits on the USA Cycling Board of Directors as the NORBA athlete representative, sees the change as a positive step forward.
"Throughout the last several years, we've been discussing ways to improve the quality of races in the US and increase competition," said Horgan-Kobelski. "This change will result in deeper pro fields, but will also produce an extremely competitive atmosphere among amateurs. The category one designation itself becomes a more prestigious field with talent indicative of up-and-coming pros. The change also simplifies things for race organizers who can now offer fewer categories, while at the same time improving their event."
Marc Gullickson, USA Cycling's National Mountain Bike Development Director, said the change would be better for rider development. "The Semi-Pro category was originally created as a place for U23 athletes to compete before making the jump to the professional level," said Gullickson, "but now, the elimination of that category will help accelerate the progression of athletes who should theoretically be competing against stiffer competition on a more consistent basis. From a development standpoint, the Semi-Pro category became an unnecessary middle ground that made it difficult to assess talent."
Members currently categorized as Experts will automatically become a Category 1; Sport members will automatically be converted to a Category 2; and Beginners will automatically become a Category 3. Members currently categorized as Semi-Pro may choose either Category 1 or Pro designation for the 2009 racing season. When renewing their license, Semi-Pro members will be offered an automatic upgrade to Pro throughout the 2009 licensing period which runs from December 1, 2008 to November 30, 2009. If a current Semi-Pro member does not purchase a 2009 racing license, he will automatically default to Category 1 status beginning on December 1, 2009 for the 2010 racing season. At that point, regular upgrade procedures will apply.
To go along with the new system, USA Cycling has developed detailed Pro upgrade requirements and transition for Semi-Pro's in Endurance, Gravity and Ultra-Endurance disciplines.