J17 to J19 - ouch
It's a really big step ...
For those of you who don't know, here in Australia juniors are limited in the gears that they can use. Under 15s are restricted to no greater than 6 meters of rollout (~76") and under 17s to 6.5m (~82"). Under 19's are, to all intents, unrestricted.
This is not a rule without its detractors. It is my understanding that the rule is designed for a couple of reasons - firstly, to protect the kids from hurting their knees and secondly to level the playing field to encourage and support participation. It may also be designed to teach the kids to spin high revs (how else can you go fast on a little gear?!).
There are some consequences of this rule which I think (and I am not alone here, it was discussed at a recent sprint coaching forum at the Junior Aussies and my voice was not the only one) are inhibiting the development of some potential elite athletes.
The rule as it stands means that J15 and J17 sprinters have to be able to rev to very high cadences - we're talking in excess of 160rpm for the boys, for the girls it's around 150rpm to be competitive nationally. In elite level senior competition, that is not a requirement and stronger guys who can push bigger gears prosper with peak cadences nowdays around 145-150rpm for the men. But the rule discriminates against the stronger kids in favour of the super-spinners. The stronger kids can create greater force (torque) and potentially greater power, but if they're limited by cadence they don't get to benefit from this strength as much as they should be able to. We don't handicap the big kids in athletics, football or any other sport. We don't tell the big kids in football that they're not allowed to jump higher than the littler kids to win the ball or tell them not to kick a goal from 45 metres out because that's not fair to the littler kids who can't do it yet.
The super-spinners then, at the end of J17's (and the bleed through of this into J19's) run into the stronger riders and it's a big shock. This is when we lose a lot of them. There's other things going on too at that age, school gets harder, alcohol, cars, relationships and so on become bigger deals, but I suspect that the transition to the open playing field from the shelter of the J17 and below gearing rule is brutally hard and breaks the spirit of the super-spinners, who may have already broken the spirit of the stronger and heavier kids who may well be better in unrestricted competition but got sick of being beaten by the kids who the rules favour when they were younger. This ultimatly doesn't help the super-spinners either because they're playing on a field that's made to suit them, but it's going to change when they get older and they may be so addicted to winning by revving that they can't cope emotionally when it's time to play with the big kids, especially if they're convinced through their own limited experience that all they need is revs and they'll win everything.
So if this is a problem, what should we do about it? I don't buy into the "save their knees" issue - I'm yet to see any evidence in support of it. We overgear the kids all the time in training and I've never seen a problem. Even on big gears the peak torque the kids can put out is no-where near what they'd do on the school playground jumping on a football field or doing gymnastics or anything else we think nothing of all the time. Assuming that's the case, I think the rule should change. I think J17's, at least, should be allowed to ride bigger gears. Because you can ride a bigger gear doesn't mean you have to, and I know at least one junior who is so amazingly quick on tiny gears that they would not go up a gear even if they had the choice. It would be a rider's choice to use a bigger gear and a smart rider wouild choose the gear that worked best for them, just like they get to do in J19's and above. The transition to J19 would be less harsh for those who were thinking ahead to it, especially the girls, who need to get strong early because otherwise it's very hard for them to get strength later in life.