In defence of the new gear restrictions
Not everyone's happy
Earlier this week CA announced that J17 gear restrictions would be lifted to a 7.0 meter rollout, which is around 90 gear inches, it was to be lifted to 86" (6.75m), up from the previous limit of 82" (6.5m).
Many of you reading here know I am very much in favour of this, but not everyone is pleased. I hope to calm the storm a little, or at least provide some argument in favour. Note please that this is my opinion, and I am not representing any organisation except for aboc Cycle Coaching (me!) when I write this. Furthermore, I don't have any influence on the people that made the decision that I am aware of. I don't even know who they are.
Enough with the preamble ...
Firstly, the rule change does not mandate that every J17 rider ride 90". It means they are allowed to, which is not at all the same thing. J19's are allowed to ride up to 104" or something, they don't, because they usually can't. I work with J19's who can squat small cars and deadlift your fridge, full ... they're not anywhere near being able to rev out the J19 gear restriction yet,. and managing them through J17's is a challenge (be patient, your time will come, being restricted to 82" sucks, but next year ... repeat and hope the kid buys in to the argument).
If a J17 is a great revver, they will choose smaller gears, if they're a big, strong kid, they will push bigger gears. Up 'til now the rules have biased against strong kids and towards super-revvers, at least in sprint, which is where my attention is focused. I expect it's the same in enduro circles. Big, strong kids can't rev as fast as the hummingbirds (heavy legs, can't move 'em quite as quick, but they can accelerate!). We build kids up to be strong so that they can be competitive as J19's and seniors, and not spend another 6 years trying to get them strong enough, this is an even bigger task with girls than it is with boys - they put muscle on a lot more slowly than boys. One of the causes for the loss of elite sprinters after J19 is the almost insurmountable gulf between a J19 and a senior (hey, kid, race Perko, who is pushing 108" or more and Anna who is superstrong! good luck ...). I've interviewed a number of guys who've given it up after J19's and this is a common theme. They don't want to spend 5 or more years getting smacked before they're even at a level where they can keep up and not be embarrassed.
By better preparing J17's to use bigger gears, we hope to lift the standard in J19, and thus, make the transition to senior riders be less daunting. If J17's filters out a lot of the strong kids in favour of super spinners (which, at present, it does), that means J19's are in general, weaker than they could otherwise be as a population, and then less likely to manage the jump into senior ranks. There's loads of examples of this in sprint in recent memory, in particular in the girls, but also many of the boys have failed to make the jump past J19. This is for many reasons, but one is that the jump is too big for most of them to manage in a realistic timeframe.
Some of my colleagues have mentioned that by allowing J17's to push 90", that this will kill the sport and other hyperbole (and a half!), or that we shouldn't change a working formula (hey, it's NOT working! We bleed riders after J19, you haven't noticed?! Where are they all?). Nonsense. The current situation is that strong kids are held back (and they're often some of the best talents, so they go off and play some sport where their talent isn't nobbled), hummingbirds prosper and the less talented kids are off the back on 82". The only difference by allowing bigger gears is that the strong kids will be able to keep up with the hummingbirds. The less talented, or younger, or less developed kids will be off the back no matter what anyway. It happens now, it will continue to happen. I don't think much else will change. If it does, the rules can be changed again.
And this is the rub. Many are suggesting that club racer kids will give it up because 90" is too big and they can't keep up, there'll be no tactical development etc etc. Here's the thing. At club level, clubs are free to introduce their own gear restrictions anyway. You want a race where no-one can push bigger than 82" - NO PROBLEM! Just put it in the race rules. Brunswick did this on Saturday, everyone was on 90" (magic number?!) and it was great. Close races, lots of skill and tactical development. GOOD! We had first year J19's (the ones I trained overgeared last year and got strong and who hated being forced to ride 82" in competition) keeping up with senior sprinters, which made for good training races. But, for opens, state and national championships, the talented kids should be allowed to display their physical talent. It may well keep them in the sport longer and help us find the next group of champions. State and National titles are not "every kid's a winner" races, they're championships and the best kids should be able to win them.
I'm sure there will be people who will cite examples of successful riders who came through our current system, they do exist, and this is good (look closely at their development path before you cite them though, some will surprise you at how they got into the system, Cadel rode MTB, Matthew Glaetzer was a pole vaulter and did not come through gear restricted juniors etc), but we can do better (we have to, everyone else is!) and we can't say everything is great because some physiological freaks have survived it, if they even came through it. Our rules and development programs should not be judged by the success of the very rare genetically gifted athletes that pop up, but rather by the health of the whole ecosystem.
Finally, the knee injury furphy. Where's the corpses? We train our guys overgeared ALL the time, putting out much greater torque and power numbers than anyone else in the state (wanna bet?! I have data ... ), I have not seen a single knee injury. Not one. If a kid isn't strong enough to push a gear (86, 90, whatever) they simply won't be able to push it. They can grind at 60rpm up a hill (that's ok ...) in a road race out at Eildon or the 1:20 etc already if they want or have to. Knee overuse injuries come from throwing kids at huge miles and on badly fitted bikes, not from pushing a gear that's too big for them.
So there you go. I don't think it will kill anything, I think it's for the long term good of developing better senior riders