Typically we have little idea of what they look like and would probably walk straight past them in the street. But they’re still the officials we love to hate. Either too soft on rivals, or too hard on us. Peter Maniaty asks what is it really like to be a handicapper?
About eight years ago former track champion and current NSWIS coach Ben Kersten took one of the all-time great swipes at a handicapper. “I’d like to put my 10-speed cassette in a footy sock and flog him with it, he hasn’t been helping us much,” suggested the flying New South Welshman to the awaiting media. The two-time Australian Track Cyclist of the Year was only joking, of course. But the scratchman’s frustration couldn’t have been clearer during the lucrative Tasmanian Christmas Carnival series of 2006.
Half a century earlier a slightly more restrained but equally memorable spray came from 1950 National Road Champion Keith Rowley after a limit rider from Coburg, Bill Anderson, won the 1952 Tour of Midlands solo off a whopping 80-minute limit. “What’s the sense of racing if we haven’t a dog’s chance of winning?” Rowley bemoaned to The Argus after starting from scratch. “They’re driving the scratchmen out of the business. We put all our time into the sport and then these chaps, who just have a ride now and again, come along and take all the plums.”
The plums may have been juicy for the winners. But, just as it is today, the vanquished are often left with a sour taste indeed, and the finger of blame frequently points squarely at handicappers, those with surely the most enigmatic and thankless task in cycling.
Not sure about your club. But every time a big race rolls around you can be fairly certain the members of mine will expend almost as much energy debating the handicapping as they do turning the pedals. Yet whilst we all love a good whinge, few of us will ever raise our hands to help improve the situation for next time. As one rider confessed, “I don’t know why anyone would voluntarily become a handicapper, someone always ends up hating you, and I get shouted at enough already by my wife and daughters at home!”
Fortunately not everyone feels this way, of course; so what type of person does put their hand up? An insightful chap by the name of Eddie Barkla from the Bendigo Bicycle User Group explained it as follows in a blog post back in 2010, “The humble handicapper has to have skin thick as that of a rhinoceros, the hardness of the head of that of marble or granite and the mind like a steel trap and recall of an elephant that never forgets.” Never have truer words been spoken.
Rarely paid and often criticised, theirs is at best a fickle art; a notoriously subjective undertaking for even the most experienced of exponents. Trying to make sense of obscure form lines, riders you’ve often never heard of (let alone seen race) and the vagaries of club results which may or may not be current, is no mean feat – all in an attempt to level out what is a decidedly un-level playing field. Such an egalitarian act may be very Australian. But it’s also very bloody difficult.
Clearly they don’t always get it right. Like the time one of my club’s well-performed A-Graders was somewhat embarrassingly thrust into E-Grade for an Open race in Newcastle. (As it turned out he broke his collarbone the weekend before and never had to confront officials at the start line). But name any sport whose officials are on the money all the time? Even with the very latest seven-figure technology the video referees in footy and third umpires in cricket still cock things up on a reasonably regular basis. And let’s not forget why we have handicappers in the first place. As the long since defunct newspaper The Empire explained in the lead-up to the Sydney Cup horse race in 1870, “The handicap is a time-honoured institution … without it, how frequently we should see all the most valuable stakes falling into the hands of one person.”
Continuing the equine theme it’s worth noting Racing Victoria – custodian of the grandest Australian handicap of them all, the Melbourne Cup – reminds owners, trainers and punters that handicapping is anything but black and white. “There are no right or wrong answers,” it suggests in its official racing guidelines with words surely as apt for the cyclist as they are the thoroughbred. “Hindsight is a wonderful tool. Handicapping is about personal and professional judgments.”
Some suggest much of the angst shown towards handicappers might actually stem from a misunderstanding of their role. The Footscray Cycling Club in Melbourne provides a reasonably good definition on its website: “Handicapping should enable strong, competitive, and fair racing, and should challenge and stretch riders … riders promoted may expect to have a period of struggle before acclimatising to the new pace … the handicapper has to assume you are fully fit to race … it is not the handicapper’s role to aid riders back to fitness.” In other words, suck it up princess and take a cement pill.
Commissaire to Handicapper and Back
Peter Tomlinson hails from the Southern Highlands Cycling Club, just over an hour’s drive south-west of Sydney. Recently returned from a commissairing role at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Tomlinson has been a familiar face on the club racing scene in NSW for over two decades and prior to handing over the reins after the Cootamundra Haycarters weekend earlier this year, spent six years as the Chief Handicapper for Cycling NSW and two more as Assistant Handicapper.
“I always loved the tradition of handicaps,” reflects Tomlinson, who from behind his neatly cropped grey beard explains it was his role as a commissaire that actually brought him into the handicapping fold. “Attending so much racing in the 1990s and 2000s as a commissaire, I developed a real feel for what was happening. I was often being asked for opinions of where people should be in terms of grades and handicaps. I also noticed many races weren’t that well handicapped, so I decided to put my hand up.”
Since raising that hand almost a decade ago Tomlinson has gone on to seed races everywhere from club level right up to national championships and World Cups, not to mention overseeing graded scratch races and handicaps in virtually every corner of NSW from Wagga and Albury to Gunnedah and Cootamundra.
If anyone knows what it takes to be a successful handicapper, surely it’s Tomlinson. Perhaps unsurprisingly he suggests a love and passion for the sport is essential, along with a healthy amount of first-hand racing experience. Beyond that it comes down to having a “feel and synergy for the riders and the history of the races.”
The other key requirement is time. “It takes a lot of hard work to do the job properly. You have to attend races and be willing to chase information that doesn’t always come freely to you,” he explains of his time handicapping for Cycling NSW. “I’d spend an average of 10-12 hours a week for around 40-45 weeks a year. That’s why I only ever intended on doing the job for two or three years. Between my work time, my wife’s time, my riding time, my sleep time – I have way too many other things to do as well!”
Tomlinson stresses it’s also essential to communicate well with race organisers, clubs and other relevant associations. As he suggested when stepping down from the Cycling NSW role, it’s something he feels could be done better. “Grading has become very difficult with only a small percentage of clubs providing consistent information, so I’ve relied heavily on email or even using Google to gain information. Moving forward, hopefully a better grading database can be developed, rather than the ad hoc method at present.”
There was one notable exception, however. Tomlinson singled out a Sydney club for special praise. “Waratah CC and the Masters Commission have done a great job with Masters racing,” he said, suggesting the level of rider information provided helped considerably with the seeding of Masters riders racing in Track and Road Opens.
Somewhat ironically, it turns out the club with one of the oldest member bases in Australia has embraced modern technology like few others to streamline the process of grading and handicapping, removing much of the subjectivity and associated time demands.
“When the Waratah Masters Cycling Club was formed back in 1994, a conscious decision was made to implement a management system,” explains the club’s Vice President, Max Tonkin. “The club was lucky enough to have Alban McGuinness, an IT professional; he set up the initial system in Lotus Notes. Then in 2007 Alban changed us over to the current web-based system adding many ‘bells and whistles’. The daughter of one of our regular competitors is now paid to manage data input for each event, including race registration and results.”
Over a post-ride coffee Tonkin rattles off an impressive list of functionality sure to have time-poor club handicappers salivating all over Australia. A key feature is an efficient and fair race registration process, ensuring riders must obtain approval to ride in a lower grade. The system also generates the yearly race program, provides weekly results reports and accumulates points earned for each rider towards an annual points competition. Competitors can obtain a performance report showing his or her race results in the current year. Reports are also generated automatically for the handicapper listing riders in line for promotion. “All the functionality is available to the club’s administrators at the click of a mouse, pretty much anywhere with an internet connection,” adds Tonkin. Not bad for a bunch of old blokes, huh?
“You name it, we have race data going all the way back to the very beginning of the club including about 1,700 riders currently classified as ‘active’,” he continues. “I know some clubs struggle a bit with the time it takes, but for us race management and handicapping takes hardly any time at all.”
With more than a hint of science fiction Tonkin reveals they’ve even trialled thumbprint scanners at the entry desk to speed up registration on race days. “I bought a couple of units cheap from China a while back, but they didn’t work very well,’ he confesses. “That led us to develop a fast new user interface for the entry desk laptop instead. Now we can – and regularly do – register more than 200 riders across six grades in about 40 minutes!”
Whether it is a fully automated database or a more intuitive manual system, it’s also worth remembering what our much-maligned handicappers are actually trying to achieve when we roll up to race each weekend. Is nirvana having a race come together in the final stages as the bunch swamps the breakaway or limit riders on the line?
“That’s it pretty much!” nods Peter Tomlinson. “I was happy to achieve that a few times. But also to have the majority of the field there at the end of a race or at least having a good ride is important. I always enjoyed the satisfaction of a well-run race and working with good organisers. I still do.”
The conversation drifts to the issue of sandbaggers (aka. burglars), a type of rider who, for most, belongs in the same bracket as a serial wheelsucker. Tomlinson assures there’s no clandestine surveillance network monitoring our every ride or Strava accounts to catch us out. “I always found riders tend to self-regulate if you’re willing to listen,” he says. “Of course good communication with others in the know is always quite useful. Knowing the records and history of races also plays a big part.”
How about the criticism that’s inevitably part of the job? “Happily with experience that usually decreases. Over time you earn some respect,” he explains, before admitting it did still frustrate him on occasion. “Sometimes I felt quite annoyed that it didn’t matter how much time and effort you put in – and how correct you often were – people still criticised. In fact, a chronic complainer was the last straw for me. I just thought ‘I’ve got a busy job and other opportunities to worry about, time to step back.’ So that’s what I did.”
Best in the west
On the other side of the country resides one of Australia’s longest-serving handicappers, an 86-year-old former scratch marker by the name of John Smith. A life member of Cycling Australia, Cycling WA (now CycleSport WA) and the Midlands Cycling Club, Smith came late into cycling at the age of 17, and fell into handicapping even later at a local track meet in the early 1990s. He and his wife Betty – his loyal assistant and also a life member of Cycling WA – have been involved ever since.
“We first got involved with a tour run by a fellow called Ken Benson,” explains the endearingly candid Smith, who you suspect has enough stories to fill this entire magazine several times over. “He was the father of Darryl Benson of course (former WAIS head cycling coach). But it was out at the Midland track, the SpeedDome, where it really started. I was there one night and an official was feeling a bit ill so I went down and offered my services – that was 22 years ago and I’m still doing it!”
Smith explains most of the grading for open events is left to the state association who liaise with clubs and their interstate counterparts when entries are received from eastern based riders. “Over here they all want to ride A-grade,” he says with a wry chuckle. “Mind you, a lot of them are not A-grade riders. When they go to the east coast many find out they’re actually only B-grade riders.”
Of course it’s the big handicaps each year where Smith gets to flex his handicapping muscle, headlined by the rich two-day Goldfields Cyclassic held in late May/early June and the Collie to Donnybrook and Return Handicap in mid-August. And flex it he typically does.
“Back in the 1950s I used to ride off scratch on my own,” he reveals with more than a hint of nostalgia. But he can’t resist the temptation to twist the knife on today’s riders. “It’s funny, nowadays they don’t like riding on their own, or even with less than 10 in a bunch. They don’t like gravel either. Oh, they’re soft.”
The anecdotes flow freely across the Nullabor as Smith explains it’s common for riders and coaches to seek him out before a big race, cap in hand with their hard-luck stories in the hope of receiving a friendlier grading or perhaps a move out after the starting groups have been released.
“They even try it on the day, down on their hands and knees!” Smith chuckles.
And does he ever succumb?
“No,” he adds bluntly. “You need to be thick skinned, stick to your guns.”
It’s precisely this attitude, an equal blend of defiance and pride, that’s seen Smith gain a firm reputation over the years; something you get the impression he wears as a badge of considerable honour. He may be getting on in years, but he’s still a rhino – albeit a somewhat sneaky one when he needs to be. “Often they’ll come up and say ‘look John, I’ve been off the bike for a while’ or ‘I’ve been really sick.’ But on quite a few occasions I’ve actually seen the very same riders out training,” he laughs. “They don’t see me, of course!” Orwell may have warned us that Big Brother is watching. Well so is the handicapper, at least in WA.
Major surgery several years back means Smith is unable to ride himself these days. But don’t feel sorry for him. He explains handicapping is the perfect substitute: a way to stay connected with the sport that’s shaped the course of his adult life. “I got new knees when I was 72 and one of them doesn’t want to come right up, so I can’t ride. But I’m still involved. I love it.”
As for any plans to retire, Smith laughs again. “Well not that long ago I did say to Murray Hall (CycleSport WA board member), ‘Listen, when do I get long service leave?’ He said, ‘Oh, another five years, and if you’re not fit enough by then we’ll just come and get you in a wheelchair.’ I guess that means I’m doing it for a while longer yet.”
I guess it does. Which is surely good news for Australian cycling. Even if we still have little idea what he looks like.
John Smith’s “rather expensive puncture”
He may have been the lone scratchman. But that didn’t stop Western Australian handicapper John Smith from nearly claiming the Collie to Donnybrook and Return Classic in 1947 – a handicap his father won in 1932. When leading by a clear margin in the closing stages of the 104km event, Smith punctured and was ultimately caught by the chasers.
“I punctured three mile from the finish,” he recalls, before explaining he was far from alone in counting the cost of the fateful flat which saw the 100 pound first prize slip from his grasp – a considerable sum in the post-war times. “My father had me coming up to win over 1,000 pounds that day. My coach had me coming up to win about 500, as did my dad’s brother and a chap they used to train with, he had 500 as well.”
Were there a lot of grown men crying that evening in Collie?
“I certainly was,” he laments. “A rather expensive puncture, that one.”